The following relates an encounter between an ermine and a bushy-tailed wood rat witnessed and photographed by my good friends Dave Folts and Don Andrews.
It had been a slow week for the wildlife photographers in northern Yellowstone. Yes, there were the usual winter residents roaming in their predictable habitats. The Big Horn Sheep at hitching post and Junction Butte. Several Moose keeping their distance at Pebble Creek. Plenty of Elk, Bison, and Coyotes making appearances from Gardiner to Cooke City. Even a few Wolves to be spotted in the distance if you took the time to look. But still, it had been a slow week and the stories of those great moments that get photographers excited just weren’t happening.
We had stopped at Soda Butte to photograph a herd of Bull Elk across the valley. It was snowing, the Elk were a ways off, but it was the most interesting thing we had seen that morning so we spent some time with them. When we pulled out of hitching post a Yellowstone Association bus carrying a Winter Photography class was headed our way. After some time at Soda Butte we began to wonder why the bus had not continued east in our direction. So we returned to hitching post to satisfy our curiosities, and when we pulled in the students were there, cameras out, and the excitement on their faces said it all. Someone told us “grab your gear, there’s an Ermine chasing something over on the cliff”.
Neither of us had ever seen an Ermine. In fact we had only seen our first Weasel the previous spring. Anyone who has seen an Ermine in its winter coat knows what a fleeting experience it can be. On this occasion it would be different. From at least 150 yards away you could see that white Ermine chasing a dark creature across the cliff face in a frantic frenzy. The perfect backdrop to allow full unobstructed views of this not so common creature.
We quickly walked our cameras down the road a bit and set up to watch the story unfold. And what a show we were treated to. What we determined to be a pack rat was running for its life from a very determined Ermine. Up and down, back and forth they ran across the rocky cliff face. The rat was trying desperately to hide or escape from its tenacious predator. On several occasions the two of them slipped and fell 10 or 15 feet down the cliff to the rocks below, only to jump back up again to continue the pursuit. Occasionally we paused and stopped firing the shutters of our cameras as the scene in front of us just begged to be watched with the naked eye.
A packrat is roughly the same size as an Ermine, but it is really no match for such a determined hunter. In the course of the pursuit, the Ermine would get hold of the rat and they would tumble down the slope in a ball of fur, the Ermine never releasing its grip on the rat. To our amazement the rat would break free and the chase would again resume. We lost track of time but the whole pursuit went on for at least 20 minutes or so. The rat gave the Ermine a run for its money and put up a desperate fight. But in the end we knew how the story would play out as is often the case for stories of predator and prey. The Ermine being the victor, slowly dragged its prize up the slope and stuffed it into a small alcove in the roots of a tree. A meal to be consumed at a later point in time
In the days that followed, the story of the Ermine and the Rat circulated amongst photographers in the valley. Everyone who passed by the Sheep cliff at hitching post paused for a few minutes hoping for a glimpse of that elusive winter creature. We never did see it again nor did we hear of any additional sightings. As with many such moments in Yellowstone, it was our reward of being in the right place at the right time.