Sunday, October 28, 2012

Backcountry Falls - Not What You Might Think

by Steve Reiss (Dalmdad Landscape Photography - and

A fictional tale about nature's order...

I remember that day vividly and horrifically. It was my saddest day ever in my 25 years as a park ranger.  

I was far into the rugged back country of the park (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park).  At Anza, I had packed and mounted my horse, Anzanita.  We then continued southward about 10 miles on Coyote Canyon Road to the area known as Turkey Track.  Turkey Track is ridiculously unstable (especially after rains), has sharp drop-offs, and ledges narrow and covered by loose slate or mud after storms.  Though the Track is open to true 4WD vehicles; I mean the type with high clearances, low gears, and wheel lock-outs, park guide books unanimously emphasize just how 'bad' this road is.  Practically, the Track is really only accessible by horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, and burro trains.  Between Upper Willows and Middle Willows, where I was when it happened, is closed to all vehicle travel.  This three mile stretch is prime bighorn sheep watering areas.

The sounds of rocks sliding and falling does not take a park ranger with 25 years of experience to identify.  As I looked towards where I heard the rock slide, what I saw broke my heart.  I quickly grabbed my binoculars to double-check. I was right.  Rolling down the rocky and wooded hill was one of the park's bighorn rams.  Also rolling down the hill, following the ram, was a mountain lion.  Through my binoculars, I saw another mountain lion cautiously watching from the ledge as her mate and what I assumed to be their intended meal rolled down the hill.

All this was happening on the other side of Coyote Canyon and it would take me a while to get to a point where I could cross Coyote Creek at a shallow, slow flowing part and then backtrack to the point where the animals fell.  I recorded my coordinates on the GPS and started walking, leading 'Zita by her reins.  The animals on the other side of the canyon would surely be DOA by the time I reached them-  if not dead already.


Back at Majanga Spring, way up on Majanga Flat, we all looked up from drinking.  We heard the noise and the older among us knew what it meant.  I looked around.  Old Biggy and Smitty were not with the herd. They were known to randomly go out and butt heads, though Smitty conceded Old Biggy's dominance within our herd.

I sent out a call and Smitty's long yelp answered, but there was nothing returning from Old Biggy's drawling accent.  We all thought we knew exactly what happened.  Slippage is a risk we face every day as we move further and further uphill to protect ourselves against those predators with the guts to follow us.  We are typically the only ones that can make their way up so high on loose rocks and into protection.  But the higher we go, the greater the risk.  Indeed, when I was younger, I took a short slide down a steep canyon wall.  

It is a risk we all knowingly take because that is how we survive. 


I had finally reached the 'drop zone', for lack of better or more euphemistic term.  I released a couple of shots from my Browning rifle into the air to scare away any circling vultures, hiding coyotes, or surviving mountain lions to clear the area for my safety. 

The mountain lion's body was in much better shape than the ram's, though the mountain lion was just as dead as the ram.  The mountain lion just rolled down the hill, but the ram horns violently whipped the ram's head around, got caught on branches, and bounced the poor ram's head off rocks. What was left of the horns would not be going on display at any nearby museums and the ram's neck was obviously broke.  I guessed the ram died about 1/3 the way down and the mountain lion died on impact with the ground.

I opened a saddle bag and took out a small laser bar-code reader.  Luckily for me, this ram did not lose its collar on the way down.  I scanned the bar-code on the collar and a code showed up on the display.  The code meant little to me out here in the field.  The rangers at Park HQ in Borrego Springs kept track of the animal database.

I walked around trying to find a clear area out from under the tree canopy.  I found a spot and called park HQ on the sat phone.

"Hernandez, Animal Monitoring."

"Pico?  Flack here."

"Flack, you safe, mi hermano?"

"Yes.  I am at the spot."

"You made good time."

"I guess brother..."

"Does he have an ear tag?"

"No. He barely even has an ear.   Just a collar."

"OK.  Let me pull up the database.  Code?"


"An oldie.  Hmm.  'Old Biggy'...17 years old... born in-park...Parented three rams and two ewes.  Last vet check was about 6 months ago by Dr. Floyd."

"He looks pretty bad; the severe horn damage from the fall, some vulture feeding, and a broken neck.  I'm guessing the mountain lions chased him and these two took a nasty, unintended slide down a soft edge."

"OK.  I will prepare his file for closure when you get back.  Don't forget to take blood samples and of course the tracking collar.  Oh might as well take blood from both animals.  I will give you a break and not ask for a fecal sample."

"Muchas gracias on the fecal.  I will mark the coordinates of the site, post a marker, and take some pictures.  No reason to bury or extricate the carcasses.  I will leave them to the vultures; they have already been munching away."

"Remember its the natural order of things."

"I know"

"Be safe, hermano."


I stood there looking at the two carcasses and I gave them what I thought was a proper blessing.

I slowly --carefully-- walked towards the edge of the cliff where my father slipped and fell to his death trying to escape from a mountain lion.  I laid down and looked across the valley.  My nose suddenly picked up the smell of a ewe.  I turned around and it was Santia, the alpha-ewe in our herd.  She walked over to me and hit my snout with hers.  That told me everything I needed to know. 

The New Alpha-male


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