By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
Under a full and bright Hunter’s Moon, creatures that would normally be prowling in darkness are revealed as shadows moving across the moonlit, frost-covered landscape. I knew the livestock guardian dogs were gone because it was far too quiet, and I’d dreaded what the morning might reveal. There’s been something worrying the dogs, too much activity these last few nights, drawing the dogs away, and the tension was building toward a crescendo.
I turned on the porch light just before dawn, revealing Panda, wounded and wet up over his hips. He’d been in the river, with fresh blood rising up through his thick hair on his rump to stain his white coat. I wonder how much had washed away before he made it to the ranch yard.
I found Boone around the back of the house, curled up and exhausted. Face, neck and front leg bloodied, but I can tell much of it is not his blood. The new gashes to Boone’s huge head tell the story of this week of battles. One new wound is already scarring, the crease of a six-inch swipe jutting over his eyebrow and outlining the top of his face.
Vin sticks close to Boone, resting just a foot away. He’s unharmed, as I would expect. He’s not near as brave as the wounded dogs. He’s a backup fighter, one who follows the lead dogs into conflict.
Harriet’s outside the gate, flat on her side. I know she’s tired, so I leave her alone, but keep an eye on her as she remains in one place most of the day.
A little after sunrise I spotted Awbi, leading the sheep flock out to graze for the day. We drove around the ranch looking for the gatherings of ravens, magpies and eagles that reveal the carcasses of dead animals in the brush but found nothing. We passed by Awbi and her flock and could see that all were unharmed and relaxed.
When Harriet finally rises in the late afternoon for food and water, she’s tottering. She labors forward a few steps, keeping a hind leg from touching the ground, before she collapses back onto the sand. As I feed her painkillers wrapped in raw meat, I can see her wounded leg is shivering. I’d like to move her into the house, examine her, get her to a veterinarian, but she’s not ready for any of that. I’ve been wounded before too, and I understand her demand to be left alone for a while before accepting help. It takes time to adjust to that kind of pain.
Darkness begins to fall again as I write, and the dogs are already lighting up, once again preparing for combat. Boone, Awbi and Vin station themselves around the sheep as the flock settles down for the night, barking at every sound carried in the wind. The flock has moved in close to the ranch yard, demonstrating the herd knowledge of the predators nearby. The danger is near. They all know, and although they can’t tell me the particulars, the dogs and the sheep are communicating to me in unmistakable ways. It’s on me to understand their messages.
Panda’s deep voice joins in the chorus of barks booming into the darkness, but he remains close to unmoving Harriet. He’ll stay with his wounded soulmate for now. If he’s needed to join the battle, the other dogs will call out to him in a particular tone of their secret dog language.
Awbi, steady and strong, begins to howl. By now the wind is blowing too hard for me to hear what creature, if any, responds to her song. That it’s a song I have no doubt. But it’s not a ballad of love or longing, it’s an anthem of defined territories, of defense, of war. Vin listens, then throws out sharp, nervous barks as he paces.
Boone remains calm. He’s the most powerful dog of the group, a larger masculine beast exceeding even Awbi’s physical prowess. When he rises to bark, Boone’s vocalization reverberates, as an order voiced by the pack’s undeniable leader.
With that, darkness and wind claim the night, shrouding what happens next from my view and keeping the sounds from reaching me. But my senses know that the story doesn’t end at nightfall – it just begins.
Much has changed in a few weeks, but much remains the same. Winter began its arrival last week, with snow settling over the landscape. It’s snowing steadily up high, the moisture prompting a stream of mule deer to pour forth from the mountains.
Some members of this migratory herd continue their journey into the lower country, but many use the quiet and rich rangeland of Sheep Creek as a stopover. This is a transition zone where sagebrush and aspen meets mountain mahogany and pine, rich in foraging opportunities and deceptively quiet. Its deception is that while subject to little human disturbance, its predator presence is as diverse as its native vegetation.
Deer that relax as they rest on their journey may never proceed further, an insight reinforced as we find an injured deer fawn unable to rise, our presence interrupting the attack by a predator remains hidden until we depart. These lands heap both beauty and brutality.
As the night temperatures become colder, the sheep flock has become accustomed to being pushed toward a bedding ground near the house every late afternoon, enough that the flock begins arriving on the bedground without prompting.
The livestock guardian dogs sleep throughout the day, scattered here and there around or amid the grazing flock, or tucked into a haystack. They arise in twilight, stretching, coming together in greeting before turning their gaze toward the landscape as they await nightfall. They watch the pronghorn antelope congregate in large bands on the sagebrush flat, and they see the line of mule deer as the animals traverse the hills above.
Awbi once again begins sounding into the dim light, prompting the other dogs to attention, and Boone trots to her side. From all directions, the other dogs join in.
The wild creatures surely listen to the songs of the dogs, and the wild is plentiful here in the southern Winds. Tracks on the ground and our game cameras reveal a trio of wolves, a pair of coyotes, a mother bobcat and her three juveniles. The cameras captured a pregnant female mountain lion with another adult lion near the start of summer.
Although we’d later discovered their cache of three dead mule deer tucked under a tree, the lions have not returned to the camera to provide an update. They are probably ensconced in the rocky mountainside above with this year’s litter of young, and their tracks proving their treks to drink in the river disappear under new fallen snow.
As full darkness settles over the landscape and the snow moon’s red cast comes into view, I return to the comfort of the house. The dogs, the sheep, and the wild creatures do not share the secrets of the night. Some will safely slumber, others will battle, and I, a mere human in an animal-dominated landscape, will try to read their stories at first light.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.