Ah, technology, isn't it wonderful? Drones aren't just useful for targeting suspected terrorists in far-off countries; unmanned aircraft can also be used to photograph birds roosting on cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean. Or so thinks the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which plans to send a 6-pound drone with a 54-inch wingspan aloft to photograph and routinely monitor double-crested cormorants, birds that can devour a couple of pounds of salmon and steelhead every day. The little drone, powered by an electric motor, is equipped with an Android smartphone that automatically takes photographs and sends them to a computer. The drone costs between $500 and $1,000 –– a whole lot less than a piloted plane, which also has to maneuver through dangerous winds along the coast.
And from Geneva, Switzerland, comes an ingenious -- some might say too ingenious -- high-tech experiment to protect sheep from wolves, which have reappeared in the region after a hundred-year absence. Agence France-Presse reports that a band of sheep were fitted with heart monitors; when muzzled "wolfdogs" approached, the sheep's heartbeats accelerated and triggered a device that texted herders, warning them that there was trouble in the pasture. Just to be sure, the collars also released a repellent to drive predators away. Comments about this layered approach were skeptical: "How is this cheaper than a dog?" asked "Susan." "Wouldn't it be easier to teach them Morse code?" added "AnotherNamVet," so the sheep could do the texting themselves. "When the wolf is close, they could bleat: "baa-baa-baa … baaa-baaaa-baaaa …" To which "Bordercollierules" replied, "Swiss sheep have thumbs? Just what kind of genetic engineering is going on over in the Alps?"
Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.
COLORADO: Gives "bare-back" riding a whole new meaning. Courtesy Cherie Morris
Magdalena, a high-plateau town of about 1,000 people southwest of Albuquerque, N.M., once served as a center of mining for lead, zinc and silver in the 1880s, before it took on another role as a shipping center for cattle. The cowboying peak came in 1919, when 150,000 sheep and 21,000 cattle found their way to Magdalena, ending their 10-mile-a-day trek on what was then called the "hoof highway." These days, Magdalena attracts artists and early retirees who help the town celebrate its historic past every July with a three-day Old Timers Reunion that features rodeos, a street dance, a quilt raffle and even three kinds of "villages" -- Indian, Spanish and Cowboy. There's also the crowning of an Old Timers Queen, and this year that queen was an extra-special one, partly due to her age -- 91. Thelma Reynolds told the Mountain Mail that she was born in a log cabin in Nemo, Mo., in 1921, and that she later worked at a variety of jobs for some 70 years. Waitressing and other restaurant jobs accounted for 36 years of her working life, with her first food-serving stint coming at a men's boardinghouse in Springfield, Mo. –– "quite an experience for a young woman," she recalled. Reynolds went on to a job refurbishing spark plugs in an aircraft plant during World War II, and also worked at a nursing home caring for the elderly. Finally, at age 82, she retired from a job at a Walmart Sam's Club. The secret of her longevity? "I just believed I could do it."
Mountain lions rarely visit Baker, a town of 1,700 in eastern Montana, but recently, a young male lion with an impressively long tail ended up not just dropping by, but breaking into a family's house after a stream of unlikely events. Alerted by a police dispatcher that a lion had been noticed in their backyard early one morning, Mark and Isabelle Jacobsen were naturally alarmed -- and not just for themselves: Their daughter was on her way home from church, on foot. Mark Jacobsen decided to slip out to his truck to go get her, but that frightened the lion, which ran around the house and then crashed right through the glass door that Isabelle Jacobsen had been standing behind, scattering glass everywhere. "Suddenly," reports the Missoulian, "Jacobsen and the mountain lion were a couple of feet from each other" … and "a handbag-sized bichon frise named Queen was in full bark just two feet from the big cat." Jacobsen, who was still in her nightgown, said the lion seemed more bewildered than anything else, so she grabbed her dog as the lion bolted for the basement. Unfortunately, a 16-year-old houseguest lay sleeping down there. Jacobsen told her son to phone the girl and warn her to stay put in her bedroom; meanwhile, the lion "retreated to a downstairs recreation room and hid behind a recliner." This story does not have a happy ending, at least not for the confused cat cornered in the wrong place. It took more than an hour for the game warden to track down a tranquilizer dart, but when it was fired, it accidently hit bone and failed to sedate the big cat. Finally, the Jacobsen family was urged to open all of their doors and back off, so the lion could run out. It did –– only to be killed by a gunshot in someone else's backyard a few hours later.
Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write email@example.com.
As if the recent local wildfires weren't trouble enough, now Woodland Park, Colo, has to worry about a "strong, aggressive" 6-foot monitor lizard that might find itself tempted to dine on cats and dogs. The "pet," known as Dino, snapped its mesh leash and wandered off in the tourist town northwest of Colorado Springs, reports AP. "If it gets hungry enough, we don't know what it will do," Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger remarked helpfully.
Speaking of fires, in a letter to the Colorado Springs Independent, Terri Weber had a heartfelt reminder for area residents who'd weathered a terrible wildfire that destroyed hundreds of homes: "Local resources were not enough to save our city. You, my fellow taxpayers, paid for the C-130s dropping fire retardant, (the) Hot Shots … (and) boots on the ground. This is the big government that some people are wailing about. I am so tickled to have it, and I thank you for it."
Jesus has a friend in Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, or at least the blue-robed Big Mountain Jesus statue does, standing with arms outstretched at the top of Whitefish Mountain Resort's Chair 2. For nearly six decades, the statue has welcomed skiers, "whose irreverence, however unintentional, most recently cost the Jesus statue an outstretched hand," reports the Missoulian. But that's the least of its problems. First, the Forest Service chose not to renew the lease for the 25-by-25-foot parcel of land where the statue stands. But after 95,000 public comments flooded in, the agency decided to let the statue stay "after determining that it was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places." That's when a Wisconsin-based group of atheists called the Freedom From Religion Foundation went to federal court to attack the legality of allowing a religious symbol on national forest land, calling it "a state endorsement of religion." Rehberg, who is running for the Senate in a closely watched race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, has joined forces with those who want the Jesus statue to stay put. He believes the statue is a "historic monument" inspired by members of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, who had seen similar shrines in the mountains of Italy.
Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.
Utah: is it too late to back up? Photo by Lillian Houghton.
It was such a sweet story at first: A man in a hairy white goat suit with fake horns who appeared to be trying to join a mountain goat herd in the Wasatch Mountains some 40 miles north of Salt Lake City. Yes, the faux goat was clumsy, not being a real caprid with fabulous grippy, gravity-defying, cloven hooves, but there he was, clambering over rocks on a steep slope, hoping -- perhaps unwisely -- to be accepted by animals renowned for their sinuous grace and wise faces. Or so some of us assumed. Philip Douglass of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources was even worried that "goat man," as the press called him, might be shot and turned into an unusual trophy when hunting season for the animals began in September. Alas, the mystery ended when goat man revealed himself to be a 57-year-old archery hunter from Southern California. No, he didn't want to be one with the mountain goats, he told The Associated Press, he just wanted to practice getting as close as possible to a herd in order to kill one of them. So all that laborious four-legged climbing while wearing his homemade goat suit was merely preparation for a mountain goat hunt in Canada next year. The man, who was not identified, was apparently not happy about all the publicity, which began when a hiker spotted him on a mountainside and a TV news crew photographed him from a helicopter. And we suspect that he was the anonymous "agitated man" who called wildlife authorities to say: "Leave goat man alone. He's done nothing wrong."
Meanwhile, up in Washington, the Olympic National Forest has had to close a trail for two weeks because the mountain goats there have been getting testy with tourists. Forest officials told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that "aggressive goats" on the Mount Ellinor Trail near Hoodsport had caused several hikers to feel threatened. Violating the closure order is a big deal; the maximum penalty is a $5,000 fine and six months in jail. But the caution is understandable; just two years ago, in nearby Olympic National Park, a mountain goat defended its spot on a hiking trail by butting and killing a man, whose family is now suing the Park Service.
The Custer County Chronicle, established in 1880 in the Black Hills of western South Dakota, is one of those weekly papers that asks the sheriff's department to pitch in and publish its daily log of complaints, most of which seem relatively trivial, including concerns about "a big black cow" wandering the highway, a lion (that turned out to be made of plastic) lolling in front of a residence, and "some kind of altercation involving a man with a chainsaw" -- settled, finally, by the two men involved, who'd been arguing for some time about a fence. Every once in a while, though, editorializing creeps in, says writer Linda M. Hasselstrom, who lives on a ranch in Hermosa, S.D. She should know, since she's been avidly reading the colorful "Sheriff's Log" for years. She laughed at Deputy Seth Thompson's contribution: "A deputy searched for an unknown person yelling for help in the Custer Limestone Road area. He found no one in distress, but briefly detailed a wayward sheep he found wandering. Not having a lasso handy, he secured the sheep with a waist chain and a set of pink transport handcuffs. The sheep was released into its pasture without any charges. Usually, incidents involving sheep and handcuffs only happen in Montana."
It is now known that for part of the time John Edwards sought the Democratic presidential nomination, his mistress, Rielle Hunter, was stashed in Aspen, living in a mansion owned by one of Edwards' associates. Alas, her privileged life was not all roses. A local paper reports that Hunter was in town having lunch one day when she became perplexed by her Reuben sandwich, which had been served with an unfamiliar dressing. Naturally, she promptly called her spiritual advisor for help, revealing that "she would fit right in any number of restaurants here," reports the Aspen Daily News.
Bear-jackers, headed down the road to bruin. Wyoming, left courtesy Julia Corbett, Colorado, right, courtesy Dave Heivly, Snowmass Village Police Department.
When New York Times columnist Mark Bittman spent a day this spring with Wendell Berry, the man he calls "the soul of the real food movement," he found the political activist and prolific writer of novels, essays and poems so relaxing it was "positively yogic." Berry was preparing to go to Washington, D.C., to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor the federal government gives for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities, but he still had time to talk for hours and give a tour of the Kentucky countryside where he was born and has lived for most of his life. Berry's planned talk -- "It All Turns on Affection" -- was thoughtful about the country's experience with booms and busts, recalling the Western writer Wallace Stegner, who coined the word "stickers" to describe people who dig in locally and do their best to build lasting community. As always, Bittman says, Berry's talk -- as it has for decades -- includes tasty, quotable lines that sound like aphorisms, and he provided some of his favorites. Here are just a few from Berry's writings: "You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it," "What I stand for is what I stand on," "Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup," and the calm and lovely poem: "When despair for the world grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and children's lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. / I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief. I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting for their light. For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."
Don't you just love those helpful hints about what to do when you're caught in a jam while out hiking miles from the nearest rural road? Your first response is probably hopeless despair -- the outback is, by definition, a long way from a hospital. Fortunately, a recent issue of Backpacker magazine offers reasonable solutions for some of the unpleasant things that can happen when you're in the backcountry. An example: What should you do if a fishhook snags in your cheek? Clip the barb, sterilize with an alcohol wipe (something we're sure every hiker carries) and "slide it out." If the barb lands in your eye, though, hurry to the nearest emergency room, no matter how far away. Then there's the shock of losing traction on a steep slope of scree; how do you arrest your slide, before it's too late? Do what seems unnatural: stop leaning in and "stand up straight." If, for some reason, you find the odd leech attached to your body and sucking blood: "Don't panic. Slide your fingernail along your skin toward the leech's small end and push sideways to dislodge." If you find a leech in your ear, however, you're allowed to panic; then try puncturing it with a pin and dragging it out. Should you get caught in an "inescapable wildfire," run for the nearest lake, ditch or rocky spot, into which you should lower yourself and hope for the best, which in this case would be a low-intensity blaze. But there are some things that can't be remedied by a helpful hint, and number one is blundering into a bruin (presumably without bear spray): "There's no sugarcoating it; this will suck." Playing dead while rolling yourself into a ball might work, but "if it doesn't give up on you within a minute, fight back with everything you have."
MONTANA AND WYOMING
For columnist Todd Wilkinson, writing in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the claim didn't compute: Three years ago, a group called Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd predicted that wolves would cause the largest migrating elk herd on Earth to become extinct in three years, while also turning the Yellowstone ecosystem into a "biological desert … a waste-land." Neither had happened the last we looked, though the then-chairman of the group, Robert T. Fanning Jr., continues to rail against wolves as he runs for governor of Montana on an anti-wolf platform. Wilkinson says he spent several days reading 50 different outfitter Internet sites to get a current picture of life for both elk herds and wolves living from the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming to the Canadian border. The result: "Not a single proprietor of guided hunts mentions anything remotely suggesting that wolves are annihilating elk herds or jeopardizing the quality of hunts." In fact, elk hunting seems to be as good as ever, with outfitters competing to lure hunters with fabulous tales of success in the still-wild wild. "Either clients are being fibbed to, or the public is. Which is it?"
Meanwhile, the Ravalli Republic reports that "mountain lions are targeting radio-collared wolves in the Bitterroot." Last year, two wolves with tracking collars were killed by lions that punctured their skulls, and since January, lions killed two more collared wolves in similar fashion.
Back in the late 1970s, Doug Weinant, a just-retired range boss in the Crawford country of western Colorado, had the reputation of being a genius with hummingbirds. He and his wife, Alma, who lived in a remote mountain cabin, would put out a bunch of sugar-water feeders in the spring, and dozens of the birds would flock to them. In between their frequent draughts, they rested on the head, shoulders and long arms of Doug, who by that time was bow-legged to parentheses by decades of riding the range. The tiny birds appeared to regard him as a kind of benign hitching post, and no one else ever had as successful a relationship, reported the local newspaper, the North Fork Times. But now technology has found a way to attract a hummer to within inches of your face. California inventor Doyle Doss has created a colorful facemask that incorporates a hidden feeding tube over the nose; he calls it an "eye to eye" Wearable Hummingbird Feeder. The birds quickly learn to fly right up, wings beating at 80 times a second, and drink deep just inches from your face. Perhaps the only drawbacks are the potential for crossed eyes and the need to hold still. It's also pricey at $79.95, from heatstick.com.
New York Times columnist Timothy Egan recently ripped into Arizona, calling the state "very, very crazy" because "even a spate of recent temperatures in the 105-degree range cannot explain the latest doings of government by crackpots." It seems that the secretary of state, "a wide-eyed fellow named Ken Bennett," began questioning -- yes, once again -- the birth certificate of President Obama and threatening to keep his name off the state's ballot. But in a move that speaks well of some Arizonans, "more than 17,000 people this week put their names on an online petition asking the secretary of state to investigate whether Mitt Romney is a unicorn."
"A large gang of sea lions" is occupying three docks at Ventura in Southern California, the first time the 800-pound animals have squatted within the harbor itself. Until recently, the sociable sea lions congregated on large buoys that lead out of the harbor, but now, thanks to what rawstory.com describes as the animals' "hostile takeover," they have moved inland and attracted the attention of a growing number of locals and tourists. Their presence creates several problems. First, the "appealingly pudgy creatures" are overloading their new homes, causing one dock to tilt alarmingly, and second, although they seem to enjoy entertaining onlookers by barking and cavorting in the water, sea lions have nasty pointy teeth and voracious appetites (fortunately, primarily for salmon). They pose a clear threat to anybody moving in too close. One person commenting on the story compared sea lions to people, with some acting like total jerks when their space is invaded: "I experienced a large male roaring in my face from about five feet after he jumped out from behind a big rock. You'd be surprised how fast they can move, and his roar was a hot stinky wind of fish death that blew my hair back. …" The Park Service says it's debating how to regain control of its docks, given the restrictions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Loud noises and flashing lights are both under consideration, though another commenter pooh-poohed their effectiveness: "Does anyone really think lights and noise are going to disperse these animals?" Instead, "Hauksdottir" recommended doing a scientific experiment: building different kinds of docks and then testing them to see what most appeals to sea lions, comparing docks with bumpy surfaces to docks that teeter or incorporate a slide, and then constructing the most popular dock wherever you want the animals to go. Her bet was on the slide, because she saw a steep, stepped rock near San Miguel Island, the westernmost of California's Channel Islands that has been colonized over the years by sea lions. "They would lumber up, face nose-down and slide in one exhilarating rush and splash, then swim back and do it over and over."
In Idaho's rural Lemhi County, population 8,000 and home to the town of Salmon, the sheriff's report in the Recorder Herald is a far cry from police news in a big city. Recently, there was the call about "a calf laying in the highway" and then there was the curious case of "a large unknown type of animal (dispatch thought it was a rock chuck)" that confronted a woman as she tried to get into her vehicle. "Woman ran back to her house and the animal chased her and then ran under her house. She said the animal chirped at her." Although maybe it whistled: Another moniker for the rock chuck is whistle pig. The animals -- which are officially known as yellow-bellied marmots --tend to run to chubbiness, with the males collecting harems of up to four females, and they whistle when an interloper appears.
WASHINGTON AND IDAHO
There are many things to expect when pushing a shopping cart around the outdoor garden department of a Walmart, but a poisonous snake is certainly not one of them. So when 47-year-old Mica Craig of Lewiston, Idaho, saw what he thought was a stick lying in the aisle of Walmart in Clarkston, Wash., he bent down to pick it up. Big mistake! The stick turned out to be a rattlesnake, which latched onto his hand, causing Craig to yell loudly for help before he "managed to shake the snake loose" and stomp it to death. Craig, who was treated at a local hospital with six bags of anti-venom, was told that his hand may be permanently disfigured, reports The Associated Press.
It wasn't a snake at the Moorhead Center Mall in Moorhead, Minn., a city of 40,000, that caused pandemonium, but a herd of six disoriented deer that crashed through the mall's windows and doors, reports WDAY-TV. One deer died instantly after plunging through a large window, and another was run over by a minivan, the thrifty driver taking "the dead deer home for dinner." The others made it safely back to a nearby river. Moorhead Police Officer Josh Schroder commented with admirable understatement, "This is one of the most interesting things I have seen since I have been up here."
The founders of al-Qaeda's English-language magazine Inspire may be out of the picture -- a U.S. missile killed them last year -- but their publication is back with new tips for making our lives miserable. However, the latest issue, which urges wannabe terrorists to set fires in Montana's national forests, is marred by faulty research and atrocious syntax, such as "It is of your freedom to ignite a firebomb." Inspire urges its readers to set wildfires "in the valleys of Montana where the population increases rapidly," using handy items you might find around the house, such as a clock, washing machine timer or acid to set the bomb off. Then again, they might as well drop a lit cigarette or place a magnifying glass over tinder in the sunlight, says the Missoulian. Missoula County's Sheriff's Detective Jason Johnson seems unimpressed, given his experience with methamphetamine-makers, sloppy hunters and the other homegrown American types bedeviling the woods: "I'd want to send a message to anybody in our neck of the woods who shares ideas with al-Qaeda," he says. "We have dedicated forces who will aggressively go after anyone who gets into that stuff."