There are times when field education is good, and there are times when it is incredible. This week has been a case study for how powerful field education can be.
On Sunday, a middle school student group from Maryland arrived at the Jackson Hole airport. Since then, we learned about the plant communities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, hiked to a glacial lake, participated in a willow restoration project, and went for a sleigh ride at the National Elk Refuge.
Tuesday, the day of our hike to the glacial lake, started out with heavy rain in the valley. As we climbed in elevation, the rain transitioned to huge dendritic stellar snow crystals. By lunch time, a small piece of blue sky peaked out from behind the clouds. We continued to hike as the clouds lifted and revealed more and more of the mountains ahead of us. We reached the lake just as the clouds lifted off of the mountains. For the first time, the middle schoolers from Maryland had an unobstructed view of the Teton Mountain Range.
On the way back from the hike, we spotted two coyotes running along a ridge. The field day was complete.
Today, the students engaged in a willow restoration project in the morning at the Conservation Research Center. As we were going out to cut willow rods, we spotted moose tracks in the snow. Using the skills we had learned from the tracking lesson on Monday, we figured out which direction the moose was traveling. We followed the tracks, and as we came around a bend, we saw a cow moose and her calf feeding on willows on the edge of the pond. As we watched, the moose walked across the frozen pond in search of more food.
In the afternoon, we went on a sleigh ride in the National Elk Refuge.
The last time that I had been to the Refuge, the supplemental feeding program had not started yet. The elk were fairly spread out, and the bulls were very isolated from the cows and calfs. Since the supplemental feeding program has started, the elk have converged on the feeding sites.
The herd is more dense in the areas where feed is supplied, and the bachelor groups of bull elk are closer to the females than they were before.
As we approached the herd, two younger males were playfully sparring. We were told that the younger bulls practice sparring for the mating season, while the veterans simply rest and eat.
One young bull elk was sparring another elk while lying down. Maybe it shouldn’t really be called sparring when it is that half-hearted…
One of the larger bull elk was limping across the snow and ice. This injured bull, along with a two day-old carcass on the side of the creek, reminded us that although the Elk Refuge has a supplemental feeding program, these elk are still wild. As the sleigh driver put it, these elk have a free breakfast, but otherwise they have to fight for lunch, dinner, and survival through tough winter conditions.
One of the elk that we saw was completely different from the rest. See if you can tell what this bull is missing:
If you can’t tell what is missing, take a closer look at the elk’s head.
This massive bull elk is missing both ears. The sleigh driver believes that this elk was born on a brutally cold day, and the ears were damaged with frostbite.
The first time that I took a sleigh ride, I was almost as interested in the horses as I was with the elk. It is fascinating to watch the interactions between the horses and the elk, or rather the lack thereof. Neither ungulate seems to notice the other.
Perhaps the elk have become conditioned to the presence of the horses on the Refuge. For years, the elk were fed out of trailers pulled by the horses. In the 1990’s, TSS graduate students used to feed the elk from sleighs. Today, tractors lay down the feed for the elk in order to reduce the interactions between humans and the elk.
Throughout the sleigh ride, our students from Maryland were soaking up the information and the experience. I was impressed by the facts that they were able to recall, and their questions were thoughtful and interesting.
It is amazing how much can be learned when the great outdoors is your classroom.