Looking for shadows: Youngsters search for Bitterroot Bill at Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge

2011-02-02T21:26:00Z 2011-02-03T07:01:34Z Looking for shadows: Youngsters search for Bitterroot Bill at Lee Metcalf Wildlife RefugeBy SEPP JANNOTTA - Ravalli Republic Ravalli Republic
February 02, 2011 9:26 pm  • 

STEVENSVILLE - Bob Danley loves Groundhog Day at least as much as the schoolchildren he takes out onto Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge each year on the hunt for the ever-elusive Bitterroot Bill and his shadow.

You know it from his laugh.

When someone pointed out Wednesday that a shadow had been cast by Bitterroot Bill's picture-on-a-popsicle-stick "stand-ins" and spring was still six weeks out - bad news, they said - Danley just laughed. And laughed some more.

"Isn't it just awesome that we can get bad news and still get such a great laugh out of it?" he said.

Danley, Lee Metcalf's outdoor education coordinator, has his Groundhog Day routine down.

As always, a troupe of elementary schoolchildren from Stevensville packed the refuge's presentation room, where Danley waxed philosophic about an observance started by German immigrants that this year marked 125 years in the springtime prognostication business.

"In fact, this is the only day we have that we celebrate an animal," Danley said, pointing out that even the national bird, the bald eagle, didn't have its own day.

Of course, Benjamin Franklin's beloved turkey might object, insisting that Thanksgiving is a day for turkeys, but then we don't make an annual feast of groundhogs on Feb. 2.

Or do we?

Danley, purveyor of many facts (he calls them factoids) on Bitterroot Valley natural history, would not tip his hand when the kids lined up for a lunch of hot cocoa, popcorn and a dish Danley said was groundhog.

Although their guide for the day wouldn't confess to any trickery, more than a few kids were skeptical and wondered aloud why groundhog looked and tasted so much like hotdog.

What cannot be disputed is the amount of fun Danley had bringing this group of students up to speed on the various rodents who are members of the ground squirrel family.

Danley pointed out that the groundhog - Marmota monax is the Latin name - is native to the East Coast and is also known as a woodchuck. It is a rodent of the family Sciuridae (again Latin) belonging to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots.

"In fact, if you kids learn to talk Latin, you could learn lots of other interesting stuff," Danley added.

Punxsutawney Phil - Pennsylvania's most famous meteorologist and a bit of a media hog on Groundhog Day - is cousin to the marmots found in Montana and the West, Danley said.

For instance, Bitterroot Bill, who is said to live near the old white barn that sits just off the Lee Metcalf road, is a yellow-bellied marmot.

Head up to Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, and you'll see hoary marmots, though Danley cautioned "you won't see too many marmots there right now because there's a lot of snow up there."


The question of the day, though, was whether there were marmots casting snowy shadows deep within the Livingston Range, but whether this group of kids would spot Bitterroot Bill on the refuge.

Then, of course, Danley was able to take the question one step further and ask the kids what it would mean to them if ole Bill indicated Montana was headed for an early spring (for the record, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on Wednesday).

"Fishing," said one youngster. "I could go outside without a jacket," said another.

"An early spring might mean different things to different people," Danley said.

Adam Painter, a meteorologist at KECI-TV, explained to the students that he appreciated that Danley understood that weather predicting is a complicated business.

With their 50-50 chance of hitting the mark, Painter said groundhogs and yellow-bellied marmots have nothing to worry about.

"I wish my job was that simple," Painter said.

Danley explained that weather records showed 89 percent of the time, the Bitterroot Valley is cloudy on Feb. 2.

However slim the odds for finding an above-ground marmot on this bitter but bright day, Danley was not going to undo the spell he had woven.

"When you head over there, I want you to let out a big ‘tally ho,' " Danley said, just before officially starting the hunt.

In the end, the crowd of students looked all around the white barn, noting some of the No. 2-style marmot leavings and, in at least one instance, a burrow they said had the distinct smell of chicken soup - just like Danley said it would.

"He's not in there," said 2-year-old Meline Gardner, peering into a hole under the old building's foundation.

Truth be told, Danley admitted, February is not a good time of year for sightings of yellow-bellied marmots in Montana.

"We don't see them (on Groundhog Day) but don't say anything about that to these kids," he said, laughing.

Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or sjannotta@ravallirepublic.com.


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(1) Comments

  1. Meanderman
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    Meanderman - February 03, 2011 9:54 am
    What a great story! Bob Danley is one of those rare people who has an infectious laugh and an ability to mesmerize children (and the children in all of us). He and the staff at Lee Metcalf provide such a great service to the community - thanks for reminding all of us that there is a lot of good "government" out there.
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