By Colton Jones, WIB Sourcing Manager
It’s amazing what you can discover when you turn off the machines.
Typically, long distance travel throughout the ranch is done via all terrain vehicle (ATV). Anytime we’re checking on the herd, fixing fence, monitoring pastures for grazing rotation or giving tours, it’s done sitting atop “the iron horse.”
Obviously there are many benefits to doing things this way, one being the ability to get from one end of the roughly eight-mile-long ranch to the other before sundown. The ATV’s impact on the pasture is minimal if handled properly compared to a pickup truck per se.
ATV’s are nifty ranch tools that make work easier and more efficient, but are not ideal for viewing wildlife in its natural state. The low lull of the ATV’s engine may be just what the doctor ordered to convince a sleepy three-year-old boy to give up the fight against a much-needed nap, but it’s a peculiar and unnatural sound to the local fauna.
During a calm day in the middle of the prairie, an ATV can be heard by the human ear from miles away. Most of the wildlife on the Great Plains hear much better than humans, having evolved sensitive sensory mechanisms to notify them of subtle changes in their surroundings that could indicate danger.
One Sunday, our family decided to drive the ATV close to a nearby draw that was cut by years of rainwater runoff from a big flat on the west side of the ranch. The draw runs for a couple miles north across the ranch before it dumps into Lower Spring Creek. The draw is abundant in ash and cottonwood trees, and provides sub-irrigation for lush stands of Western wheatgrass that stand as tall as our young son Lincoln’s shoulders.
I scouted the draw a while back on horseback. I pegged it as a wildlife corridor to Lower Spring Creek and wanted to know what types of fauna were coming and going. We decided that a strategically placed trail cam (a weatherproof, stationary camera that takes photos automatically when a passing animal triggers a motion detector) might catch a glimpse of some locals. So, we set out on an adventure to find the perfect spot for the camera while taking in the environment along the way.
The first thing we saw as we crept into the tree-covered cut was a group of whitetail deer (including this year’s crop of fawns) grazing in the shade of a clump of ash trees. We crouched down and watched as they nervously trotted further down the draw until out of sight.
Jilian spotted a desert cottontail rabbit munching on fresh Western wheatgrass shoots. He directed his attention to us after a bit by facing the open end of his large ears in our direction. He was so close we could see the small veins that snaked around his heat-regulating ears.
As we continued to venture deeper into the draw, we noticed a game trail that crossed a barbed wire fence in the bottom of the waterway. Knowing that the fence would be an obstacle for animals moving through, we saw it as a place wildlife might stop and mill around while they negotiated the decision to cross. We decided to set the camera up here.
The vegetation thrived in the bottom of the waterway. Winterberry, prairie sand reed and an array of other plant life stood tall and thick. As I was fiddling with the trail cam in my attempt to fasten it to a fence post, Jill, Jilian and Lincoln decided to do some more exploring further down in the waterway.
A quiet shriek followed by a laugh caught enough of my attention to investigate once the trail cam had been set. I found Lincoln, Jill, and Jilian huddled in a circle staring into a thick stand of vegetation. A Plains garter snake was in the middle of the vegetation scanning for an insect for lunch. He stopped and began tasting the air with his forked tongue, sensing a change in his surroundings. We took a moment to admire his colors and then left him undisturbed.
As we began our trek out of the draw, we decided to walk along the waterway in search of more signs of the wildlife that use the corridor as a discrete way to pass through otherwise wide-open prairie. Lincoln was thrilled to find where a bull snake had molted its skin just before entering a den along the waterway.
When we got back to the ATV we took a moment to relish our experience. We talked about the things we saw only because we parked the machine. We vowed to do a similar activity once a week to build our appreciation for nature and the experiences that would otherwise escape us atop the iron horse.
So far, we’ve upheld our vow and are starting a “Trail Cam Sunday” blog dedicated to closer looks into the private moments of the Cheyenne River Ranch wildlife, via trail cam pictures and videos. Our hope is to provide our online community with experiences similar to those we enjoyed on our recent adventure.
Stand by for the first “Trail Cam Sunday”!