An owl army, a tire-less elk and a minor coup attempt

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


One of the happier wildlife stories this fall involved the army of owls enlisted to fight gophers and mice in Napa Valley’s vineyards. The birds are voracious eaters; a family of barn owls can gobble as many as a thousand rodents during the four-month nesting season, averaging around 3,400 in a single year, reports the excellent EcoWatch. Realizing what a valuable tool this predator-prey relationship could be — and that it could render the use of poisons obsolete — graduate students at Humboldt State University in California, working under professor Matt Johnson of the university’s Wildlife Department, placed 300 nest boxes in local vineyards. The owls are now dining on pesky rodents in 75 vineyards, and, since this is Napa Valley we’re talking about, we hope they receive the services of a trained sommelier with their meals: “Perhaps Monsieur Owl would enjoy this earthy, full-bodied cabernet sauvignon; it pairs exquisitely with the gopher bourguignon…” 

Probably everyone has seen pictures of frustrated moose, deer, elk and even bears dangerously entangled in backyard detritus — clotheslines, swing sets, tomato cages, Christmas lights and volleyball nets, among other unnatural objects. In one particularly bad case, a 600-pound bull elk wandered the hills outside of Denver for at least two years with a car tire around its neck, reports the Associated Press. The 4 1/2-year-old elk has been elusive, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife staffers spotted the animal this fall near Pine Junction, southwest of Denver, where they tranquilized it and finally removed the tire. Unfortunately, they had to cut off the magnificent creature’s five-point antlers in order to remove the encumbrance, because they could not slice through the steel-reinforced tire. One result was an immediate weight loss: The elk was 35 pounds lighter after the tire, the debris caught in the tire and the antlers were all gone.

“The people have spoken!” Katmai National Park announced in October, declaring 480 Otis — at 25 one of the oldest brown bears in the park — winner of Fat Bear Week. The mighty chubster wasn’t the heaviest, yet he still defeated 11 other ambitious bears eating their way to 1,000 or more pounds. “The portly patriarch of paunch persevered to pulverize the Baron of Beardonkadonk in the final match of #FatBearWeek 2021,” the park proclaimed in a florid final flourish of sports-castereeze. The park began the competition, which the Washington Post calls the “Battle of the Beefiest,” as a way to teach humans about Alaskan bears and how they gorge themselves to prepare for winter hibernation. Some of the bears, according to the Casper Star-Tribune, “often get so big they have to dig a hole to stuff their belly in when they lay down to rest.”


In a weight-obsessed but fast-food-eating society that constantly agonizes about staying slim, the contest joyously celebrates a robust appetite: “During peak season, we have seen bears catch 40-plus salmon in a day (though 20 salmon is more common),” as the park noted on its Facebook page. “And if you estimate each salmon has roughly 4,500 calories pre-spawned, that is a lot of food!” Most people will never visit Katmai National Park, but countless armchair travelers on can experience it via bear cams, taking a vicarious satisfaction in watching the bears live the good life. They hang out in crystal-clear waters in a wilderness paradise and catch migrating salmon simply by opening their mouths as wide as possible.

Speaking of ginormous entities, Jeff Uhlmeyer of Olympia, Washington, won a pumpkin contest this fall with a “goliath gourd” that achieved a startling weight of 2,191 pounds, reports the Seattle Times. Uhlmeyer says he did it by cosseting his pumpkin patch, building a shelter over it, running a fan and spraying water on the plants almost continuously. “There’s no room to get cocky in the gourd world,” he explained.

“Nothing to see in Idaho — just a minor coup attempt,” launched by the state’s ambitious lieutenant governor against the actual governor, Brad Little, reported VICE News. Both may be conservative Republicans, but Little supports vaccination against COVID-19, while Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin insists that “natural immunity is more effective.” She believes this so strongly that, while the governor was away in Texas, she took it upon herself to prohibit public schools and universities from requiring vaccination or testing for COVID. She also tried, unsuccessfully, to send the Idaho National Guard to the Mexican border. Her grandstanding stint as substitute boss did not last long. Calling her actions “executive overreach,” Little swiftly rescinded her actions the minute he returned.    

Tips of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected], or submit a letter to the editor

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