Refuge

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Rutting Mule Deer Buck, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado

I’ve become obsessed with this occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Sagebrush Rebel terrorists decided to take a stand at a remote wildlife refuge to protest ranchers sent to prison for covering up mule deer poaching with arson, and are somehow trying to take back an 1800’s way of life that entitles them to use our western lands however they wish for free, because dammit, the Federal government has overreached and there is too much government, and they say this isn’t terrorism, but they’re heavily armed and willing to die. Or some such myopic nonsense. They have signs protesting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), even though the land they’re occupying is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). American flags are draped all over the refuge, even though they’re protesting the Federal government. None of what they’re doing is constitutionally defensible or upheld in any way by the Supreme Court. It is simply domestic terrorism and these yahoos playing army give sustainable ranching a bad name.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is made up of over 500 refuges that offer unique and rare opportunities to view wildlife, recreate, and celebrate our natural heritage. The refuge system is part of a public lands network managed by the USFWS, the BLM, The US Forest Service, and the National Park Service. Roughly half of the land in the American West is public, millions of acres that every American owns the same deed of ownership to. As I watch this news cycle unfold, I see politicians posture to defend this sagebrush rebel idea that folks are somehow being persecuted by a system that won’t allow them to graze cattle, drill, and mine wherever they want. Here’s an idea: choose a different way of life. After prison.

Our public lands system is one of the best ideas we’ve ever had and is rare in the world. It’s too easy, simple-minded, and lazy to marginalize a place because of its remoteness – the very quality that makes it extraordinary. I’ve not been to Malheur, but most of my work is on public lands that won’t grace glossy calendars, places without the aura of our celebrated national parks. Places like Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Siskadee NWR, Jack Morrow Hills, Adobe Town, Arapaho NWR, Cochetopa SWA, and so many other largely unknown lands in the west are refuge for the wildlife that we celebrate – it’s where we go for inspiration and solitude, to get lost in the grunt of rut, melody of meadowlark, call of the eagle, crane, and loon. This sagebrush rebellion won’t likely go away anytime soon; hell, Ronald Reagan called himself a sagebrush rebel; but this thuggery aimed at stealing our natural inheritance, robbing us of a chance to be inspired will not stand. We carry cameras and binoculars, support western communities, and we like our public lands just fine. Large unbroken expanses of western lands are the present and the future; our defense against climate change, extinction, and ignorance.

Frosty Meadowlark

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A frosty western meadowlark on a February morning at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO

This year’s backyard bird count has begun and is the inspiration for this meadowlark image pulled from the vault and dusted off. In my first winter of photographing at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, I was surprised to see small flocks of western meadowlarks picking for seeds in a world covered with hoar frost. It was about -10F when I made this image, which doesn’t phase meadowlarks – as long as they can forage. Lately, the number of wintering bald eagles has dropped as they’ve begun their northern migration, their void filled by sweet melodies of meadowlarks. It’s been an unusually warm winter (who knows what spring has in store?) but meadowlarks would be returning to Colorado’s shortgrass prairie anyway – they’re on schedule. Back then I was shooting with a Nikon F5 and absolutely in love with that film camera. You could pound nails with one of those things and I even told Marla that I thought I was all set for gear – who could’ve predicted the digital revolution of the last decade?

Prairie Merlin

Female Prairie Merlin, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife

Prairie merlin hunting from a brush perch on a chilly winter morning. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO

These small falcons look like tiny missiles while hunting. Preying mostly on small birds, the powerful merlin is fast and muscular; able to turn at very high speed in mid-air. The prairie (Richardson’s) merlin is 10″ tall and weighs about 6 ounces.

Return To Roost

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An adult bald eagle returns to roost, one winter evening. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Colorado.

There are sixty or so bald eagles roosting at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR this winter, right on the edge of Denver. The eagles come back every year, using the tall cottonwoods for hunting perches to pick off a prairie dog or cottontail rabbit, and sometimes feast on winter-killed white-tail and mule deer. The eagles that return from Canada and Alaska join a resident pair that have a gigantic nest in a cottonwood gallery forest located in the middle of the refuge. Bald eagles are roost communally, and you can see them leaving the roost in blue-black predawn light, threes or four at a time traveling low across the refuge. They return in the evening, generally one at a time and over the course of an hour or two, until a few cottonwoods at the roost site are full of bald eagles, like dark ornaments. They chatter and fight for a favorite branch to spend the long winter night. Some of the eagles stay on the refuge to hunt, using cottonwood trees and decommissioned telephone poles. Others leave, possibly to fish along the South Platte River. Photographically, it’s somewhat of a mystery how to best position myself to make images of the eagles leaving and returning. I do my best not to bump them off of loafing perches – they spend up to 90% of their day loafing, or resting to conserve energy in winter. But it’s maddening to see them flying all over the refuge, just high enough or or too distant to photograph. For this image, I stood sentinel in a forest of cottonwoods where I’ve seen eagles graze the tops on their evening flight to roost. This particular eagle flew right over my head, a bit higher than I would have liked, but still thrilling. If you remember the days of DDT and how rare and endangered bald eagles were in the ’60’s and ’70’s, it’s still a rush to see one up close.

Frosty Prairie Morning

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Frosty Mule Deer Buck : Prints Available

A large mule deer buck pauses on a frosty winter morning with a backdrop of Colorado's Front Range. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR is known for big mule deer and trophy-sized bucks.

 

Winter mornings after fresh snow are a highlight on any prairie lovers calendar and yesterday was magical for me. Rocky Mountain Arsenal is an urban refuge gem, especially when the conditions are just right. Here’s a few images from yesterday, when it was one degree at sunrise: Continue reading “Frosty Prairie Morning”

RMA Bison Roundup

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“Chutes and Ladders” Bison are moved through chutes while those working the roundup open and close doors from the walkways above the bison.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge conducted their annual bison roundup on Tuesday, the 17th. The bison herd, now at 86 animals, is rounded up, cajoled into chutes, and tested for a variety of things such as DNA, diseases, and contamination. It’s a facinating process to watch and in spite of the pros working the roundup, bison still go where they want to go. There’s a lot of bison psychology applied to moving a 1,500 pound wild animal through steel chutes and keeping them calm while taking blood, clipping hair, and extracting a piece of meat from their hind end. Other than a few bloody noses and a broken horn, everything went smoothly for the USFWS team.

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“Roundup” Bison are pushed from a large holding pasture to a much smaller holding pen before entering the chutes. Bison like to stay in a group and can easily double back on whomever is trying to move them. They’re very athletic and can run at speeds over 30 mph. This pass caught about 35 bison, with a few breaking free to stay in the pasture awhile longer. The guy in the cherry picker basket is a National Geographic photographer.

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“In Chute” Bison are moved into the first open chute in small groups.

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“Bull Bison In The Hub” This 1,500 pound bull was extremely pissed off about being moved from a grassy pasture to this metal enclosure. The paddles are used to get the bison to move through a door and into one of the chutes. Three doors were open at one point and the bull pawed the ground, snorted, and kicked the sidewalls, but wouldn’t go through. He was allowed to go back into a bigger holding area to cool off.

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“Bison Squeeze” There’s a lot of activity around the machine that holds the bison for blood, hair, and fat samples. Once a bison is in this squeeze machine, the sides are slowly closed in to apply pressure, the head secured to prevent injury, and the bison is processed in a few minutes. If they have a chip (rice-sized under skin) the chip is read to add data about the animal. If not, a chip is inserted while the bison is in this machine.

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“Bison Head Secure” Some bison calm down in the machine, others fight the whole process, start to finish. For the latter, this guy goes in and turns the head, securing it with a rope. He holds the bison there until processing is complete and the animal is freed.

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“Squeeze” This juvenile was held still by the steel bar until release in just a few minutes.

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Frosty Bison Bull : Prints Available

A bull bison is covered with frost in a landscape of hoar frost. The temperature was zero degrees the day after Christmas. Bos bison

The RMA bison are now free to graze the winter grassland.

Yawn!

Morning-B-Owls

Burrowing Owl Chicks in Early Morning Light. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO

Just stumbling upon this image made me smile today, so I thought I’d share it here. During the frenzied activity of a prairie summer, one can expect to see burrowing owl chicks popping from prairie dog burrows in mid to late June. I made this image of burrowing owl chicks from a portable blind just after sunrise on a June, 2005 morning. The yawning chick expressed my thoughts perfectly.

Prairie Song

western meadowlark, prairie

Singing Western Meadowlark : Prints Available

 Western meadowlarks are often seen singing from perches above prairie grass - yucca, mulleins, and fenceposts. While sitting in a blind waiting for burrowing owls to emerge, this nearby meadowlark was singing his head off. I opened a window slowly and saw that he was standing in the grass just a few feet away, He didn't care about the shutter firing, maybe because he was making so much beautiful noise. 

Flehmen

Mule Deer Buck Exhibiting Flehmen Behavior During Autumn Rut. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Colorado

Flehman: (fley-muhn)

noun Animal Behavior .
a behavioral response of many male mammals, especially deer, antelope, and other artiodactyls, consisting of lip curling and head raising after sniffing a female’s urine.
Definition courtesy of dictionary.com

Mule Deer Rut

A large mule deer buck rouses a specific female during the autumn rut. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Colorado.

The autumn mule deer rut (mating season) action has begun at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, with bucks competing for the attention of does. I was out one evening last week and located a herd of five bucks and ten or so does. It’s interesting to watch smaller bucks follow does, tasting the air for estrus, and thinking they’ll get a chance to mate until a much larger buck emerges from tall grass and takes over. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR is renowned for big bucks; and although their numbers are down from historical populations, there are some very large deer at RMA. The rut will continue into December, generally peaking before Thanksgiving. In early December, you can observe larger groups of deer, often a single, big buck with harem. Take the auto tour route and be prepared to photograph from your open car window. I often travel with a 400mm lens ready to shoot.

A large mule deer buck pauses to look at the photographer while following a doe during autumn rut. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Colorado.

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