I live in Wyoming. Anyone who has visited the state knows it has a lot of open space. What many people don’t realize is that the area in which I live – the northwest part of Wyoming – is almost always drier and more temperate than that to the south. So when I finished several days of meetings in Casper a couple years ago, I was anxious to make the 5-hour drive home to my own bed despite the dire warnings of an incoming snow storm. I knew that if I could make it the hundred miles across the sagebrush plains and then north through Wind River Canyon, I would probably leave the worst of the winter weather behind me. Before leaving the city, I consciously packed my camera gear in the back of the car, not wanting the temptation to stop along the way.
I was about 40 miles west of Casper when the blowing snow began to arrive in force, timed to the arrival of dusk. I hadn’t seen another vehicle since leaving the city limit, but I slowed anyway, knowing that going off the road in such conditions would carry serious consequences. Just as I settled into my reduced speed, I saw a large animal cross the highway in front of me at the limit of my vision. It looked like a coyote and I was feeling relieved it had made it to the side of the road when it did something unexpected – it sat down on the shoulder and looked back the way it had come. I immediately slowed further, suspecting it was traveling with another coyote. Instead what I saw, crossing behind the patient canine, was a large brown animal with very short legs and a large, fluffy tail. I couldn’t see the creature’s face but it clearly was not a coyote and my first thought was “raccoon!” I didn’t dare pull off the highway at that point and so as I passed the pair I watched as the smaller animal pulled up next to the coyote who put his head down, appearing to touch noses with his companion, before they both headed off into the sage in the midst of blowing snow.
I was totally awestruck. The 30 second experience stayed with me for the rest of the drive home and for many days after. It felt as though I had experienced something truly magical and I was having a hard time processing it. But when I told my worried husband what I had seen, his uncharacteristic skepticism was a pretty good forewarning of the reaction I would get from others and so it didn’t take long until I decided to keep the story to myself.
Early May 2015
I was leading a sold out, one-day photo workshop in Yellowstone. One of the participants was an amateur photographer/biologist from Casper. As we sat down for a picnic lunch I couldn’t resist asking if he had ever seen coyotes and raccoons hanging out together on the plains. To my surprise, instead of immediately breaking into laughter, he appeared to consider the question and then asked if my “raccoon” could possibly have been a badger. He explained that there is significant data that shows coyotes and badgers hunt together quite regularly. Thinking back on that night I realized the second animal could very well have been a badger. The only reason my mind went immediately to raccoon was because I have seen so many more of them in my life. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my husband of my newfound knowledge – a thought that immediately left my head as the workshop continued throughout the day.
Late May 2015
My husband and I decided to take a four-day mini photo vacation into Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks before the inevitable onslaught of summer tourists. After three days of hiking an average of ten miles a day with heavy backpacks loaded down with photo gear, we decided to do a slightly shorter hike across Blacktail Plateau on our way home and to lighten the load by taking a minimum amount of equipment. I limited myself to my Canon 5D III equipped with a 100mm – 400mm lens, leaving the 600mm and my heavy tripod in the vehicle. After turning at the halfway point and heading back to the car I suddenly remembered what the biologist had said and was recounting the information to my husband when he looked up and spotted a coyote on the ridge across from our position. As I focused on the animal I realized he was not alone in my field of view. Incredibly, the dog was traveling with a badger companion! For the next fifteen minutes we watched in total amazement as the two worked the hillside, never straying far from each other. Both animals seemed aware of our presence but comfortable with the distance between us. I was wishing desperately that I had taken the longer lens but feeling, once again, blessed to be witnessing this marvel of inter-species cooperation!
I have since done a little more research on this subject. When I tell people of the experience they almost always comment on how the coyote must be taking advantage of the slower badger but neither the research nor my admittedly limited observation seem to support that theory. In both cases that I observed, the coyote would patiently wait for the badger who very clearly was striving to catch up to his companion. I think if it was a one-sided deal, the badger would try to elude the coyote rather than make an effort to join him. Whether the animals stay together for any amount of time or whether it is simply a short interaction in an effort to hunt their common prey more efficiently, I don’t know. I do know that I have now had one more opportunity to witness a little magic in the natural world and I am so thankful that this time I was able to capture it with the camera!
Kathy Lichtendahl is the owner of Light in the Valley, LLC, based in Clark, Wyoming. Her work can be found at Open Range Images Gallery in Cody and on the web at www.kathylichtendahl.com. In addition to selling prints, Kathy leads photography workshops in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.