Few things bring me as much excitement as autumn. Really, I’m a sucker for all things fall. I’ve been lucky to have my favorite season filled with an exciting lineup of traveling, presentations, seeing my favorite peoples…and dissertating of course. I recently went back to the Rockies to spend a few weeks researching, working, and breathing in the mountain air as much as possible. The trip was intended for professional meetings and a few more site visits that I wanted to finish up, but it was also a chance for me to get back and spend time with an amazing community of people in an area that makes me feel at once in my place and alive. I started my travels with a stopover to see my friend from college who lives in Fort Collins. Due to the 4am wake-up call, I completely slept through the duration of my entire flight only to be greeted in the Denver airport with a pineapple (the symbol of welcome and a throwback to Swarthmore days) as well as the promise of adventures before my big presentation up in Yellowstone. I then managed to stay awake for 24 hours straight, because who would want to miss a minute when you’re in such a great place? Filling the day with meanderings around FoCo, mountain vistas, and an incident in which I jumped out of my skin after almost stepping on a (harmless) snake, it was an epic way to start out my return to the West. The following day entailed a lot of coffee and a hike up Grey Rock. Nothing gets you over your altitude adjustment quite like an afternoon of hiking and trying (unsuccessfully) not to fall over too many times.
My next stop was another favorite place of mine, Yellowstone National Park, where I was to present and meet with the MountSEON Large Carnivore Working Group. This workshop was the first meeting of the Group, and 16 of us congregated to work on these goals: (1) develop a multi-dimensional conceptual model that identifies the social and ecological impacts/responses associated with wolves and other large carnivores that prey on domestic livestock and ungulates, and (2) create a road map for proposal development within our Working Group (WG). These goals were borne out of the Working Group’s proposal to assemble scholars who transcend disciplinary boundaries. We met to tackle the challenge of rethinking how we must go about applying science to capture socio-ecological system behavior in a way that results in coexistence strategies for humans, wildlife, and natural systems.
I was humbled and overjoyed to have been included in this mix of senior researchers—for a number of reasons. First, this workshop was my chance to articulate and share some of the interdisciplinary perspectives I have in my artillery (thanks to my eclectic background of animal behavior, social theory, and geography training). Second, I had an opportunity to talk at length with some of the people in my field who have helped shape the work that I am carrying out for my dissertation. All my nerves went out the window the second we assembled in the conference center at Mammoth Hot Springs hotel. I had arrived in the Mammoth area of Yellowstone late the night before due to plane delays, so I essentially crawled into my cabin to fall asleep—with a reminder to watch out for bugling elk on my walk from the registration desk. Nothing more dangerous than startling a horny bull on your way to the outhouse in the middle of the night. I woke up before sunrise the next morning to rehearse my presentation and check out the electric night sky full of stars. If there’s one thing that I’ve always turned to in order to feel calm, it’s a big sky with glistening stars. I listened to the elk bugling and coyotes for a bit, then I went over to the conference room as we all started to gather.
The first day of the workshop launched off with our presentations, which gave us all a chance to get familiar with where we are in our research, perspectives, and intentions as they relate to carnivore conflicts and coexistence. After a long morning, we took a lunch break at Boiling Springs and caught up with one another. Following the much needed break, we reconvened and got to the task of designing possible research proposals, white papers, and future studies centered around the aims of the workshop. We addressed these goals through breakout groups and then all met up at the end of the day to think about how the various groups’ ideas could be integrated with one another. By around 5pm, we were all pretty drained, so we decided that conversations and potential collaborations would be better strengthened through meals and relaxation time in the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room.
The next morning was another middle of the night wake-up because we were on our way to go see the Junction Butte wolf pack. I had seen this pack earlier in the summer, and I was eager to see how the pups, yearlings, and alpha pair were doing in this 11-member wolf clan. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do the driving this round, so I nursed my coffee as we wove our way through the Lamar Valley area of the Park—where the pack was reportedly running around. We arrived just as the sun was rising, leaving the sky a vibrant mixture of pink and orange. As soon as we got out of the car, we received word that the pack was in sight. Those of us who got there early ran up the hill with our spotting scopes and binoculars to catch a glimpse. What looked like little spots in the distance were actually the alpha male, alpha female, a few yearlings, and black pups running around a bison carcass. It was a tremendously rewarding sight to see these animals again, and I joined the others in watching the pack members interact with one another for the next couple of hours. Numb from the cold, we made our way back to the conference center for the final stages of the workshop: planning next steps, developing proposals, and organizing possible papers for dissemination. I was sad to leave at the end of the workshop, but I was delighted that my next stop was an adventure with my housemate to visit his family up in Deer Lodge and to go on my very first hunting excursion. As I’ve been told countless times by my research participants, I cannot justify writing about hunting and its role in conservation without actually giving it a try myself.
We caught up with one another on the car ride from Bozeman up to the Deer Lodge area of Montana, discussing all of the possible ways I could make a fool of myself in the Pioneer/Gold Creek woods. Don’t forget to whisper, try not to make a lot of noise, and wear camouflage. I could do the first two things, but I had to borrow apparel from Steve’s family because all I packed were the leggings I wear to dance class. Not exactly appropriate, but they kept me warm under all of my camouflage layers. The two people with whom I was hunting were very tall men, so I was swimming in my clothes- but I was hidden at least! We left early in the morning before sunrise, and I was grateful for my residual jetlag that had made all of the 4:30 am wake-up calls remotely bearable.
As soon as we reached our destination, we climbed out of the massive truck my friends were driving and set off into the woods as the sun was coming up. We spent the day zig-zagging back and forth through the forest, occasionally stopping to bugle and attract any nearby elk. I was lucky to only be carrying a backpack, especially because my hunting companion was toting around a heavy bow as well. We split up with his dad, and we made our way around the backwoods trying to detect sign of elk. The closest we came all day actually happened completely by accident. I had stopped to look around at an owl flying through the stand of trees, and I almost jumped when I saw an elk 40 yards away…then another…then another…then another! All of a sudden, there was a group of them, four females and one male. My hunting buddy got his bow ready and whispered to me, ‘Stay still! These are the first elk we’ve seen all season!” I stood there and watched as he lined up his shot, but the wind shifted at the last second—alerting the elk to our presence. They ran off, but my friend didn’t seem dissatisfied. I was surprised actually because the perfectionist in me was thinking how frustrating it must be to have not gotten the shot. Instead, he simply turned to me with a big grin and said, ‘If you don’t get excited at the sight of an animal when you’re out hunting, you should really find a different sport.’ I asked him later if he ever feels disappointed on days where he doesn’t catch anything. He just looked at me with an expression that suggested I was missing the point. ‘Hannah, that’s not the sole reason why we come out here. I thought you’d know that by now.’ 14 hours out in the woods and a feeling of absolute exhaustion from walking all over by the end of that day, I actually understood what he meant. I’m not going to be picking up tags of my own any time soon, but I do have a different sense of appreciation for hunting. As with everything in conservation (and life), nothing is black and white. Hunting is not all good or all bad. It’s another complex and nuanced practice that requires us to think carefully about how we allow it to be carried out.
After my hunting trip, I returned to Bozeman to catch up with my community of Bozemanites. Having become deeply attached to the people in this town, I was lucky enough to spend time with my housemate, his family, and all of the friends I’ve made in my research adventures. From day one, I’ve felt the pull of this area, and I’m glad I got to spend an extra week with special people who make me happy as a clam. Technically, I was there for school, but there was plenty of hiking, long conversations over delicious meals, pumpkin carving, and road-tripping that kept me from being all work and no play. I got the chance to see more parts of Montana and Wyoming that I had yet to visit, including Billings (home to the craziest Scheels I’ve ever seen), Sheridan, and Buffalo. Fortunately for me, I had a pretty awesome tour guide showing me all the spots along the way. As usual, my trip did not last long enough, and I’m already counting down the days until I return to my mountains and their wild things (in December!). Until then, it’s back to NYC to continue transcribing data, presenting in a few conferences around the area, and assembling my work into what I hope will be a compelling dissertation.