Wildlife around the Bitterroot

A memorable aspect of a vacation at the Bitterroot is the wildlife which can often be observed on the ranch and nearby.  The sparse human population and large, inaccessible areas have helped preserve good habitat.  Our ranch is surrounded on all sides by either national forest or a 60,000 acre Wyoming Game and Fish habitat area.  The East Fork drainage has also been designated as one of the places to foster Wyoming’s only indigenous trout, the cutthroat, and there are many of these beautifully colored fish in the three streams which flow through our ranch.

There are also huge herds of elk in the area many of which are calving near the ranch in late spring as they start to move higher with the melting snow.  These majestic animals stand nearly as tall as a horse and a mature bull can weigh up to 800 lbs. and carry a spread of impressive antlers well over a yard across.  Each winter these antlers are shed and grow again during the summer so that they are ready for battle in the rutting season beginning in September.  The bugle of a bull elk, like the howl of a wolf, is one of the most captivating sounds one can hear in the wild.

We sometimes see moose, which usually browse on willows, in the valleys at lower elevations.  Next to buffalo these are the largest indigenous North American wild animal and usually show little fear.

The world’s largest herd of bighorn sheep lives in the Wind River Mountains near Dubois and they also frequent the area around our ranch.  Their agility on seemingly sheer mountain cliffs is legendary and they can sometimes be seen in this environment on pack trips.

Black bears and grizzlies also frequent the area and one often sees their tracks in the dust or mud of the trail and sometimes we get a glimpse of them.  They are extremely omnivorous animals and feed on everything from ants and pine nuts to trout and carrion.

Wolves and coyotes are a constant presence.  They are relentless carnivores; feared and detested by ranchers, but part of the natural scheme of things in Wyoming.  One can often hear their mournful, reverberating howls on silent nights while camping on pack trips or even from the ranch.  We quite often see coyotes on our rides and occasionally they will howl at us when we ride through territories where they keep their dens.  The impressive wolves (which can weigh nearly 200 lbs.) are more secretive and we rarely see them though we often find their tracks.

The beaver has had a renaissance since the days when beaver hats were all the fashion.  They are quite nocturnal, but one can see them easily by waiting quietly at dusk near their dams and ponds.  When they are alarmed they give a warning signal by smacking the water with their large, flat tails.  Beaver ponds are often good places for trout as the herbivorous beaver do not molest them unlike the fish loving otter.   The beaver have an unfortunate habit at times of building their dams across irrigation ditches and usually it seems to be on the side of a steep, wooded hill, causing the water to wash a stretch of the ditch down the hillside as the water overflows.

The sage grouse is an unusual bird (largest of the grouse family), which feeds mainly on sage.  At mating time in the spring, the males display their colorful plumage in leks, where large numbers of both sexes assemble.  The cocks will strut and make a loud popping noise by inflating and then deflating their neck sacks.  A few of the feverishly displaying cocks are favored by the females for breeding and the others are largely ignored.

The ruffed grouse has a habitat stretching all across most of the northern part of the lower 48 states and even up as far as Alaska.  Its preferred environment is aspen groves and they have a wide range of diet including insects, tree buds and many kinds of seeds and herbs.  These grouse have a unique mating call in spring called drumming and the low frequency noise carries for hundreds of yards.  This distinctive whirring noise is made by flapping the wings at tremendous speed in the air to attract a mate.  Another unusual habit of the ruffed grouse is to burrow under the snow when conditions are right and there is a suitable dry, fluffy snow.  This can keep the birds much warmer than roosting in trees.

The most obvious bird on the ranch is the black and white magpie with its long tail and saucy conduct.  They look quite attractive, but are notorious thieves of the eggs of song birds.  A bird we always see on pack trips is the grey Canada jay.  They are called camp robbers because they will approach very close to take a piece of bread or any food available.

There are a number of great horned owls in the trees along the river which become very active  after the sun goes down and you can almost always hear them hooting at night if you will listen for a few minutes.  They are impressive predators with their silent flight and mighty talons, capable of killing animals as large as house cats.

Uinta ground squirrels are everywhere in the early summer.  The local name is picket pin because they often stand up ramrod straight on a high spot to get a view of the surrounding territory so that they look like a stake driven into the ground.  They are cute looking, but love to devour the vegetables in our garden and can be a terrible pest.  There are also many chipmunks with their distinctive black stripes as well as plentiful cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits.