How the seasons change around the ranch
Summer guests at our dude ranch have little understanding of the other seasons in this part of the world. Summer is the most important time, but I think it is interesting to know the rest of the story. It makes what one sees in the summer and the attitudes of local people more comprehensible. Read this if you want to dig a little way beneath the surface.
This is a land of stark contrasts and sudden, violent changes of weather. Seasonal transitions are often abrupt, without the more gentle shifts of climate at lower altitudes. There can be snowstorms in August and shirt sleeve weather in February. The difference in temperature from day to night can easily be 40 degrees.
Around the time of the winter solstice the nights are bitter cold. Days are short, but usually a bright sun quickly warms the air, though in the steep mountain valleys it takes longer for the direct rays of the sun to arrive. Domestic stock and wild animals alike have grown long protective hair. Most of the birds have headed for warmer climates, though some like the jay and grouse families remain. Above 7,000 ft. or so the surface of smaller streams is frozen stiff enough to make a fine path for cross country skiers, while trout move slowly in the water flowing quietly below the ice. The bears are hibernating in their dens. People are keeping their stoves burning with the logs stacked outside their cabins. Squirrels feed on their caches of pine nuts. Beaver ponds have frozen too, but they have prepared for winter by anchoring aspen and willow branches to the bottoms of the ponds below the ice. They can reach them from their underwater passages to their snug lodges without going outside and predators cannot reach them without diving.
On still nights the full moon shining noiselessly on the snow gives the world a brittle brilliance. The rhythm of life slows. On windy days great drifts of powdery snow are blown into hollows and on the lea side of hills, making travel on horseback difficult. It seems paradoxical, but this is the time of year when most ranchers begin to have their calves. The reason is that otherwise they will not be big enough to fend well for themselves when they go to graze in the high country in June or July. They can profit much more from the tender grass and are not as vulnerable to predators like bears, coyotes and wolves.
Already in February the days are getting longer and the sun’s rays become more direct. On a quiet night one can hear the haunting hoots of great horned owls in the trees along the streams calling a mate, for it is already the height of their breeding season. By March winter is losing its icy grip. The growing power of the sun is melting the snow off the south facing slopes, where deer and elk seek the exposed grass. Northern slopes stay much cooler and are less desiccated by the sun, giving trees a better chance to grow. The mainly insectivorous mountain bluebird is one of the first winged migrants to return and on warm days there are numerous snow midges hatching. The brilliant blue of the male bluebirds stands out vividly against the background.
Around the time of the spring equinox the bears grow restless in their dens after the long winter’s sleep and begin searching with their newborn cubs for the decaying carcasses of winter killed elk and deer. Soon they will be feeding also on tubers like Indian potato as well as desert parsley for the bears are among the most omnivorous of all animals.
By April most of the migratory birds have returned including the meadowlarks, the state bird of Wyoming. The male meadowlarks are tireless musicians, producing a complex, flute-like trilling tune which echoes across fields and prairies as they stake out their territories for the breeding season. As green grass shows where the snow has melted, elk and deer start moving higher and leave the valleys. White phlox begins to appear in patches, as the snow melts, and soon after high country wanderers see a few other flowers, like shooting stars, blooming.
Early spring is a time to search for the deer and elk antlers shed during the winter and there are those who seek them on horseback or on foot high on the mountain slopes. A nice matched pair of antlers fetches a good price these days and there is a huge market for them in China as an aphrodisiac which persists despite Viagra. Still, one suspects the search is more of an excuse to get into the mountains again after the winter, than for economic gain.
By the end of April new crops like corn, oats and beets have been planted in the cultivated fields and irrigation begins. Bulls are let loose to mate with the cows so that the calves will be arriving on time the following January and February. This year’s calves will soon be branded and vaccinated in preparation for a summer in the mountains. The bee keepers are setting out their hives. These days the bees may have been transported to California for the winter and brought back here for the season. In the lower country leaves are coming out on the cottonwoods, aspen and other deciduous trees. Higher up this will take another month to occur. The ruffed and blue grouse are busy drumming for it is their mating season and in tranquil spots in the forest you can sometimes hear the thunderous thudding of their wings several hundred yards away
In May and early June flowers are bursting forth in the high country though their abundance varies greatly from year to year depending on the amount of moisture in the soil. Wild iris, evening primrose, larkspur and a myriad of other flowers are beginning to cover the valleys and hillsides. In late June and early July the bitterroot flowers turn the seemingly barren, sage covered hillsides a delicate pink. A little higher and later, the balsam arrowleaf takes over for a few weeks, covering the sides of the mountains with a brilliant yellow. Stalks of green gentian shoot high above the sage. The long blooming, sweet smelling alpine lupine grows in great profusion in wet years and fills the air with its perfume.
In normal years when there is a good snow pack, the rivers swell to dozens of times their usual volume in late May and June as the deep snow in the high country suddenly begins to melt in the long summer days as the summer solstice approaches. The mountain streams are transformed from the barely audible murmur of January to tumultuous, roaring torrents. Trees are torn from the banks to be swept down stream. At times the force of the current is such that boulders weighing several hundred lbs. are rolled over and over to smack with a loud report against another boulder below. Fish hunker down in the bottoms of the deep holes to survive.
June is the time when elk, deer, moose and, a little later, antelope tend to have their calves. Predators feed on them voraciously. At signs of danger the vulnerable new born tend to drop to the ground, staying absolutely still, until danger passes while their mothers lurk nervously a few hundred yards away. At that time the fawns and calves have very little odor, making it more difficult for bears, wolves and coyotes to locate them. The bighorn sheep are lambing higher up and at that time their worst enemies are the golden eagles which can easily kill a young lamb. Eagles will also occasionally take the fawns of deer and antelope.
By late June or early July ranchers have moved their cows and calves into the medium high country on national forests. They fatten well on the more mature, taller grass. By early July the elk and deer are mostly higher. The cattle fill much the same niche the vanished buffalo used to have by eating the coarser forage and thereby improving the range for wildlife the following year. The moose are feeding on the willows in the valleys and conflict little with the cattle which browse rarely when they have plenty of grass.
As July progresses, the young animals and birds start to mature and this is when their feed is most plentiful. Mother birds practice that timeless deception of the wounded bird trick to lure predators from their young. Beautiful cottonwood trees are a trademark of the area and grow everywhere along streams and subterranean water courses which give them life. At this time of year they produce the fluffy cotton like material which floats so lightly on the slightest breeze carrying their seeds far and wide. Flowers like Indian paintbrush, Wyoming’s official state flower, begin to appear and introduce striking spots of vivid red into the landscape. Velvet covered antlers have sprouted on the male cervidae. Unless the rains have been unusually good, the landscape will be turning more brown than green.
In mid August the days are already shortening and there is a feeling that the bountiful summer season will soon tip toward fall. The berry bearing bushes are ripening and animals and birds are beginning to feed on them. The wild roses are still blooming and the red rose hips appear in profusion on the bushes. Bear scat is often dotted with rose hip seeds. Humming birds are fleeing southward and the morning doves are thinking of departure as well. By the end of August the aspen and cottonwood in the high country may be showing a yellow and reddish tinge. The aspen groves, which can cover many acres, are interconnected by root structure and are one of the world’s largest living organisms. Each grove will tend to change color in the same way at the same time which may differ from other nearby groves. If a sharp frost does not kill the leaves too early, they will keep their glorious foliage for several weeks.
When September comes many of the flowers have faded, though hardy ones remain. In the high country one can still spot the extravagant rich glow of purple gentian. Some lupine blooms and cinquefoil blossoms linger on as do dozens of other flowers like harebells, asters and forget-me-nots. Now the blue grouse seem to congregate just below the timber line. Local residents are out in their pickup trucks cutting up dead trees for winter firewood and outfitters are setting up their wilderness hunting camps. Toward the middle of the month the elk will begin their rut and the bulls are jealously collecting their harems. One can hear the magic, thrilling sound of them bugling a mile away on a still night. By the end of September it is time for the traditional transhumance and the cows in the national forest must be rounded up and brought down to lower country for the winter.
Often in October there can be a beautiful Indian summer, when September snows have melted and the approach of winter is in remission. The clear, crisp days are a superb time of year and the knowledge of winter soon to come makes the enjoyment of this short reprieve all the more poignant. The fall spawners like brown trout and whitefish are seeking appropriate locations. Hunters are in the forests stalking mule deer and elk. The last of the hay is stacked and piles of sugar beets are being collected for transport to the refinery. Many ranchers are sending their 500 lb. calves, which gained good weight on mountain grass in the summer, to the Riverton sale barn where they will be bought and shipped to lower country for fattening.
In November outfitters are dismantling their hunting camps and loading all the gear out on pack animals. In some years the snow may be near the bellies of the horses. The hunting season is drawing to a close and deer and elk will be seeking lower country where they can find feed more easily. The grey Canada jays and the gaudy Steller’s jays are dropping down a bit from the higher mountains. Most migratory birds have moved farther south, but some birds like the mallard and Canada goose are passing down from Canada and others will spend the winter here.
The December days are growing very short and in steep mountain valleys the sun shines for only a few hours. A permit can be bought to cut a Christmas tree in the national forest and many local people perform the yearly ritual of seeking a good tree and bringing it home. Bears and ground squirrels are fast asleep in their dens. Weasels and snow shoe hares have turned white to blend with the snow, though the distinctive tip of the weasels’ long tails, often held high like a tiny flag, remains strikingly jet black. Red squirrels feed on their caches of pine cones and chatter loudly from their trees if intruders approach. By the end of the month, with the winter solstice passed, the days are already getting a little longer and the sun’s rays slightly more direct. Slowly but surely winter will give way to spring.