A red fox caught in mid-leap as it pounces on prey that humans seldom see or even acknowledge, yet is the mainstay of a fox’s winter diet.
Last week in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, we watched a male red fox hunt for prey in a snow-covered field near Pebble Creek. He would trot along as if on a casual errand, then stop like he had run into a wall. His head would swivel slightly and his gaze would become fixed on a particular spot. After a minute or two as he pinpointed the sound, we could see his body tighten up, then spring forward in a long arc, paws and nose leading the way, to attack some seemingly barren patch of snow. His head would disappear under the snow and seconds later would reappear with the dark form of a vole, short tail still wiggling, in his jaws. A couple of dozen chomps later and the vole would disappear down his throat. Then he was off to hunt again.
Not every hunt ended in success. Probably in 50 percent of several dozen attempts the vole eluded the fox, at least for now. But this fox hunted the meadow every evening so escape may have been just a temporary reprieve. In addition, we saw an ermine hunting voles in this same meadow the year before and at times last week we could see a coyote across Soda Butte Creek in the same area doing the exact same thing as the fox. This was a tough place to be a vole.
While the fox hunted, seven moose browsed on the willows along the stream bank. Bison grazed on the grasses and elk wandered the ridges behind us. Further down the valley, a wolf pack wandered and high above us, we knew of a den where a grizzly bear sleeps away the winter months. Ospreys and eagles pluck fish from the river in the summer.
I sat there in amazement, thrilled and humbled by the complexity of the natural system around us. Foxes, coyotes and ermine all depend upon a resource that we humans seldom see and even less often appreciate. If not for these small mammals, we would observe far fewer of the animals we love to watch. These small mammals, in turn, depend upon other resources, largely plants, in order for them to thrive. Plants depend upon a complex interaction between fungi and bacteria that help roots absorb nutrients. A fertile soil is required for plants to thrive and fertilization depends upon the dung of large animals, the reprocessing effects of fire and the recycling of dead matter and the insects, mites, worms, grubs, centipedes and bacteria that make that happen. It is a never-ending cycle far more complex than we may ever understand.
This insanely complex system is often described as a web, as in a spider’s web. That is a good analogy as far as it goes. Conservationist John Muir is often misquoted as saying, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” He actually said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” That goes far beyond the simple linear relationship of a flat web. I see it more as a sphere of interconnected threads where plucking a thread at any point may send shockwaves in multiple and unexpected directions. And a sphere gets back to the idea of not just connectedness, but also interdependence and feedback loops.
We can’t begin to assume that we understand all of the complex interactions that can be set in motion by a single action. We can appreciate though, that the system is complicated and we should approach each potential change with caution.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho