Friday, November 23, 2012

Inky the Barn Cat

It was twelve years ago this month of November that we first met Inky. Construction on the barn was about complete and we were busy filling the hay storage area with 400 bales of hay for the winter. We noticed a black cat on the ridge above the pond, about 100 yards from the barn, keeping tabs on the activity. As soon as the hay area was full he moved in. Occasionally we’d see him at feeding times either disappearing into the hay stack or scampering back to his watch post by the pond. It wasn’t hard to come up with his name from his coal black appearance.  For Christmas we left him an opened can of cat food. Otherwise we didn’t have much interaction with him. 

By spring he was starting to tolerate our presence and would sit on an upper layer of hay watching us as we went about the horse chores. Sometimes after feeding we would sit on a lower layer of hay giving him the chance to view us from a closer perspective. It wasn’t long before he would sit just above us and I swore I could hear him purring. Finally I gave it a shot and put my hand up where he could sniff it. Instead, he rubbed up against it and we were friends from that point on.  To solidify our relationship we started feeding him and made a nice bed of hay bales in the haystack. Later Don made him an actual plywood bed nestled into the hay. 

It was obvious that Inky was an intact male and every March he would head out in search of love. He would return in a week or so a little worse for wear.  Three years of this behavior was starting to take its toll on him. When he disappeared for nearly a month and then showed up in really bad condition we decided it was time for a visit to the vet for neutering. He’s been a homebody ever since.

Inky struggled to recover from his last trip abroad and even by late fall he still wasn’t in the best of shape. We decided that maybe it would be better if we moved him to the old cabin for the winter. He would be safe, warmer than in the hay, and would have plenty of food he didn’t need to share with the raccoons or birds.  He wasn’t particularly happy about it right off the bat but settled in within a couple of days. Come mid to late April, we packed up Inky and his bowls and he headed back to the barn. 

That became the routine until this spring when we realized that our last horse, Mandy, would not be with us much longer and that would leave Inky at the barn by himself. Without horses to feed twice a day we would have no reason to visit the barn and him. So we decided to make the cabin his permanent home. We came up with a way for him to go in and out on his own during the day and be inside at night.  Inky is an incredibly smart cat and he quickly figured out the new schedule even waiting for me on the front porch when it is time to return to the cabin for the evening.

We have no idea how old Inky is. When he arrived twelve years ago he was fully grown. He may have started his life alone but he is part of the family now and he won’t end his life alone. Who could wish for more than that?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Under Seige

When I undertook writing this blog my goal was to write about living at this wonderful place. I would leave politics and un-related topics out of my blog. But an issue very dear to my heart compels me to deviate from my initial decision. 

Recently the US Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within the Department of Interior, removed gray wolves from the endangered species list. Rather than relying on scientific data to make this decision, they made the change to placate local interests such as livestock producers and hunters. By removing the wolf from the endangered list, FWS turned over the management of the wolves to local states. Immediately Idaho, Wyoming and Montana enacted hunting and in just 73 days over 350 wolves have been killed. Idaho has vowed to remove 80% of the wolf population from their state. Wyoming has opened 85% of the state to killing wolves by any means at any time. 

This action by FWS and reaction by Idaho, Wyoming and Montana is wrong and flies in the face of scientific data showing that the wolf is an important part of a healthy ecosystem.  The whole point of the reintroduction program in the early 2000s was to return a critical predator to the northern Rockies ecosystem in sufficient numbers in part to balance the elk populations.  The experiment has been a complete success. But for many human hunters who have grown accustomed to easy hunting from their motorized vehicles the wolf is a competitor and one they resent. In addition, some livestock producers using public lands for grazing refuse to provide adequate protection for their livestock and want the wolf gone.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has filed suit to stop the killing and has initiated a petition drive to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to reinstate the gray wolf to the endangered species list. They have a short video clip available for viewing.

I ask you to watch this new 45-second video about the embattled wolves -- and then take action to help save them from slaughter. Please tell Interior Secretary Salazar to call off the guns and return wolves to the endangered species list until the states present a credible plan for protecting them.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Return of a Native

One of the most amazing aspects of this place is its natural diversity. The riparian areas along the major creeks are filled with alder, birch, red-twig dogwood, narrow-leaf cottonwoods, not to mention all the small shrubs and forbs.

Beyond the riparian areas is the naturally sub-irrigated meadow which contains an amazing variety of native grasses, sedges and rushes plus rare plants like blue-eyed grass. In the late summer and fall, some parts of the meadow have standing water which creates small pockets for water loving insects. 

In addition to ponderosa pine, the upland ­­forest is home to gambel oak, various small fruit producing shrubs like currants and raspberries, and native grasses which offer foods and forage to everything from turkeys to deer, elk and bears.

And the jewel of the place is the wetland. This ten acre area is fed by waters from the two creeks which are held just below the surface by a layer of sub-surface rock. The wetland is home to blue spruce, Engleman spruce, alder, birch, numerous small shrubs and an amazing collection of rare and endangered  plants. Prior to its discovery here, the yellow star grass had not been seen in Colorado since 1959! Though located at 8000 foot elevation, the wetland area is characterized as sub-alpine because of the flora found here. In most Colorado locations, sub-alpine would occur at 10,000 foot elevation.

With all the natural water elements of this place, one would expect a healthy collection of aquatic species but after searching for several years we realized that one key species was missing – the northern leopard frog. Native frogs have been on the decline due to a variety of problems from loss of habitat to agricultural chemicals but since neither issue seemed to be the problem here we were puzzled by their absence.

After several conversations with an aquatic biologist from the Division of Wildlife, we were given permission to re-introduce the species. The only caveat was we had to find a healthy population of the frogs within a two mile radius to collect our specimens. Undaunted, we surveyed surrounding areas and spoke with landowners. Then the following year a neighbor in the two mile circle called to tell us that the summer monsoon season and recent irrigation had created a small catchment area that was filled with young frogs.

Armed with buckets, small fish nets and irrigation boots we arrived to collect our transplants. Two hours later, covered in mud, in a scene that will thankfully never be shown in a National Geographic special, we had about two dozen one-inch sized frogs. We released the little guys around our pond and congratulated ourselves on a job well-done.

That was five or six years ago and since then we had not seen a single frog and had about convinced ourselves that our effort had failed. Then this spring Don was working at our irrigation head gate when a movement caught his attention. Before he could focus, something hopped from the stream bank into the creek and disappeared in the silt. A month later I was cutting and collecting noxious weeds around the pond when something jumped from the pond edge into the pond. I took a step closer to see what it might be just as another one jumped into the pond right in front of me. This time I saw it clearly – it was a full-sized northern leopard frog. Since then we have had several other frog sightings in different locations on the place and now realize that we did succeed. We have returned a native to its key habitat and taken another step to making this amazing place whole.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Of Bugs and Birds

We’ve had the pleasure of watching a group of black paper wasps spend the summer building a large paper nest right out the study window. Over the course of the summer the nest grew from barely noticeable to basketball sized. While we couldn’t see what was going on inside the nest, we could watch the wasps working away on the outside adding layer upon layer. 

According to the experts, the paper is actually chewed wood fiber mixed with saliva then applied in hundreds of layers. Considering the size of the nest and that rarely were there more than 5 – 10 wasps working on it at any one time, the accomplishment is even more impressive.

Since wasps are not known for their friendly personalities, we pretty much avoided the area under the nest all summer. The only plants growing there were penstemons and they don’t care for special treatment anyway. 

And then several weeks ago a Stellar’s Jay discovered the nest. The clever Jay would sit on an oak branch patiently waiting for a wasp to appear then fly in and pick the unsuspecting bug right off the nest. When the temperatures starting dropping and the wasps remained inside more, the determined Jay started tearing into the base of the nest looking for the bugs. When that didn’t work the bird tore into the side of the nest exposing the inside chambers full of immature wasps. 

I haven’t seen the Jay or the wasps in several days. All that remains is the forlorn nest. It’s been an interesting lesson of nature where there are neither villains nor victims but only the ongoing circle of life. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

End of the Grazing Season

It’s a fine line determining when to send the cattle home after the spring and summer of grazing. Too soon and the cattle miss out on some good grass and we miss out on some additional weight gain. Too late and early snows could make it hard to move them out. The last two years have been dry and without irrigation water so that adds to the challenge. 

Three weeks ago we moved the cattle to fresh pasture on the west side of our place which had not been grazed for several years. We had planned to move them sooner but discovered some heavy fence damage in the northwest corner from the windstorm last November. Two huge spruce trees had blown down, one on the fence line and the other in the opposite direction lifting the fence up out of the ground. It was impossible to get any equipment to the location so the only option was to hand carry in a chain saw and some minor fencing supplies. After several hours of work and a unique repair job, the fence was cattle tight again.

While the grass was holding up well, last week’s weather report looked concerning with temperatures dropping in the low to mid 20s. Precipitation was a possibility so we made the decision to herd them back to the corrals and call the owners. Everything went smoothly and last Thursday afternoon, the trailer pulled out loaded with the cattle. Three of the heifers are bred and will join the main cow/calf herd, two steers and one heifer are destined for the freezer and ole’ Red will be retired from calf raising. The calf on her will be her last but because she is a favorite she will remain on the owner’s ranch for the rest of her life. Not a bad deal for a cow.

I spent the rest of the afternoon pumping down stock water tanks and turning them over for the winter, coiling up hoses and electric cords and taking down temporary electric fencing we use to manage the grazing areas. I’ve never done this before because we have always had our horses remaining after the cattle had left. That changed the end of June when we put Mandy, our last horse, to sleep. Now the pasture is empty, the corrals are empty and a part of my heart is empty.