Data and Bones and Wonder

I don’t have a moment where I fell in love with deer. Looking back, I guess I must’ve fallen in love with deer in the same way that at some point I started writing and shooting bows with my right hand. Much in the same way, I know I love deer in the way that I know I have brown hair and that I hate the freckle on my cheek.

My family’s ranch in northeast Wyoming has both mule deer and whitetail deer, and my mom, the science teacher, spent hours with my brother and I as children, teaching us how to tell the difference at a glance. How a mule deer bounds, and while they have white on their hindquarters, they aren’t the same creatures as the white-tails running away, flaunting their fluffy white tails at us. How to look for a fork versus a beam in an antler buried in the snow and know what kind of animal left it there for us to find on a snowy Sunday hike. Such little science lessons are what I look back on as the cornerstone of where my life has taken me, why I search for antlers on every dusky horizon and look for hoofprints beside my own tracks on worn out game trails.

When I hear the word “ungulate” I picture hooves. Even-toed deer tracks in the snow in my backyard or hundreds of imprints in the red mud trailing between the oaks lining the road at the ranch. I often imagine a mule deer’s big floofy ears turning intelligently in the wind and dense, coarse hair that I wish I could dig my fingers into. I feel my hands tangled in the mane of a boney old mare, riding bareback and scarring up bands of whitetail in the pasture by my grandmother’s house. I remember nights spent skinning out deer with stiff, chilled hands in the November freeze of our garage, laughter from neighbors clutching beer cans echoing in the concrete space. I can see the neighborhood dogs dragging in disembodied deer legs from that winter’s kill in the hills behind my house, bones that seem impossibly delicate when they aren’t attached to the powerful creatures they came from.

When I was twelve, I shot a mule deer for the first time. I remember the adrenaline rush as my sight tunneled down the scope until it was all I could see, my parents sitting deathly quiet nearby. I remember that it was nearing dark, so learning to dress the animal took a backseat to the coyotes howling nearby, to move the animal closer to home. Two years later, a whitetail buck fell on a blustery autumn day. Both times, my family followed our tradition of making backstrap biscuits and gravy to celebrate, followed by weeks of processing into steaks and roasts and jerky.

I’m not the only one in my family to form an affinity for these animals. It almost seems that loving deer is an expectation of holding my last name.  My brother set up his own bonafide volunteer butcher service in high school, and rarely was there a fall day that our garage wasn’t filled with harvested animals, green Game and Fish tags tied to them in a row. My parents spent much of their off time before kids hunting together and with their families: bear, elk, sometimes birds. Always deer.

When I went away to college, I decided I wanted to be a doctor, and then a therapist or a counselor, and then finally a biologist. All of these things have in common that they are based around a typically idealistic goal of helping. Finally, I decided as a freshman in college that I could set out to research the inner workings of an environment and through doing so perhaps help wildlife someday. And like it was destined for me from the start, I fell back to deer.

The summer before my senior year of college, by a brilliant stroke of luck, I was able to meet myself as Taylor, the deer researcher. In the field for the first time, I was able to cultivate the way my mind works in tandem with both nature and science. I was able to connect to these wild creatures in a new way, through morphometric measurements, blood collection, and collaring. I was given the gift of knowing what a newborn deer looks like in its first few hours, how their natural camouflage works in real time, and how special it was to be part of a deer’s life from the very beginning as well as in the end. l learned to do necropsies, how to piece together story from flesh and bone and what’s left behind when an animal passes on. And now I know that as researchers and biologists we want to minimize the invasive work that we do on these animals, for their sake, but I’ll forever be grateful to have been allowed into these brief glimpses of a deer’s life.

No, there is no one profound moment for me and deer. Rather, my romantic heart has always sought to appreciate the magic brought into my life in little moments with these creatures, and I choose to allow those moments to shape the way I view the world still. And instead of warring with my idealistic notions, my scientific perspective encourages those moments with a respect for the untamable nature of deer. Deer are ever present in our lives. Everyone has a deer story: one about hunting, or hitting one with their car, or watching them eat bird seed in the middle of city limits. My life is punctuated with deer stories, and at this point, all I can do is marvel at them exactly how they are as I attempt to glean their secrets from what little data they’ll give.

 

Taylor Kennah just graduated from the University of Wyoming in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and Management, with a focus on terrestrial animals and a love for mammals. She has called Wyoming home her entire life and shares her adventures on Instagram @taylor_liv14.

A Brief Encounter

From the Owens River Valley at 4,000 feet, the Sierra Nevada’s eastern slope explodes toward peaks reaching between 10,000 and 14,000 feet in just a few miles. While fairly regular in outline, the Sierra Nevada are not made up of smooth, straight edges nor are they a stagnant feature on the landscape. Since their formation by a series of uplift events and volcanic eruptions around the time the dinosaurs blinked out, the Sierras have been continually shaped by erosion, volcanism, and glaciation. This mountain range, like many in the west, has a way of humbling you. The vastness of the place, a sea of granite spreading in every direction, dwarfs the human presence. This feeling is amplified while searching for the remnant populations of Sierra bighorn that have endured both the natural and human-caused changes of the Sierra Nevada.

A hand-drawn map of Big Arroyo canyon in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Points of interest include Mineral King trailhead, Black Rock Pass at 12,172', Sheep 538 and their group, Rattlesnake Point, and the Kern River.

Map by B. Regan.

As I roll from my tent, my aching muscles and stiff joints remind me of the difficulties of studying bighorn sheep. Its day three of our approach to the Big Arroyo herd, a particularly remote group of Sierra bighorn that occupy the southeastern edge of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national park. Todd and I break camp and set out before the sun has crested the high peaks around the alpine basin we called home last night. We’re headed for the Kern River, which forms a deep incision dividing the Sierra Nevada into the main Crest and the Great Western Divide. Here along the steep cliffs of the Kern trench and its tributaries, we hope to find sheep.

We choose a spot on an exposed knob above the Big Arroyo, a glacial fed arm of the Kern, from which this herd draws its name. Rummaging through chaotically “organized” packs, we extract our telemetry equipment which picks ups radio signals emitted from a transmitter attached to the sheep of interest. We can a hear a signal coming from one of our collared ewes—she should be within our line of sight. We temper our excitement; we know that the signals from these collars have a way of bouncing along these steep canyons walls as well as the sheep do.

We begin the slow monotonous scans of the rock face across the canyon. Even with our 60x spotting scopes, the rocks have a way of growing horns. Hours pass, our bodies cramp from our hunched position while our hands, the only bit of skin we leave exposed to the harsh alpine radiation, sweat and burn. We listen for the collar’s signal and reposition over and over hoping to reveal a new crease in the cliff face that might be hiding the white woolen “whale”. Our eye lids, mirroring our hopes, sag with each additional pass.

Unexpectedly our radio crackles. Lacey and Elsbeth—another survey party is within range across the canyon. We split up on day two so we could each scan the steep canyon walls below the other.

Lacey: “Jaron, Todd. It’s Lacey, do you copy?”

A delay as we fumble for our radio while our eyes adjust from squinting through our scopes.

Todd (groggy): “Yeah, go ahead Lacey.”

Lacey: “We’ve got a strong signal from 538 in the bowl at the mouth of the canyon”

Surprised, we recheck our signal. Another delay. We can’t let ourselves believe we’ve been deceived again.

Jaron: “Hey Y’all. We hear that too, but it’s tough to tell in here what’s bounce or not. We’ve covered the upper canyon pretty well; we’ll reposition and see if we can help you out”

Elsbeth: “Copy that”

We pack up our scopes and tripods and begin to pick our way down stream. Remembering the grace with which bighorn sheep move from crag to crag, reminds us of our fumbling nature and newcomer status.

The bowl begins to open itself to us, but our view is broken by the snags of ponderosa pine crippled by ever worsening drought and the incessant munching of the mountain pine beetle. We decide to make do and again, unearth our scopes and telemetry equipment. Suddenly our radio explodes:

Lacey: “Jaron, Todd, we’ve got a visual. Top of the bowl, east side.”

Our spirts rise. Briefly.

Lacey: “There’s seep of moisture just west of…”

The radio cuts out.

Lacey: “They’re on the move. Headed west. Fast.”

Todd rushes to get the legs under the scope and keep his from shaking. I reposition and opt for binoculars to help Todd zone in.

Elsbeth: “Jaron, Todd, do you have them?”

Todd: “Not yet. Where are they?”

Lacey: “Crossing the talus in the middle of the bowl. We’re going to lose them below us.”

Jaron: “Lacey, did you get a count? How about group composition?”

Lacey: “12 maybe 13. Tough to tell they keep bunching up.”

Jaron: “I’m on ‘em. They’re coming out of the bottom just below that brushy gully.”

Todd:” Jaron, what’s your count?”

Jaron: “Give me a second.”

Lacey: “We got 7 adult females, 5 lambs, 1 yearling female. Tough to say though, I think we missed some. We’re moving to try and reposition.”

Todd: “Okay, I got em, but they’re headed for some timber. I don’t think we have long.”

Elsbeth: “What do you have?”

Jaron: “13.”

Todd: “14. Shit.”

Jaron: “They’re about to crest the ridge on the west side of the bowl.”

Todd: “6 adult females, 5 lambs, 1 yearling female, 2 yearling males?”

Lacey: “We’re back on ‘em. You think that last one is a ram?”

Todd: “Could be an adult female. I can’t see the base of the horns”

Elsbeth: “14, definitely 14”

Jaron: “They’re about to reach the tree line, were almost out of time.”

Todd: “I can’t get another count. They’re gone.”

Lacey: “7 adult females, 5 lambs, 1 yearling female, 1 adult male. I got a good look as they spread out going into the trees. I think that’s our count.”

I can practically hear Lacey and Elsbeth sigh from across the canyon, as Todd and I do the same.

It’s not the survey any of us wanted, but despite all the effort it takes to get here, sometimes there is only a flash.

The next morning, we stretch and groan before shouldering our packs for the long hike out. Climbing over peak and pass we begin to extract ourselves from this deep canyon and our own deep frustration. The effort for us to observe these animals is nothing compared to the effort they’ve needed to persist in this vast wilderness. Like the other subspecies, Sierra bighorn were once prolific throughout their range. Now it often feels like searching for a needle in a haystack. This herd in the Big Arroyo is small but thriving, perhaps benefitting as much from their remoteness as we struggle with it.

Jaron Kolek is an avid backcountry skier, rock climber and recreationist. Seeking to understand the impacts of his own outdoor pursuits, his master’s work focuses on the effects of recreation on Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

Wasting

Half-way up a snow-covered hill, I stop to watch a pair of mule deer, claiming curiosity as an excuse to catch my breath. A doe and her 9-month-old fawn weave through the juniper and shrubs, turning around to see if I’ve moved any closer. I wish I could tell them to save their precious energy; I couldn’t catch them if I tried.

Earlier that morning, an email with the subject line “***Mortality Event***” and a stop-sign red message alerted me that D009, one of the mule deer I’m studying, hadn’t moved in 8 hours. She was dead, and I was on my way to investigate how she died.

Despite my attempts to travel softly, my presence scatters pockets of deer each time I crest a hill. The deer in this country aren’t used to seeing people; my boot prints are the only recent signs of human travel. As I creep down a drainage, I glance over my shoulder, and try to stop myself from hearing a stalking mountain lion in the breeze.

Through the juniper, I notice a brown mound that isn’t rock or soil. My heart beats faster. As I move closer to D009, I tread lightly, wanting to preserve evidence. I scan for subtle pads and claw marks in the snow, tufts of hair caught along a branch, drops of blood—anything that would help me determine the cause of her death. I only see hoof prints.

There were no obvious signs that D009 had been attacked or harmed by another animal. She had been walking, then suddenly tipped over. Not stumbled or laid down, but tipped over. The ridges of her hip bones and ribs were apparent, even from a distance. The adrenaline rushes out, and I sigh; I’ve seen this before. The lab would later confirm my initial read: chronic wasting disease.

I set down my pack and dug around for my knife, the one that is specific for this project. The prions causing chronic wasting disease can be removed by soaking objects in high-concentration bleach, but I’ve accepted that prions likely lurk in this knife. My chicken scratch labels bags with the samples I’ll pack out and take to the lab: spleen, heart, lungs, liver, head, fecal, muscle, kidney, marrow.

I don’t have to send anything to the lab to know that the disease wrecked her organs and tissues. Her liver was discolored and spongy: when I picked up the sample bag said to contain liver, I wondered if I had mislabeled the bag. Healthy bone marrow resembles cream cheese, but her strawberry-jelly bone marrow told me how malnourished she was, despite her full stomach. It’s February, and mule deer who are old enough to be pregnant should be. But I don’t see any signs of a growing fawn—she probably couldn’t spare the energy. Her diagnostic report that came a few weeks later was full of unfamiliar medical terms: neuronal vacuolation, bronchopneumonia, hemosiderosis. Her brain had degraded and was filled with holes. Her lungs were congested and hemorrhaged, and she had inhaled and choked on plant material. She had pneumonia, probably contracted because of a compromised immune system. Perhaps I should have left those terms unexamined.

Having collected the samples I was after, I picked up all her remaining organs and put them back in her chest cavity. It felt disrespectful to leave them scattered around. I hoped that something would come by and scavenge her organs, but nothing had been by so far—perhaps nothing would scavenge from her at all.

She spent the last months of her life in below-freezing temperatures, slowly wasting away. I wanted to remember her when I was analyzing data back in the office. My blood-covered thumb pressed the shutter on my phone, capturing her final steps through the snow.

On my hike out, I scatter more deer. I want to tell them all to run, to leave, to get out while they still can. Before they touch noses with an infected deer, and spend the next 18 months paying for it. Before they nibble on a sagebrush, and unknowingly ingest a disease that strips them of their mental abilities, leaving their head hanging and body likely to tip over at any minute. But their biology compels them to stay.

A few weeks later, a stop-sign red email commands me to hike up that same hill in search of D055, a doe we just added to our study, but has been still for 8 hours. I grab my knife and sample bags, heading to the field, knowing what I’ll find.

Deer hoof prints drag through the snow. The path weaves between juniper trees, with snow-covered hills in the background, and a setting sun softening the light.

D009’s last steps through the snow.

Written by Rhiannon Jakopak. Rhiannon Jakopak is a research scientist with the Monteith Shop.
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