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Content in the Winds: In the Field with Dustin

Hello, I’m Dustin (known to some as, ‘Dust in the Wind’). I have traveled throughout most of the United States, doing conservation work and/or acquiring an ecological education. Currently, I am in Florida helping to conserve Florida scrub-jays, a bird species that is considered by the federal government to be threatened with extinction. That’s not what I’m going to elaborate on here, though. I have already written extensively about that subject in a mini-series that I call ‘Jays of our Lives.’ What I am going to elaborate on is one of the most memorable moments that I’ve experienced in the field, yet.

In the summer of 2014, I’d just finished my Bachelor’s degree in wildlife science. I knew that I’d be starting work on my Master’s degree in August. That gave me May, June, and July to have an adventure. Luckily, there was a way to both have an adventure and get paid, which was by working for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. So, I eagerly skipped my graduation ceremony and headed west (which would become a trend). Because this was my second field season working for Bird Conservancy, I knew generally what I was getting myself into, namely solitary bird surveys in usually very remote parts of national forests, national parks, and other federal lands. Previously, I’d worked in the Dakotas, though this time I had signed up for the more desolate and wild Wyoming crew, and had been promised by my supervisor that I’d get to do a lot of surveys in the wildest place in Wyoming, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

By the end of May, we had concluded our week of training and I was on my own, wandering throughout the state, usually sleeping in my vehicle many miles from pavement or in a tent at least a few miles from my vehicle. We commenced the surveys before sunrise, so that meant that getting as close to the survey grid the night before was ideal. Thus, on May 28th, I parked my vehicle in a pull-off adjacent to a gravel road in the National Elk Refuge, packed my gear into my backpack, had dinner at the vehicle, and then hiked across the rolling prairie so that I could camp close to the survey grid. When I crested the hills, I could see the beautifully jagged Grand Tetons, and the sun that was quickly descending toward them. I hoped that I could make it to a good camping spot before it got dark. Luckily, because the hike was only a couple miles, I timed it right. Just before it started to get dark, I reached a beautiful, flat spot overlooking a vast valley, with some junipers on the hills, a few small coppices of aspens interspersed, and the awe-inspiring Grand Tetons as a backdrop. I was within a few hundred meters of where I’d begin the survey in the morning, as I’d hoped.

I had read in the description of the survey, written by a field technician in a previous year, that an active wolf den was to the west of the survey grid. Considering that I was on the east side of the grid, I knew that I was at least a couple kilometers away from the den, if it was still there. So, as I often did, I sat and stared. In this case, I watched the sun setting and scanned the sage-blanketed valley for wildlife, not expecting to see anything through my binoculars. And I was right—I didn’t see anything, initially. But, directly to the west, almost past the limit of what I could see without binoculars, I saw a little brown object sitting on a mound of dirt. And then another little brown thing. I adjusted the focusing knob just right and, despite the diminishing light, knew that I was looking at wolf pups, at the entrance of a den!

I was thrilled, considering that I had never seen a wolf before, and that they are very rarely seen. I also saw a couple adults trotting through the sage, and saw the pups go in and out of the den several times. Right when the red sun was descending beneath the mountains, and the clouds that bordered them became a brilliant pink, a most beautiful song began. Slow, and plaintive, the first wolf in the valley began to howl, and then I found myself listening to a whole family communicating and preparing for the night’s hunt, as the evening sky flashed its brief beauty before the brilliant stars emerged.

That night, I heard the wolves howling in every direction around me. Perhaps I should have been a bit concerned about the possibility of wolves ‘knocking at my door,’ but I wasn’t. I did have a hard time sleeping, but it was not because I was scared of the wolves. Rather, it was because I felt exhilarated to be in a wild place, where I had the opportunity to understand and feel connected to life without having to try to navigate the distractions created by human society, which is also a natural product, but often a maddening one that denies what it is. In the morning, a radio-collared wolf ran by, within 50 meters of me, possibly chasing a moose that had also ran by. Not wanting to disturb the wolves anymore, I decided not to do a few of the points of my survey that were closest to the den, and left the wilderness emissaries alone, forever grateful to know that they are there.

Despite the difficulties of trying to be a biologist (which can cause challenging money and relationship situations, for example), memories such as the one just described make the effort worthwhile, for me. It is a supreme comfort for me to know on evenings when I may feel as powerless as a mote of dust in the wind that somewhere wolves are howling (or will be soon), and that I’m doing everything that I can do to help conserve the beautiful wilderness out there and in here (‘here’ being my mind), despite the constant and sobering threat of destruction. And so, I love the wind.

Be sure to check out more about Dustin in the Wind and his adventures & works on the Contributors page!

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