The late-winter sun has finally asserted itself enough to radiate warmth. The ground and fields at Greenfire Preserve are still covered with snow, but with 40-degree temperatures, the blanket of white is melting. Certainly, Greenfire will shiver from more hard cold this year. It's too early for winter to relinquish its grip, but the first return of the warm sun is a welcome occasion.
The animals feel it as well. As I write, 80 elk in the east pasture of Greenfire are kicking up their heels and chasing each other. A group of seven runs circles around the entire herd. Then another group of five threads itself through the herd, hard on the tail of the leader.
Yet another group of eight gallops after each other on their way to a far comer of the field. Have they gone mad? Not a chance. After watching their lethargic feeding for two months at subzero temperatures, it's clear that they have simply gone warm.
Since my last report, a lot more than the return of the sun has happened at Greenfire. Most important perhaps is the official receipt of our Department of Environmental Quality/Environmental Protection Agency 319 grant. The award has triggered a whirlwind of activity aimed at implementing restoration projects.
We should have known that moving ahead wouldn't be easy. As soon as word of our grant reached the local ranching community, the Experimental Stewardship Committee (ESP) sent a scathing letter to the director of the DEQ. The committee demanded an explanation for the award.
We were assured all along that the proposal was well-written and well within all grant guidelines. On the other hand, as Westem Watersheds Project executive director Jon Marvel has often said, Idaho can be a political "Alice in Wonderland," where things are not always as they appear to be. The ESP protested the award for various reasons; in truth, the group's resistance is essentially political.
When political agendas come into play, many things can happen. Therefore, we have held off on starting any projects until we're certain of the outcome of the ESP letter.
Wild critters should have a say in this matter. Neighbors tell me they have never seen so many wild animals use the Greenfire property. Some 100 elk, 30 deer and four feral horses are taking advantage of last summer's irrigation effort. And since livestock were removed from the property when we assumed ownership of Greenfire, it's no surprise that wildlife has returned in abundance.
Initially, I tried to run the horses off the property. But they kept returning, and the more we interacted the more I became attached to them. One in particular pranced in circles and threw its head around, mane and tail flying. Then it stopped briefly to look right through me with a gaze so endearing that I finally decided four horses that get along just fine with elk couldn't possibly bring harm to the preserve.
I still see members of the otter family cruising in the East Fork. But the wildlife highlight so far this winter was a thrilling 20-minute observation of a bobcat just outside my office window.
I was watching six deer in the yard when I first spotted the cat making its way across the field. I thought it would continue on and cross the road; instead, it sat down in the field for five minutes, observing the world and flipping its tail. Then the cat turned and came back to the rail fence, following it toward the house.
Weaving in and out of the fence, from one side to the other, the cat slipped along toward the house. Then it jumped up and walked the bottom fence rails until the deer in the yard sensed its presence.
Imagine my shock when, suddenly, all the deer ran straight toward the cat, who quickly sprang to the top fence rail. One doe tiptoed, stiff-legged, right up to the predator. Nose to nose, deer and bobcat held an intense stare, the cat's stubby tail flipping slowly as if it were an unattached night crawler trying to avoid a fish hook.
Eventually, the cat grew bored with this close encounter. It jumped down from the fence and crept toward the river in the brush, probably looking for a cottontail. I saw him again as he walked just below one of the bedroom windows near the edge of the river. Four mallards paddled to the center of the river as he passed, and then he was gone:
A few days later, in a fresh dusting of snow, bobcat tracks in the yard revealed a return visit. I hope the cat plans to hang around for a while. How he warms these final days of winter.