Cool Cats & Dharma Bums

by B. Frank on January 3, 2012

“‘… no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene) and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and tempests in the vale below;’ so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride.”
— Sir Francis Bacon, commenting on Roman poet Lucretius in “Of Truth” (1597)

Cool Cats & Dharma BumsLet’s say you’ve driven up the pass from your favorite destination/snowglobe/resort town for a day of fun and frolic on a foot or so of fresh powder. You’ve parked your trusty PU/SUV/Suby/POS mountain car in a just-plowed turnout. Skis are skinned, board is tuned, sled cranked or waffle-stompers tightened to your satisfaction. As you look up from your preparations, stalking toward you in an unhurried way is a somewhat furry, low-slung, powerfully put-together specimen of what a certain number of days and nights “at altitude” hath wrought.

Right now, there are a number of considerations. Does the character look dangerous, hungry, displeased? Have you been seen, or is your visitor just passing by? If seen, should you: A. Jump back in vehicle, lock all doors; B. Step slowly forward, showing no sign of fear or aggression; C. Wait for the other party to make the first move; D. None of the above? It all depends, my friend, so read on …

“If the cat could talk, what a tale he’d tell …”
— Hoyt Axton, from “Della and the Dealer” (1979)

One night last March, I’m in a local establishment, having beers and a burger with a biologist buddy of long acquaintance, catching up on each other’s winter activities. He’s been working in a lynx study team, he says; not studying lynx exactly, but tracking people (voluntary participants all) as they cross paths with lynx, and he thinks my journalistic antennae might be stirring right about now. Tell the truth, in a pleasant fresh-brewed haze, I’m ruminating on a long-ago, failed mid-winter attempt to write a light fiction on a second-hand DOS-code piece of ’80s lap-top technology, concerning what might happen if a recently released Colorado-immigrant lynx were to get the bright idea to start walking back to its Canadian homeland, and of a snow-flattened skeleton I found a few years later, in a timberline meadow that had me thinking that this wouldn’t have been a bad place to die … better than some I’d known.

I’m just puzzling out whether I stowed the skeleton’s cat-like skull somewhere in my piles of abandoned gear and assorted flotsam, or if I had left it lying there in the newly sprouted meadow grasses, when my reverie is broken by the very instinct my biologist buddy thought might be killing my buzz. Damn it, he’s right, this might be a good story — except that I’m pretty sure I’m not a journalist, or (as one of my current favorite country-alt-singer-poets puts it) “a drunk with a pen,” but prefer to think of myself as a harmless sort with a lively imagination and a penchant for disappearing into wildlands unencumbered by uplinking technology.

He sets the hook by pointing out something to the effect that this study could add a little more scientific knowledge to the pyre of opinion-mongering on whether, when and where motor- vs. human-powered methods of recreation may (or may not) affect lynx usage of survivable habitat. Now, before too many excitable members of either fringe decide to clamor for heads-on-a-stick a la Gaddafi, let me hasten to add that participating in the group activity known as “citizen science” can be a democratic chance to add knowledge as studies are being conducted, rather than flinging insults, brickbats and lawsuits after the results are in.

How the story’s gone so far (wherein ol’ Uncle B. promises to keep it short and sweet as possible)

Though Lynx canadensis once roamed all the high mountain ranges of North America, the last confirmed sighting of a wild one in Colorado was in 1973 near Vail, via habeas corpus (a trapper produced the body). By the mid-1990s, the cat’s possible listing as an Endangered Species had become a political potboiler featuring multiple unofficial sightings, inconvenient tracks in the path of a mega-resort expansion scheme, the ELF, FBI, etc. — the typical alphabet soup of such shadowy intrigues. Here could begin a recitation of calls to rage at the machine, with responses fearing a scourge of eco-terrorists on our shores; but recalling my promise of short and sweet, we’ll be skipping lightly back to the High Country, circa 1999, when the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) brought Canadian-born lynx to the San Juan Mountains.

Three of the first four re-introduced cats came, saw and died. The release team re-caught the last one, and regrouped. The next releases went better, as biologists figured out how to fatten their captives for the necessary lean times of getting to know the lay of a new homeland upon release. Sort of a mountain locavore training session — with snowshoe hares, squirrels, voles and mice in place of memorizing all the “burger-and-a-pint” nights in a ski-town.

By 2006, CDOW was still releasing about a dozen newly captured lynx a year, and an adventurous few were wandering far from the release area. As is the wont of wildlife biologists, released lynx were fitted with radio collars, which showed immigrant lynx moving into the High Country near Vail and Summit County, and traced some venturing to lynx-unfriendly cultural climes. Think Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas. Some of the stay-at-homes were having babies, anchoring Colorado’s wildland population with a crop of 50 or so 1st-generation kits in 2005, and even a litter from a Colorado-born lynx the next year. Then a brush with disaster when no lynx births were recorded in 2007 or 2008, and hyperbolic press accounts started raising the specter of a failed reintroduction. Snowshoe hare populations had crashed, and female lynx stopped producing babies until prey was more plentiful, matching a cycle known from Canadian studies. 2009 saw resurging hare and lynx births, and, by 2010, a third of the radio-tracked lynx females in Colorado had litters.

Just before last winter set in, Colorado’s top political brass announced the recovery program a success. CDOW announced that no more reintroductions are planned, and that tracking would shift from radio collars to camera traps along known trails, genetic sampling and snow-tracking of lynx in winter. Also, a study of how human use of lynx habitat affects their movements, begun in the Vail area in 2008, would move to your correspondent’s home range for the winters of 2010 through 2011. This is how my biologist buddy came to be sitting there, eyeing me for signs of journalistic fervor over the heads of our next round of freshly drawn local brews.

Science and fiction (how B.’s dharma lynx tale turned out) …

One problem with DOS-code-based storytelling is that, as with all things digital, there is (to quote Gertrude Stein), “ … no there there,” until one hits a “print” button. As I remember, that particular ill-starred attempt at writing the Great American Novel, my piece-of-shit (POS) second-hand computer crashed just after my wandering lynx had crossed the border into its native homeland. I never was able to get the thing started again, and shortly thereafter gave up on the ancient craft of making imagined characters articulate transcendent truths, replaced by a continuing fascination with chronicling the strangeness of truth itself.

CDOW’s tracking teams have recorded a lynx wandering over the Continental Divide, bound for points east. One trip ended near Wichita, Kansas, when a tranquilizer dart started a long ride back to Colorado. The next time, the wanderer crossed Nebraska and made it to Des Moines, Iowa, before it ran afoul of the bane of all dharma bums, a driver who may’ve zigged when zagging was the only way not to run over a furry, low-slung, powerfully built archetype of feline curiosity. Another cat even made it back to the land of his birth, only to fall for a Canadian trapper’s wiles last year. Others are testing the edges of their habitat, in all directions.

“… but the cat was cool, and never said a mumbling word.”
— (Axton’s comment on the cat’s tale of “Della and the Dealer”)

No matter where you may head for the slopes this winter in the Rocky Mountain West, watch for adventurous travelers seeking a place to call home. With a little effort, you can even become an official CDOW “snow tracker” and have your lynx observations officially included without producing a body — a pretty cool advance from pre-reintroduction lynx science.

If traveling on a highway, slow down. If possible, smoothly pull to the shoulder, enjoy interfacing and wish your fellow citizen safe travels. If you are on a trail, or schussing, carving, even (shudder) high-marking a slope of manna delivered from the wintry gods/goddesses of all things good and pure and innocent as the newly fallen snow, and have taken to heart this little tale of the migrations of Lynx canadensis, perhaps the encounter will be a high point of your budding service to the renaissance of old Francis Bacon’s definition of the scientific method in a 1620 treatise: “That reason which is elicited from facts by a just and methodical process, I call Interpretation of Nature.

So you wanna be a scientist? (The “how-to-interface” part) …

Here’s a participatory exercise. Let’s say a somewhat furry wildland archetype approached you on a sunny powder morning last winter, and you chose action B or C. After exchanging expressions of mutual joy at being lucky and/or smart enough to be on this mountain, on this day, in this life, your new
acquaintance may’ve asked if you’d consider
taking part in a study he had the good fortune to be conducting that very day. He might’ve showed you a small device he hoped you’d consider slipping into your pack while you skied, rode or sledded through the wintry wonderland. Say you decided it couldn’t hurt anything, as you had no particular intention of engaging in shadowy intrigues with pro- or anti-establishment entities on that particular day.

Congratulations, citizen scientist! Your willingness meant your day’s travels — up, down, around and back — are now added to a knowledge base that just may keep Colorado’s lynx population healthy and growing. The device is a GPS unit, and you’ve joined a select host of citizen scientists and immigrant lynx in laying down real-time use patterns for future planners to peruse, parse, ponder and hopefully arrive at land-use decisions that rise above the pressures and fear-mongering of slogan-based politics-as-usual. You move to the head of our class of participatory democracy.

OK, OK, I know most of us have not had this opportunity, or maybe chose option A or D when my buddy or one of his cohorts in scientific inquiry approached on that morning. He doesn’t hold grudges, and just might’ve avoided a few conversations in his own time. It’s also not too late to consider being part of what I hope by now sounds like a fairly painless way to contribute to possible solutions, rather than problems. Research teams will cruise the high roads again this winter, searching for citizen scientists. If one of these usually pleasant, harmless and possibly burger-sated wildland archetypes approaches, now you know what that device he or she is offering can do, and the rest is up to you.

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “The Resurrection,” which appeared in #183. Author of “Livin’ the Dream,” Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Border Country. His blog, “The Ragged Edge,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. 


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