Follow the fish

Follow the fish

News Type: State, Regional Source: High Country News
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On a moody September afternoon, Patrick Cross stood on top of a rock and inspected the banks of a creek that flowed steadily out of Beauty Lake, an alpine lake in the Beartooth Plateau, a vast stretch of high plateau on the border of Wyoming and Montana.

Cross, an ecologist at the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, was looking for river otters. Nearly six years ago, he found some otter scat near here, a sign that the animals use to mark their territory. Otter scat is black and streaky, and it should be easy to see against the pale gray granite rocks. And otters typically prefer large flat surfaces onto which they can haul their entire bodies when they do their business.

“If I were an otter, I’d be pooping all over that thing,” Cross told me, pointing to a big flat rock a few steps away. He stepped confidently on the stony nubbins of granite that ringed the lake, never tripping, to reach the rock of his interest. His dog, Pika, an 11-year-old Montana cowdog, followed loyally. Cross knelt to get a closer look; sometimes, scat disaggregates and turns into a pile of translucent fish scales. But much to his disappointment, the rock was bare.

Otters were once unheard of in the Beartooths. In fact, there’s no evidence they’re native to this high alpine environment at all; their arrival appears to be part of the sweeping changes humans have brought to the plateau. In the 1960s, zoologists Donald Pattie and Nicolaas Verbeek spent years surveying the various mammals found in the Beartooths. They found creatures as small as dwarf shrews and as large as grizzly bears and mountain goats, but no otters. Continued but sporadic surveys done by field technicians and researchers at the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in the 1990s yielded no sign of river otters, either. But for the last decade or so, there have been a few anecdotal reports from Cross, his colleagues, and some of the locals who frequent the plateau.