Wednesday, April 26, 2017
7:00pm – 9:00pm
Doors open at 5pm


Free performance, presented in partnership with Elk River Books.

The reading will be about an hour, including Q&A.

Unearthing Paradise

Elk River Press’s anthology Unearthing Paradise: Montana Writers in Defense of Greater Yellowstone is now available. A portion of all sales of this book goes directly to Park County Environmental Council for use in their efforts to protect Paradise Valley and Jardine, MT from gold mining and other assaults on the Greater Yellowstone area. I am honored to be a contributor, among many great Montana writers.

You may order online here: https://unearthingparadise.org/

or at Elk River Books here:   (406) 333-2330        120 N. Main St. (PO Box 2212) Livingston, MT 59047

Excerpts from an article I wrote for Yellowstone Association Quarterly:

Ky and Lisa Koitzsch, independent biologists, have seen some crusty social behavior in one of nature’s most solitary ungulates. “We’ve nicknamed all the bull moose in Round Prairie by their antlers,” Lisa says. “Peace Sign, 5X5, Little Crown… They’re loners. They stand and feed together, but there’s always a little conflict. They don’t like to be in each other’s space. They butt heads. They tolerate each other because that’s where the food is.”

The Koitzsches are getting to know Yellowstone National Park’s moose inside and out: collecting moose pellets (droppings) for DNA analysis and identifying the physical traits of individual moose on Yellowstone’s northern range. The Koitzsches are conducting a three-year study to get baseline numbers of moose on the range…

Why Study Moose in Yellowstone?

The largest member of the deer family, the moose is a boreal animal that evolved in the coldest climate, the taiga, the northern ring of forest and tundra that circles the Earth. When snows cover the willows they love to eat, typically moose ascend to mature forests of Engelmann spruce, lodgepole pine, and subalpine fir. A moose parks itself in one spot, often alone (cows keep their calves with them). Sheltered from snow by tall spruce, the animal doesn’t move much, subsisting on nearby stands of young subalpine firs and shrubs.

Alces alces shirasi, or Shiras moose, found in Yellowstone, is the smallest subspecies in North America. Shiras moose populate the western U.S. and Canada. In Yellowstone they are at the southernmost edge of moose range, and they’re hurting…

Though data exist on Shiras moose numbers outside the Park, the Koitizsches are the first to attempt a full population count within Yellowstone, on the northern range…For two months each winter, Ky and Lisa ski deep into drainages in the northern range, collecting pellets…

Moose in a Warmer World

“If our climate hadn’t changed so rapidly, moose wouldn’t be in trouble now,” says Ky. Moose are so cold-adapted that they get heat stressed in winter and in summer. Heat stress throughout the year costs the animals lots of calories. Ky says, “When they seek cooler areas, they’re not feeding…”

Moose and Predators

Predators can affect moose…Some argue that wolf reintroduction is the primary reason moose populations have plummeted in the area. But between 1995, when wolves were reintroduced, and 2014, Yellowstone Wolf Project data shows wolves killed only 25 moose…

As the smallest mega-predator in relation to their prey, wolves have limitations on which animals they can kill. Doug Smith of Yellowstone Wolf Project makes a distinction between elk and moose. “It’s important to stress that any healthy ungulate usually wins against a wolf. Wolves, when they’re faced with healthy elk, have a really hard time killing them. But when it comes to moose and bison…wolves can’t kill a healthy animal, underline healthy. Moose are one of the more formidable prey for wolves.”  Still, Smith and the Koitzsches don’t doubt that predators may press an already shrinking moose population…

Join Yellowstone Association and read the full article! http://www.yellowstoneassociation.org

“Yellowstone’s Forgotten Ungulate.” appears in the summer issue of Yellowstone Quarterly, which is available for Yellowstone Association members only.

The nonprofit Yellowstone Association, in partnership with the National Park Service, connects people to Yellowstone National Park and our natural world through education. Y.A. operations include 12 educational park stores, a membership program with more than 35,000 members world-wide, and the Yellowstone Association Institute offers more than 600 in-depth courses each year. From our exhibits at the Upper Geyser Basin at Old Faithful, to the funding we provide to the Yellowstone Research Library and Yellowstone Science, we introduce the park to new visitors and help our established friends find even more ways to enjoy Yellowstone.


Peter Murray. Lone Yellowstone wolf, the '06 Female, takes on cow elk.In 2008, I watched three wolves kill a bull elk in Yellowstone National Park. It was the first time I’d looked up close at predation. I was a half-mile away, looking through a spotting scope.

The three wolves were led by 527F, a sturdy, black female wolf, who had been radio-collared and numbered by the Yellowstone Wolf Project personnel. Joining her were two un-collared wolves informally called “The Dark Female” and the “Gray Male.” He was so young, however, as to be mostly useless in this hunt:

Field Notes February 7, 2008

The wolves were chasing an elk…I saw two wolves attached to the back legs and another grabbing the throat…527F kept closing on the bull’s throat. The bull would stand, lift her off her feet, and he’d shake her off. This occurred at least three times.

Once when he fell, the wolves let go and just sat on the snow beside the bull as if needing to catch their breaths. The two wolves and the bull elk panted together, like athletic teammates during a break. The Gray Male stood in the rear, taking in the scenery. After a bit, the bull stood and the wolves resumed trying to kill him.

Wolves in Washington

This spring, 6 miles into the back country, hikers spotted wolf tracks along the shores of Lake Ross. Further investigation by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) confirmed that, for the first time since the 1930s, a wolf pack is in residence on the west side of the North Cascades. The Hozameen pack “spends most of its time in B.C. and overlaps into the Hozameen area when snow melts,” says Donny Martorello, carnivore section manager at WDFW.

While wolves first appeared in Washington in 2005, there was no documented resident pack until 2008. Then a wolf from the Idaho/B.C. border hooked up with a disperser from coastal B.C. and created the Lookout pack, which still thrives in the Methow valley. As of December 2013, there were at least 52 wolves in Washington. Martorello said it’s still early days in the march towards Washington state’s recovery objective: 15 successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years, equally distributed among three recovery areas: Eastern Washington, the Northern Cascades, and the Southern Cascades and Northwest Coast. “In the past six years, we’ve seen about a 39% annual increase of wolves; the exact same sort of growth Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming saw in their early years of recovery,” Martello said.

Wolves were reintroduced to the Rocky Mountain states in 1995. If wolf populations are healthy and there’s enough food, young adult wolves disperse and form new packs. A pack like the Hozameen is the sign: wolves are moving into your neck of the woods.

How likely are wolves to spread into Whatcom County? “We certainly expect it.” says Martorello. “There are enough prey—deer—at lower elevations.”

Lessons from Montana

What can Washingtonians anticipate about living with wolves?

As a Montanan who lives on the edge of Yellowstone Park’s northern range, a hotspot for wolves, I’ve had a crash course in wolf biology and the debates over wolf management.

Certain facts prove reassuring. Wolves are almost never a danger to people. In the history of North America there have been a few documented human deaths, in Canada and Alaska, attributed to wolves. Some wolf experts contend that one of those was caused by bears. If you encounter wolves in the back country, take a good look before they vanish like smoke. If they’re curious and linger, yell and they’ll clear out.

Similarly, wolves’ killing of livestock, called depredation, has always been low in the Rocky Mountain states. In 2013, in Montana 78 cows, sheep and other stock were killed by wolves, total. Domestic dogs kill more livestock than wolves do.

The Nature of the Beast: Coursing Hunters

Yet, there’s no question wolves are predators. What will wolves do to Washington’s ungulate populations—moose, deer, and elk?

Wolves are a paradoxical mix of tough-as-nails and skittish-about-life-and-limb. That February day, 527F finally finished off the bull elk, gripping his throat as he battered her from side to side. Once the kill was done, she rested for 40 minutes before eating. Until then, I’d never thought about how exhausting and difficult it is for wolves to kill. I’d assumed that predators found killing easy. Instead, I learned that living as predators places wolves at the edge of their strength, precisely because they prey on animals much larger than themselves.

Wolves are coursing, or cursorial, hunters. Coursers are running hunters. Wolves are like marathoners, chasing, wounding, and tiring their prey before risking the final killing bites.

Wolves are limited by Peter Murr. Murray. Bull elk chases wolf. Wolves succeed in killing only 15% of the time.their evolutionary choices as the smallest of the mega-carnivores in relation to their prey. Coyotes split off from wolves to hunt much smaller prey—primarily rodents. Wolves, instead, routinely take down animals 10 times their size. So, wolves must choose weakened animals, attack from behind, and retreat when faced down. Cougars, in contrast, ambush prey and cannot sustain long runs. CougPeter Murray. Wolves routinely lose their kills to bears.ars succeed in killing prey about 85% of the time, while wolves kill their quarry only about 15% of the time.

Wolves, though an apex predator, are vulnerable to being stomped or killed by prey, losing their kills to marauding bears and scavengers, and to starvation.

Lessons from the Yellowstone Wolf Project

How many wolves are too many? Won’t they keep growing till they eat through their prey?

Answers come to us from Yellowstone’s Wolf Project, a nearly 20 year scientific study uniquely able to test what makes wolf populations grow. Yellowstone is one of the few places in the world where wolves are both protected from human interference and intensively studied. These factors made the wolf studies in Yellowstone all the more valuable because they more accurately reflect the behavior of wild wolf populations. The data from Yellowstone show us how wolves and ungulates balance out.

“The dogma on wolves is that the number of wolves in an area is determined by food,” says Doug Smith, head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project. It’s called the biomass theory. Biologists have long known that wolves self-regulate when food is scarce. If their prey is culled by a particularly heavy winter, for instance, wolves cannot find enough weakened animals to kill. The next spring the elk herds are smaller, but the individuals are strong. After several such winters in Yellowstone, wolf numbers plummeted. Unlike ungulates, wolves and other predators don’t eat through their food supply. When elk numbers drop, wolves start starving. They don’t ovulate, or give birth, or get enough nourishment to their young, and they are vulnerable to diseases like mange.

Now, Yellowstone data is adding to the biomass theory. Collaborating Yellowstone, British, and Utah biologists have learned that wolves still self-regulate when there is more than enough food, but not enough space to disperse. According to a paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology, Cubaynes, McNulty, Stahler, Quimby, Smith, and Coulson have shown “In Yellowstone the density of wolves begins reducing the wolf population—because they kill each other,” said Smith.

In lean times, wolves self-regulate by forgoing reproduction, while in fat times, wolves kill other wolves in territorial disputes if they are overcrowded. It’s not surprising then that, so far, science does not show that higher wolf populations are the main cause for declines in deer and elk populations.

Wolves in Your Backyard?

Scott Fitkin, a WDFW biologist, says we can live with wolves: “The take-home message for residents of Washington, many of whom have lived for most of their lives with cougars and bears on the landscape, is that wolves are just another large carnivore. There’s a lot of hype and emotion that tends to circulate around wolves. The issues get blown out of proportion. We have the ability to manage conflict and to live alongside these animals.”

by Ilona Popper. Photos by Peter Murray.

This article first appeared in The Mt. Baker Experience, fall issue 2014. http://www.mountbakerexperience.com


Excerpts from a blog post at “Chattermarks, ” North Cascades Institute Writer in Residence, Summer 2014

I was lucky enough to enjoy a brief writer-in-residency at the North Cascades Institute in May 2014…

One of my best experiences in my time at North Cascades Institute was during a hike on the East Bank trail in the North Cascades National Park…I had two unusual encounters with deer on this walk. The first followed my lovely lunch on the trail. Here’s my journal, from field notes:

May 20, 2014

…The trail I’m traveling (is bordered by) a steep, tangled ravine on the left and …a high wooded hill on the right. I come around a corner and find one large doe standing in the middle of the trail. She’s looking at me with some alarm. After a second or two of our staring at each other, she runs up the hill and freezes. Now, I see that several deer are also peering at me through some foliage. Very slowly I step a little to the left and see that there is a small female yearling and two other does. They remain frozen. Then the lead doe rejoins her group.

I inch further left to a small earth promontory, a little pull-out off the trail. It’s perched above the ravine. As I step aside I say in a very calm voice, “Do what you need to do.” (I mean, “Go past me if you need to,” but I form the words in order to focus my own intentions.)

I get very still and I avert my eyes. Almost immediately, the doe closest to me, I’ll call it the second doe, takes a step, waits and then walks briskly by me. As she gets closest to me on the trail, I feel how large and near she is. I think, “Do what you need to do, but please don’t hurt me!” Have I placed myself in more danger than I realized? The lead or first doe follows that second one, but when she gets nearest to me, she angles up the hill away from me and then climbs down to the trail.

Now the youngest, a small yearling, stops and watches me. The last doe behind her peers at me too. I remain still, eyes averted, and repeat, “Do what you need to do.” The yearling steps, stops, starts a little, walks, stops, and then trots past me. She sticks to the trail which brings her close.

Finally, the last and most skittish doe stands for a while. She’s one of the largest of the group. I want to look in her face, but make myself keep my eyes averted. As she hesitates, I feel, rather than see, the yearling returning behind me, very close. Is she sniffing me? I can’t look because I know they will scatter if I turn my head.

At first, I believe the yearling is actually curious about me or even trying to communicate something to me. Suddenly, it seems the yearling is made bold for another reason. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that she focuses her gaze on the nervous doe, as if to say, “Are you coming? We can’t leave you behind,” or possibly, “See, it’s safe to risk it.” But, I really don’t know why the little deer came back. I don’t know if this doe was her mother.

I look into the eyes of that last doe—I’m between her and the others—and I think again, “Do what you need to do.” She runs up the hill around me and down to the others. I am flooded with happiness that none of them bolted and that they seem to be traveling the route they’d chosen.

I step on the trail and look back at them. The deer have already covered some ground. The three in the lead are all trotting, ears back. But that last large doe stands studying me. Her expression has some vigilance in it, but, it seems to me, also a smidgen of curiosity. She’s watches me for some time. I turn away first.

To read the full blog go to:


A Moose Story


A couple of weeks ago, as I drove a friend into Yellowstone, I saw a cow moose jogging alongside our car. She trotted slowly in an arc in the snow, traveling in the opposite direction from us. I glimpsed the heads of cow elk behind her, looking alert, even alarmed, as the moose careened by. The elk remained immobile, focusing on the moose, and possibly on what or who was chasing her.

Years ago a grad student, Stewart, studied elk in Yellowstone. He showed that elk are nervous eaters, popping their heads up and down as they browse, scanning for predators. If they spot wolves, elk bunch together, all looking in the same direction. Then they run. Yet, as soon as wolves take down one of their number, the surviving elk make the most of the opportunity and eat without looking up. They’ve learned that chances are good they have nothing to worry about, for a little while anyway. (Elk also may turn and face down or even strike out at wolves. Elk that face wolves often survive, in part because wolves are coursing hunters. Wolves seem to prefer prey to run away from them, possibly to offset the size advantage that prey have. A sign of this advantage is that wolves kill only 15 % of the elk they attempt to kill.)

Of course, I have seen cow elk distraught and pacing after wolves have killed their calves. The cow will watch, circle, and hang around for a while, but stand back from the carcass as wolves eat.  Eventually, she’ll give up and return to her herd.

This came to mind when I saw the cow moose: didn’t this one have a calf with her? The last time I’d seen this cow, she stood with her calf, eating willows by the creek, a few yards east of here. Both animals looked up at me warily and steadily, as I drove slowly above them on the road. Cow moose have a reputation for being very aggressive about anyone near their young, so I kept a distance when I pulled my car over and stepped out to get a better look.

Snow had piled into miles of hills and mountains, the whiteness only relieved where snow had drifted off the tops of sagebrush and where willow bushes ran along the creeks. The two moose nearly disappeared against the dark maroon willow stands, their forms picked out by patches of sunny snow behind the bushy branches. The calf was nearly 2/3 the size of its mother and both animals stood vibrant, with glossy coats, their breaths steaming.

Now, the cow moose was alone, running through the plateau. I looked for wolves, but couldn’t see anything following her. I was driving slowly and the ridge rose and fell, chopping up my view.

The moose trotted then suddenly broke into a gallop. Her legs seemed to move independently beneath her massive torso, a blocky dark rectangle of muscle. She had none of the springy, rocking quality you see in fleeing elk. Her body remained level to the ground as her knees pranced high and fast.  Power, I thought.

As I slowed the car to watch, I noticed a coyote standing on the opposite side of the road. It stared, not at the fleeing moose, but away to the south. Was the coyote watching wolves tear up the carcass of this cow’s calf? Coyotes keep tabs on wolves, for their own safety and in hopes of stealing from the wolves’ kills later.


I began a story of how it went: probably the cow moose had just run across the road, away from the wolves that had been eating her young. She had lingered and was finally giving up and leaving, but she was still agitated and that’s why she was trotting off like that. But why had she sped up to a gallop?

In this ecosystem, though I had seen many wolves hunting other animals and had seen moose, I had never seen wolves actually hunt moose, so I wasn’t familiar with cow moose behavior with wolves. I know that at times, cow moose, like cow elk, chase and attack wolves. I have seen the fierceness of a cow moose protecting her young. Several years ago, I saw a cow moose charge a massive bull bison that she seemed to think was too close to her calf. The bull bison chased the cow into a lake, where she swam frantically along the shoreline, as the bison knocked down and butted the young calf. At first, the calf looked dead. But gradually it lifted its head. That evening, the cow lay next to the calf, but it couldn’t nurse without standing. The cow moose waited with the calf for days till, to my surprise, it recovered enough to walk off with her.

I turned the car around and we drove back the way we’d come and immediately my friend Cessie spotted the moose. The cow had crossed the creek and was heading back the way she’d come, only on the other side of a deep draw. Another wildlife watcher pulled up behind us and mentioned he had just seen the elk herd bunch up and then run into that same draw, which was a deep ravine. So the wolf was still out there. And the moose had gone from trotting to galloping. Perhaps the wolves had not killed the calf, but were pursuing the cow.

It’s amazing how the human brain scrambles around for meaning, for a story. This tendency intensifies when I’m in the field, even though I try to fight against closing off the narrative too soon, or imposing too many assumptions. Yet shaping an experience into a narrative seems to be human nature. I’ve seen it with my students in writing seminars, and I see it in people I encounter out here: wildlife watchers, naturalists, citizen scientists, wildlife photographers, or tourists.

Perhaps this tendency to look for the story is a survival adaptation in humans. Getting the tale straight might be part of reading other animals’ behavior right; it might help us at other times stay safe, scavenge, or hunt. Tale-telling is also a lot of fun. If a trait is adaptive it starts to feel good.  Perhaps we want to believe that stories do contain meaning and realizations, because something that feels so good and right simply must connect us to larger truths. If nothing else, shaping the story reignites my curiosity and honesty, which continually test and reopen my narrative. I may learn the most where the perfect tale falls apart.

There are times when story-telling seems to trigger the same pleasure-causing neurotransmitters that encountering a wild animal does. If I’m constructing the story as I watch wildlife, like a detective in the field, the pleasure becomes closely mixed with the thrill, the slight danger, of seeing a wild animal close by who is behaving according to the logic of her mysterious survival and experience. As an animal myself, I intuit her experience, yet as different species, she and I cannot confirm that we understand things the same way. Still, I feel as if I have hold of a thread that can lead me to some crucial understanding about existence.


Later in the day, Cessie and I snow shoed around the plateau area where we’d seen the animals. Within minutes, we picked up large moose tracks, near where I’d first imagined the cow had left her dead calf to the wolves. Soon we found a second track of a smaller moose: her calf. But there were no birds, no blood spots, and no signs of a carcass. Perhaps the carcass was far from here. We also found the coyote track, but no wolf tracks at all. No answers there.

The north side of the road had more surprises in store for us: the calf and her mother moose had traveled to the north side together. The tracks were fresher there, so the calf had not been left dead on the south side of the road. When I first saw the cow moose trotting, her calf was somewhere nearby, it seemed.

We followed the tracks towards the draw. Yet, before we got to the ravine, we saw the cow moose track split off and run in a different direction, to the area where we had first seen her this morning. We found a single wolf track following her! When we turned back to get to the lip of the ravine, where the elk ran down a hill of breakneck steepness, we found one smaller calf moose track plunge down, but no wolf track. We also could see the calf track climb the far hill out of the draw. Yet, after the two moose split, the wolf never followed the calf.  Why not?

Did the cow moose trot slowly in order to lure the wolf to her and switch into a gallop when the wolf neared? Perhaps the cow was trying to decoy the wolf away from her calf.   I wondered if the wolf was young, 1-2 years old. A more experienced wolf might have known not to follow the slow-seeming cow, but to stick with the calf. When we last saw the cow moose on the opposite side of the ravine, circling back east, was she trotting to reunite with her calf?  I have seen very little moose behavior, so I don’t really know.  Yet, I think this story is the one that most closely matches what I know of ungulate-wolf behaviors.


Five days later, I saw what looked like the same cow moose and her calf feeding again in the willows. The moose tilted their heads high up into the branches, reaching for willow tips. They looked breathtakingly healthy, but were shy of the ring of people gathered on the road, watching them. Gradually they moved off: cow first, calf following.

Copyright Ilona Popper February 2014

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