Erik was right. He described the tracks he had seen and hazarded a guess as to their maker. Those tracks were the business card left by a mountain lion, the solitary and fearsome host of the forests and canyons we lived and worked in. The big cat had his eyes on the easy mark of a wayward Alderspring steer, lost and separated from the herd in Big Hat Creek. It is feast or famine in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, and opportunistic lions would gladly help themselves to an overflowing plate of grass fed beef.
Our counts had been off by one critter for nearly 2 weeks, ever since we moved the herd to the higher elevation country on the steep and verdant slopes Iron Mountain. Perhaps he slipped away from the herd in some of the dense brush we had been riding in, as there were many occasions that cowhands could only see a quarter of the herd at a time.
Counts were never perfect, as sometimes the horse you’re on will get impatient and move, or a steer would hide behind another as they file past. So I just wasn’t sure.
But the count was consistently short by one, so I’d been keeping an eye out- checking distant ridges, taking side trips down adjacent canyons, and generally looking down hoping for a track in the dust or in the mud along a creek. I was also looking for other tracks, those of predators.
Reading sign is one of those things that I have worked on with my daughters from the time they could barely reach stirrups. Looking down, there were stories temporarily written on the ground of who, how, when and why. Sign was an important book to read, especially because I knew that a steer alone could easily be killed by canine or cat.
Canine in our country equals wolves. Like lions, wolves appear to have a taste for fresh organic grass fed ribeye. They’ve dined and held pack council over quite a few Alderspring steers over the years.
Lions, always the solitary hunter, had killed less but were a threat nonetheless. Several of our beeves had seen bouts with lions as evidence by telltale scars. I recalled one steer several years ago that sported long claw marks on both sides down the length of his entire back, obviously from a lion that silently dropped out of a tree onto the steer or jumped him while he was lying down. The lion was hoping for a little stripped loin but instead got a rousing bronc ride that sent him on his way. That particular steer fared well enough after he healed up, but not all have the same luck.
We live and work in an area with a pretty high density of mountain lions. Just the fact that I’ve seen 4 of the longtails over the last few years tells tale of the sheer numbers that live in our rough and rocky canyons, especially for an animal that would rather die than be seen.
Erik and Tamara, one of our two neighbors in the wilderness of Hat Creek happened by the tracks on a walk they took above their little cabin onto our grazing range. As Erik told me, “The track was quite round, measuring 3 ½ inches long and 3 1/2 inches wide. But I’m no tracker… seemed to fit my guidebook more for cat than wolf.” Erik nailed some critical points here about the ID. He couldn’t spot claw marks in the dust; they could have been there, but should have been quite pronounced if it was a wolf. Like domestic dogs, their claws do not retract like a cat’s claws do, and a walking mountain lion is usually completely retracted unless on unsteady or slippery ground. In addition, the track was round (cats leave rounder tracks than dogs), and right in the size class for a larger than average lion.
A few hundred yards further, along the same creek-side walk, Erik and Tamara also spotted our lost steer, number 216, calmly hanging out by a big fir tree along the edge of the sagebrush. They emailed me the news that night (no cell service or power on their wilderness home, but somehow they hooked up a makeshift email system via satellite or the like to maintain contact with the outside).
It would be an easy pick up, I thought. I could send Cowboys Anthony and Jake up there the next day, and bring the wayfaring stranger down as the herd headed out of Iron Creek Camp in a few days. Perfect.
The only problem was that the next morning, they couldn’t find him. They scoured through dense brush, canyon and dale, and didn’t even cut a track. I was worried about my little steer and the big cat.
But a few days later Clint and Leslie found the black Angus steer further up canyon, unscathed. Clint casually started him moving, but then things got interesting.
The lost bovine was pretty calm until he got to the brush of the creek, where he absolutely refused to go any further and cross the creek. In a display of odd behavior for our beeves, the steer kept turning on Clint repeatedly, cutting past him to get to the open meadows beyond. Additional tries on foot and horseback to make him cross the dense creek bottom resulted in more unusual behavior, with the steer charging Leslie several times.
Clint untied his rope from his saddle, and calmly built a loop from lariat and handily roped the recalcitrant blackie, dallied the lariat to his saddle horn, and tried to lead him across the creek. The steer was immovable as a tree stump. Clint put the paint horse Roxy in 4 wheel drive and almost had to drag him across. That Angus did not want to go near that creek.
As Clint described the steer’s behavior to me, I thought it was a lot like our beeves’ reaction to electric fence. I speak from experience of being shocked by our 12000 volt electric fence network (it’s happened more time than I’d like to remember). Even though I know positively that the fence is off, I have the hardest time touching it. That kind of voltage has a way of rewiring your brain in a fixed direction (one side benefit of my inadvertent shock therapy: I’m pretty certain my heart rhythm is solid).
It was the same way with that steer. The only thing I could think of with that steer is that something, someone had indelibly made a mark on bovine brain to not pass that way again.
I went through the possibilities, and the thing that rose to the top was a near miss from a mountain lion. It would make that intractable hot-wire like impression. The steer likely knew that Clint was being silently watched with every step he and his paint horse took up there. Maybe the big cat was crouched on a thick fir tree branch just above Clint’s view. His cowboy hat brim kept him from seeing the silent apparition which perched above him. The lion was waiting patiently, strategizing his game, and sizing up possibilities.
But Clint kept at the object at hand. His lead was in check through more brush, and he artfully dog-leashed the 750 pound steer on a 50 foot lariat another several hundred yards down an old logging trail, and loaded the wayward critter in the hammered blue trailer that we use for the treacherous roads of the high mountain part of the range.
After a one hour bus ride, Steer 216 is safe now with the rest of the herd 8 miles away in Little Hat Creek; safety is indeed in numbers in the place where the solitary rarely survive. They are all only 2 weeks from coming back to the lush and diverse green of the home ranch, as the high ranges begin to turn golden with drying out at this time of year. It’s the dry season, and the perennial grasses that cloak the range set seed and turn gold like ripened wheat. Our beeves lose interest, and peruse the prairies, browsing for green that becomes less and less.
Their walking becomes more, and eating becomes less, so we bring them home. Here, we have spread water on the wild hay meadows that we cut for hay back in July, and the rebounding lush teems with diversity and palatability. These are what I consider to be the best grass of the year, and I’ll watch those beeves lay on fat as the days shorten and the cool sets in.
And we have them all. This is the fourth year in a row where we have not lost anyone on the range, and I chalk it up to the fact that the crew stays with them every day and night they are up there, and carefully herds them in a controlled and intentionally planned forage journey across the landscape.
It not only maximizes how our beeves do, but enhances the productivity of sensitive plant and creekside habitats. We don’t use those sensitive areas, and intentionally herd the cattle around them leaving the green forage of these wet areas for the wild ones who are also getting ready for winter. When left ungrazed by our cattle, these wetlands are a veritable jungle of habitat where a plethora of avian species make nests amidst the smorgasbord of insect life below them. Mink and marten feast on mice and vole, fish spawn and spread, and the lion reigns over all.
What Clint experienced in his creek crossing attempt with steer number 216 was the norm with the ancient and native grazers that lived in these landscapes, like bison, elk and deer. They drank uneasily with eyes warily watching. They drank quickly, eager to move away from densely vegetated areas that provided a perfect opportunity for ambush by a wolf, lion, or grizzly bear. Grazing was saved for open country, where predators could be spotted and outrun. Like our steer with a hot-wire trained aversion to the densely vegetated creek, the native grazers simply stayed out of wet areas, except to drink.
I often wonder what these creek habitats looked like before settlement. In the mid to late 1800s, homesteaders turned ranchers loosed domestic cattle to forage on their own. Most of the predators were killed off in short order by the newly invented and soon ubiquitous lever action 30-30 rifle, and cows grazed creek bottoms without risk. Cattle have little innate fear of dense vegetation and predators, primarily because centuries of breeding focused on production of meat and dairy. As a result, ranching in the west has had a significant effect on these streamside and spring habitats.
But don’t despair, dear reader. Indeed, there is great news: these same areas, because they have water, are actually quite resilient. Restoration is easily accomplished by one thing: rest from grazing. I have seen beavers and moose travel for miles across sagebrush oceans (honestly) to get to a creek they literally got wind of. Fish almost magically reappear when stream flows and shade are reestablished by water holding reservoirs of dense vegetation left ungrazed for several seasons.
Even though our Black Angus have far more intact wild instinct than say, a Holstein (one of those black and white spotted cows that milk comes from), we still have to herd and train our beeves to stay safe from predators and stay out of creeks.
Steer number 216 took a crash course on such training, thanks to our would-be predator friend. Our methods of pressure and release and the subtleties of stockmanship practiced by our horseback herders take a little longer, but they reach the same end: complete rest of wet habitats from livestock grazing. As a result, we can enhance and restore critical stream habitats, without resorting to fencing which can impair wildlife movement.
Our beeves are better for it, and the creeks are already rebounding with the diversity found in dense cover. Water quality and habitat are precious attributes that are virtually lost in so much of our world today, and agriculture is often the culprit. Here is a chance to make wrongs right.
We believe that thoughtful husbandry of our pristine and wild landscapes is more effective than removing humans from the equation altogether. Through care, we can rest areas that need rest, and graze areas that may benefit from animal use. As ecologists turned ranchers, this is great fun for Caryl and me.
And even more, we have seen our beef is even better than when we simply raised grass fed beef on the home pastures. The great vegetative diversity of native plants, and the young mineral rich volcanic soils on these wild landscapes produces beef that we think tastes even better than what we were producing a decade ago.
Thanks for joining with us on our quest for perfecting protein while caring for and enhancing habitat for the other residents of the wild landscape legacy we live and work on.