05 July 2012

Chasing bison in PANP: Getting to the edge

This is part of a series by Jerod, about his bison research.  All photos are by Jerod, unless noted otherwise.

There are two unavoidable aspects of the forests in Prince Albert National Park that will slow a person who wishes to hike cross country. The first is water. PANP's underlying geology means that water has no place to go. Although central Saskatchewan receives less than 18 inches of precipitation a year, much of that sits above ground creating the lakes, bogs, swamps and sloughs typical of the area. Most people working in the field wear mud boots, but many times the water and mud are just too deep to navigate. A person can wander for hours in a maze of bogs, trying to find a dry place to continue on a path. 

Second, is the bush itself. Before PANP, I never really knew why people call forests like this “the bush.” Now I do. Somehow, in such an arid climate, 3 canopy layers are common. The lower layer, comprised of grasses and small leafy plants, is quite easy to deal with. The upper layer of quaking aspen or conifers provides nice shade during hot days. But, in between these layers is the bush. Usually made up of willows and hazelnuts, the bush can slow a person down to almost a creep. Pushing your way through 5 to 8 foot tall hazelnut can drive a person crazy, and even make you hike in circles.

So, when I head into the forest to get a better angle on a group of bison, I must keep these obstacles in mind. Today, luckily, I know the terrain well at the edge of this meadow. There is a highly used bison trail that leads straight to the spot I want. I can walk quickly, yet quietly, and get into position. 

Today, things are on my side. I am downwind of the bison. There is quite a bit of dew on the ground, dampening the sound of my rubber boots crunching last year’s fallen leaves. I have a bit of cloud cover, which means the bison are less likely to go into the forest when the heat of the day comes. And, finally, the group appears to be stable. Many of them are bedded down, and I think they will be in this spot for most of the day.  

This is all good news, because the best data comes from a group that can be observed for many hours. This is true for a number of reasons. First, counting animals from the ground can be difficult, and it helps to spend lots of time re-counting. This is particularly true for the younger animals such as calves that can be hidden in the grass for many hours, unless they get up to nurse. 

 Second, we take photos of the faces (and the horns) of bison to identify individuals. This takes time, as not every bison will be looking right at me. But eventually, many of them will scan the environment around them, and provide me with the opportunity to capture a bison smile. Finally, taking photographs using high powered zoom lenses works much better when the sun is not boring down. The sun hitting the ground causes heat waves, and can lead to a disastrous situation for a photographer trying to capture unique traits on the horns of bison. 

Now I am approaching the spot that I want to be. I can see through the bushes that the group is still there. I pick a spot just at the edge of the meadow to set up my camera and tripod. I pull out my notebook and pencil and write down the weather and my location. I bring my binoculars up to my eye and begin to make my initial counts of the group. I am smiling, because this is one of the biggest groups that I have seen this summer. I know the day will go well.

Jerod Merkle
Late June 2012
Prince Albert National Park


Gene said...

Fascinating.  Do you carry pepper spray or a gun?  Last summer in Glacier Park, I got chased by a bull moose.  I scared him off twice by yelling and throwing sticks at him, and finally on the third encounter (up too close) I gave him a shot of bear spray and he left me alone after that.  I have a friend who was a packer for the Park Service in Yellowstone, and he told several stories about encountering bull bison on trails where he had to move them away to by with his pack string.  

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Hi Gene,
I think Jerod does indeed carry pepper spray, but probably more due to black bears that are all over that area than out of concerns for moose. :)  I've forwarded your email to him, so hopefully he can weigh in with a more detailed response at some point. :)
Your story, about pepper-spraying the moose, was crazy!  I can imagine that was nearly as nerve-wracking as a grizzly encounter. :)

Gene said...

Hi Bethann,
  On that same 4-day backpack trip in Glacier, I walked by two different grizzlies.  One ran away and the other kept on eating berries.  So now I’ve become more wary of moose than bears…  J

Jerod said...

I do carry pepper spray.  However, I have never needed to use it.  The part of the park that I am in is pretty wild.  Most of the animals rarely see humans.  So, when they do, they usually run.  Encounters with black bears (that is all we have here, no grizz) have normally been a quick view, then 5 seconds of watching the butt of the bear as it runs away.  

This is the same with the bison.  Unlike Yellowstone where the bison just stand there and look a you, the bison here usually turn the other way and run.  So we rarely have problems with bison being ornerary, and giving us a hard time (I have had many experiences like this when I worked in Yellowstone).  But, it is the rutting season, and the bison here are a little more "get out of my way I am going the way I want."  So we have to be careful, hence the bear spray.

Your story, about the moose and your bear spray, sure is a wild one.

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