Ranch Diaries: Wildlife encounters in a life on the range

When herding cattle means meeting black bears, angry turkeys and tame elk.

 

Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

Lately, Sam and I have been reflecting on some of the wildlife encounters we have had while living with and handling livestock. We’ve scared up black bear, trotted out horseback past impressive herds of bull elk, and watched bands of wild horses and their new foals find their footing, but sometimes we witness more unusual vignettes.

Earlier this spring, I was headed home on my gelding Yellowstone after a morning of riding through the Triangle P cow and calf pairs. As I approached a gate, I saw a red-tailed hawk perched on a post beside it. The big raptor was tearing at a small rodent, probably a pack rat or a cottontail rabbit, but there wasn’t enough left for me to tell. Suddenly it lifted off, carrying the remnants. But the hawk dropped them. There was one long splinter coming off the post, and somehow the leftover lunch landed exactly on it, a hors d’oeuvre for a lucky scavenger.

  • May Day, Mooska the cat and Coconut the Elk hanging out.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Kitchen scraps, an interspecies attraction.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • This rattler, from Corona, New Mexico, is similar to ones we encounter regularly on the reservation.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Elk antlers found on a mountaintop ride.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Even lady bugs, a common sight, are a delight.

    Laura Jean Schneider

During the breeding season (which is now for Triangle P) it’s important for us to keep our bulls scattered evenly throughout the cows. Last month, I was driving a single young bull cross-country to find a bunch of cows that needed a gentleman suitor. Forcing him to leave his pals had not been easy to accomplish, and my sweaty horse and I were ready to walk along as soon the bull lined out and headed in the right direction. As we passed through a grassy draw, a hen turkey came running out of the surrounding woods, chiding the bull with her insistent gobbling call, rushing at him while dragging her wings as a diversionary tactic. When the bull ignored her, she became more insistent, increasing her volume and spreading her right wing on the ground as though it were broken, hoping to distract the predator. She had such courage, rushing an animal that weighed more than a thousand pounds, and I kept wondering when the hen would turn on my horse. She never did. 

Maybe we should have known our current home was destined to be full of wildlife surprises. Our first night on the reservation we camped in the same cowboy tipi we’ve since reserved for guests’ quarters. The dogs were supposed to be sleeping in the horse trailer nearby, but they put on an unusual ruckus throughout the night. That was bad enough, but when I heard breathing outside my tent and saw the canvas walls move, I knew something was pretty darn close. Acting braver than I felt, I slipped on Sam’s boots and unzipped the tent to stand face-to-face with a cow elk. I chucked a piece of firewood at her and she barely flinched. In the full moon I was thinking about rabies, looking for a foamy mouth, telling Sam the animal was certainly sick and delirious to show up so close to a camp. Later, we discovered she’d been rescued and bottle-fed as a calf before being turned out on the reservation a few days before we’d arrived. “Coconut” the elk adopted us, in an ironic role swap.

I credit our ranch lifestyle with allowing us to experience these sometimes bizarre, chance encounters with and in nature. And often they happen just when Sam or I need a mini break from the hard work, the sore muscles, and the long hours: exquisite affirmations that there is delight in what we do after all.