Monday, February 20, 2012

I'll Take a Pennanti and a Panini

In keeping with my growing laundry list of random winter work, last week I volunteered for the Forest Service on a forest carnivore monitoring project for a few days. My friends Carly and Shannon work for Lolo National Forest, and the three of us snowshoed in about ten miles to a remote backcountry cabin on the edge of the Scapegoat Wilderness for a couple of nights. We did carnivore track surveys and set up fisher hair snags along the way.

Princess Leia?
It was about five below when we left the parking lot. Obviously my thumbs stopped working, which is really handy when you're fiddling with straps and such. The first mile or two of trail had been walked, and the sound of our creaky snowshoes shuffling along the hard-packed snow was reminiscent of a couple of kittens fighting in a Styrofoam cooler, and noisy enough to prohibit conversation. After that the snow got all fresh and deep and pristine.

Now in the summer, ten miles is a piece of cake, but in the snow, and with an extra fifty pounds stabbing the spine, I am not ashamed to say it feels like a long damn way. We started off alternating who broke trail every fifteen minutes, and by the final mile, we were switching it up every five. I was stumbling around like a drunk guzzling moonshine. We saw marten, lion, lynx, coyote, wolf, and hare tracks on the way in, and set out half a dozen non-invasive hair snagging stations under cozy tree boughs. The concept is pretty much the same idea as my summer grizzly bear work... let the animal do its thang, then just collect its hair and subsequent DNA after the fact, no need to poke and prod. Except that the long and lithe fisher (a larger member of the weasel family) doesn't  get its rocks off rubbing on tree trunks like our hedonistic Ursidae friends. No, these guys like to be romanced. Its like dinner and a movie with them. They want dangling poultry flesh and a high-tech tube to eat it in. So we lugged in said apparatii--requisite frozen chicken wings and collapsable, triangular shelters decorated with pokey gun brushes juting inward, which create a sort of painless gauntlet of small hairbrushes. A snack at the salon. Hopefully the weasel smells the most delicious and p-o-t-e-n-t scent lure (skunk flavor!) suspended from a stripped ribbon on a bit of bright sponge, comes close, sees that irresistable chicken nugget innocently chillin' in a funky space tube, and just weasels right on in to take a bite and get a little fur brushing.

You go back a few weeks later, collect any hair or scat you might find, and bada-bing! you're on your way to a population and distribution estimate. And while we all know I'd rather just scoop up the snugglers and brush them by hand, while cuddling, but this way seems easier.
For now. Still, those fishers don't know what they are missing.

Fact! Fishers rarely eat fish. They're kind of a sham like that. But, they are badass enough to be one of the only predators who regularly hunts porcupine.

Fishers were once widespread throughout North American forests, but like so many fur bearers, they were heavily trapped and their populations plummeted. They have been re-introduced into several states. There aren't a ton of them around Montana these days, which is one reason why we are interested in figuring out exactly who is hanging around, and where, and if they like our cooking.

Beginning of the long trek, a dozen folded fisher traps in tow
Holding Earth up, holding me up
Where the magic happens.
Kind of like a chicken wing docking in a space station
Burnt Cabin Frosted Gingerbread
Manipulating shadows and tonality is like writing music or a poem. --Conrad Hall
The snowbeast cometh
Snow sink
Edges they come, edges they go
What is: the opposite of Bikram
You just can't get away from these guys
Not so Smartwool

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