Friday, November 11, 2016

United We Stand (Happy Veteran's Day)

Veteran’s day held particular relevance to me this year, coming three days after the most divisive election I can remember. As I gathered with fellow veterans this morning at the Western Montana State Veteran’s Cemetery, it reminded me of this: We’re still united.

When I served in a Marine Corps Force Recon unit in the early 1980s, I served with people from all walks of life, with a diversity of values and beliefs, from all the various parts of our nation, and from all social-economic spectrums. Sure, we had our disagreements. We argued. We got angry with each other at times. But we worked together when it counted. We risked our lives for each other. Some gave their lives for us.

I often feel the same bond with fellow hunters and anglers. Sure, we have our disagreements. We argue. We get angry with each other at times. But we work together when it counts to protect the wildlife, wild places, access to our public lands, and our hunting and angling heritage and traditions.

It’s the American way.

So thank you to all who serve and have served this great, big diverse nation of ours. May we always fight together when it counts.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Defend the Constitution: Restrict Assault Rifles

Yesterday was the first time I shot a semi-automatic, military-style rifle since I left the Montana Army National Guard 14 years ago. It reminded me just how deadly they can be in the wrong hands. Most anyone can rapidly become fairly proficient with them. My teenage son, who had never shot such a weapon before, put a deadly group of multiple shots into a paper plate from 25-yards in about ten seconds. He can't do that with my bolt-action hunting rifle. Neither can I. Nobody can.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and its followers like to say things such as, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." "You can kill people with a baseball bat as easy as a gun." That's true. But it's a hell of a lot easier to kill a lot of people quickly with the right choice of weapons. Nobody can go into a school and kill 22 kids in less than five minutes with a baseball bat. It's a lot easier to kill people when you have a weapon designed and made to efficiently kill lots of people in a short amount of time. This is why I was issued M16-A2 rifles, HK 9mm submachine guns, M60 machine guns, M203 grenade launchers and other potent, deadly weapons in the Marine Corps and National Guard -- not baseball bats. (See "Myths, Lies and Bullshit from the NRA.")

Some weapons are made for efficient, deadly assaults, hence the term "assault rifles." (There are those who resent that term, and claim its use shows a lack of knowledge about guns, and yet even some of the manufacturers and gun dealers who sell them call them "assault rifles.")

These weapons should be further restricted -- more extensive and thorough background checks along with registration, training and licensing requirements. And no, that would NOT violate our Second Amendment Rights. President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush didn't think so, and neither do I.

There have and always will be restrictions on Second Amendment rights. Even our "founding fathers" who crafted and approved of the amendment often fervently disagreed on it. Constitutional scholars, politicians, and others have had many rationale, reasonable, heated debates over it ever since. I am not allowed to have an M60 machine gun, an M203 grenade launcher, an M1 Abrams tank, a LAAW (Light Anti Tank Assault Weapon), Stinger anti-aircraft missile or a nuclear warhead. Those all seem like reasonable restrictions to me. We all draw the line somewhere.

Where does the NRA and its supporters draw the line? And why is it they think that wherever they chose to draw the line is what the rest of our nation should except --  and that any restrictions that cross their line is unconstitutional?

It is not unconstitutional for citizens to speak out and fight to make changes through the democratic process as outlined in our Constitution. To the contrary: It's very Constitutional. It's the American way. It's patriotic. What's actually unAmerican is for a special interest group to spread lies, myths and misconceptions and bully, threaten and intimidate our elected public officials and others to get their way -- effectively hijacking our democratic process, against the will of a majority Americans, preventing us from making our nation more safe. More sane.

There is no legitimate reason for citizens to own weapons designed and made to rapidly kill a lot of people in a short amount of time. The risks and dangers to our nation and innocent people far outweigh any benefit that can possible be gained. The NRA defends the rights of people to own pretty much any sort of weapon they desire -- not because of Second Amendment rights, but because they have become an arm of and public relations firm for a huge, powerful, wealthy and influential gun and weapons manufacturing industry. They have purchased our Congress to do its bidding through money, threats and intimidation. It's about profit, not the Constitution.

It's time for change.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Elk Hunt Report 2016 (Archery): You Can go Home

They say you "can't go home." You can; it just hurts more.

I hunted some rugged, remote, wild country I used to hunt years ago, country that is like home. It's where I "grew up" as an elk hunter. I killed a lot of bulls back there with my bow in my 20s and 30s. The country hasn't changed much, but I have. It's as secure as elk habitat security gets: steep, thick brush, tons of blowdown, no trails. In fact, the mountains seem steeper and the brush seems thicker. It hurt more than usual and I can't just blame age; I am out of shape for this sort of thing. My 10-pound mobile elk camp seems heavier than, and not as comfortable as it used to. (See "Spartan Camps: Hunting Elk Like a Force Recon Marine.") But something else is missing: The obsessive-possessive-compulsive drive I used to have for this sort of thing. I take a lot more naps on sunny hillsides.

I did see a half-dozen elk; heard a lot of bugling; saw a black bear, a moose and a mule-deer buck. And here's a nice improvement from the past: I heard wolves howling one night.

The bugling still excites me, and I never refuse a call. But a mentor once told me, "If you start worrying about how you're going to get an elk out of a spot before you kill it, then you will stop being a good elk hunter."

I worried.

The first bull I called in on day two (the same bull, I think, whom I heard bugling through the night as I lay under the stars on a ridge top in my sleeping bag) came close. Too close. He had me pin-pointed and walked straight up to me, 10 yards out. I couldn't move. When he turned and walked behind a big spruce, I nocked an arrow and drew, and held. One more step . . . one more step. Lucky for him, he never took that step. He knew something wasn't quite right, and he turned and trotted off, stopping a few times to look back. I couldn't coax him to return. It was lucky for me, too, I suppose; I'd still be trying to pack him out. (Yes, I worried about it.)

Day three I took a hard fall after stepping on dead, downed, fall-on-your-ass, slippery-smooth lodgepole while crossing a large pile of crisscrossed blowdown in a hell-hole of a spruce bottom as it was starting to get dark. But an elk had bugled up the ridge on the other side. What else to do? In fact, he grunted a few times right after I fell. I caught up to him, grunted back, got his attention, and he started coming in. I first saw him at about 50 yards, shadows of his long tines cast on the surrounding pines in the evening light. He took his apparent frustration out on a small subalpine fir; he nearly ripped it out of the ground. Then he came closer. Thirty yards. Twenty yards. Then he walked behind a large upended root-wad of a felled spruce. Time to notch an arrow and get ready.

And then I saw the sight to my bow was broken off. Gone. No way I could chance a shot -- chance wounding this bull (I have always believed a missed shot is a fortunate accident that could easily result in wounding).  I quietly watched him for a while, until he got suspicious and slowly wandered north.

Yes, David Petersen, I can see you shaking your head, hear you chuckling, and imagine you rightfully thinking, "I told you so." It's time to stop relying on the wheels, pulleys and technology I sometimes hypocritically rant against. Time to start instinctively shooting my recurve.

It's a good time in my life to switch over. The killing doesn't drive me so much anymore. Besides, I don't know how the hell I would have packed that bull out of there. (Yes, I worried about it.)

May he grow to be king!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Montanans Speak Out: Don’t Give Away Our Public Lands!

Representatives from the American Lands Council (ALC) recently spoke at the Swan Community Center in Condon, Montana, to push their agenda of transferring and selling our public lands – the lands where most of us hunt, fish, hike and otherwise enjoy.  An overflow crowd of more than 100 people attended the meeting, and an overwhelming majority spoke against efforts to transfer or sell our unique public lands heritage.

ALC speakers blamed federal land management for wildfires, mountain pine beetles, increased crime rates in rural communities and even rape.  (Seriously: One of the presenters claims that a woman was raped because the town where she lives had a “budgetary shortfall” from “lack of logging revenue” from public lands.)

The ALC claims that states would do a better job of managing our public lands. But several studies and economic analyses conclude that states like Montana could not afford to manage all the lands now managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. Plenty of precedence shows that states like Montana would most likely have to sell these lands to private interests. (The state of Idaho has already sold more than 40 percent of their state lands because they could not afford to manage it all.)

The ALC speakers presented half-truths, misconceptions and distortions, grossly oversimplifying and misrepresenting complex issues such as forest health, wildfire and wildlife management while dismissing sound, scientific research and ignoring we hunters, anglers, hikers and other local citizens who use, understand and cherish our public lands.

The American Lands Council and other industry-led efforts to sell or transfer our public lands insinuate that management decisions are dictated by bureaucrats from Washington DC.  Actually, these decisions are made by local district rangers, foresters, engineers, wildlife biologists and other resource professionals who live and work in our communities -- people who are our friends, family and neighbors. Their decisions are based, in large part, on local public needs, desires and input. Balance is achieved through the concepts of “multiple use,” or, as the first man Theodore Roosevelt appointed as Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, put it: “The greatest good for the greatest number of people.” 

Efforts to sell and transfer our public lands are funded by out-of-state developers who would like to get hold of our lands for the sole purpose of unsustainable logging, mining, and vacation home development without safeguards to protect our fish, wildlife and wild places – safeguards brought about through the tireless efforts of we local hunters, anglers and others who enjoy public lands. The people behind the push to transfer and sell our public lands don’t really seek balance or compromise; they selfishly and greedily want it all. They don’t care about the health of our wildlife and wild places, and the hunting and angling opportunities they provide; they care only about profit. They’re not trying to find solutions to complex problems; they’re trying to rob us of our unique American heritage.   

If the ALC truly wanted to support a “lawful, peaceful path to restore balance for a healthy environment, abundant outdoor recreation, and safe, vibrant communities,” they would not suggest selling and transferring public lands -- they would, instead, support efforts such as the Blackfoot Clearwater StewardshipProject (BCSP). The BCSP is a locally-driven, grassroots collaborative effort to protect and enhance a variety of traditional land uses – including hunting, fishing, hiking, wilderness, logging and snowmobiling -- in the Blackfoot and Clearwater Valleys while creating and maintaining jobs and helping local communities.  It achieves true balance and protects and enhances true, traditional Montana values and activities.   

It’s cooperative efforts like the BCSP that cut through the divisive rhetoric that often dominates discussions about public lands and achieve compromises and solutions that benefit us all.  As the people of Condon made very clear last week -- selling or transferring our public lands is not a viable or acceptable solution.  

Thanks to all who defend our public lands legacy. As Theodore Roosevelt said of the public lands he so passionately fought to protect and defend: "We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune."

NOTE: This was written for and first posted as a blog for the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Elk Vulnerability: Secure Habitat Protects Healthy Herds and Hunting

Photo by Dave Stalling
Forty-five years ago Alan Christensen went elk hunting with his uncle and some friends. Though more than a foot of snow had fallen, the elk stayed up high, out of reach. “But my uncle was a logger and had the only four-wheel-drive around,” Christensen says. “That got us into the high country where the elk were, away from other people.”

Today, four-wheel-drive trucks are standard equipment for most hunters.

“The technology and ability for people to get to and kill elk has changed dramatically in 45 years,” Christensen says. “That, combined with changes in habitat, more hunting pressure and better access to elk country have made elk more vulnerable to hunting.”

As a former Wildlife Program Leader for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, Christensen not only helped pioneer the concept of elk vulnerability, he did something about it.  In 1989, he joined with other wildlife professional from state and federal agencies, universities and timber companies to form an Elk Vulnerability Working Group. Through research, symposiums and publications, the group united biologists and managers to identify vulnerability problems and seek solutions.

In one major study, researchers examined elk mortality in areas with a high density of open roads, another where roads are closed to motorized vehicles during hunting season, and another area with no roads.  In the area with open roads, only five percent of all bulls lived to maturity (defined as 4-1/2 years). None of the bulls lived past 5-1/2, and the herd contained about 10 bulls to every 100 cows. In the area with seasonal travel restrictions, 16 percent of the bulls lived past maturity, most reaching 7-1/2, with 20 bulls per 100 cows. In the roadless area, 30 percent of the bulls lived to maturity, most reaching 10 years, with nearly 35 bulls per 100 cows. 

“As road access increases and habitat security declines, we can expect elk to be increasingly vulnerable to hunting,” researchers concluded. “Without access management, the results will include elk populations with undesirable sex and age structures, increasingly complex and restrictive hunting regulations to protect elk herds, and a loss of recreational opportunity.”

Other studies showed similar results.

“Vulnerability encompasses many factors,” Christensen says. “Densities of roads open to vehicles, increasing density of hunters, decreasing amounts of elk cover, improved technology . . . taken by themselves they may not be that significant, but put them all together and they’re very significant.”

Significant enough that in many elk states, rising elk vulnerability spurred wildlife departments to cut hunting seasons and switch more and more to limited-entry hunting.

“As a whole, elk populations are generally stable or increasing throughout Montana and the West,” Christensen says. “There are more elk now than at any point since the turn of the century. However, in some herds the problem is the sex ratios and age-class structures – in other words, a lack of mature bulls. This is not so much an elk vulnerability issue, it’s a bull vulnerability issue.”

Some hunters are happy to hunt for cows, spikes and raghorns. For them, the opportunity to hunt elk ranks higher than the opportunity to encounter a mature bull in the field. Until relatively recently, even some wildlife biologists believed mature bulls weren’t necessary, as long as young bulls bred with cows. They judged the health of herds through pregnancy rates and annual “recruitment” of newborn calves.

But numerous studies have since confirmed what many wildlife biologists already suspected: Lack of mature bulls in a herd can disrupt breeding seasons, conception dates and calf survival.  Younger bulls tend to breed later and over a longer period in the fall than mature bulls. As a result, calving seasons last longer and many calves are born late in the spring. Late-born calves miss out on the lush forage of early spring, and also have less time to feed on high-quality forage and consequently may enter the winter in poorer condition than calves born earlier.  Drawn-out calving seasons also make newborn elk more susceptible to bears, mountain lions, coyotes and wolves. When calving seasons are shorter, as is the case when mature bulls do the breeding, calves are all born around the same time. This “flooding strategy,” as biologists call it, overwhelms predators and allows more calves to survive.

Perhaps even more important, though less clearly understood, mature bulls maintain social order in a herd. The presence of mature bulls reduces strife, exhaustion and wounding among bulls and frees cows from unwanted advances by socially inept young bulls – helping elk save crucial energy that can be a matter of life and death during a harsh winter.

“Fish and wildlife agencies, and the federal land management agencies, want to maintain opportunities for hunters,” Christensen says. “But we also have an obligation to maintain healthy wildlife populations – which includes keeping a good ratio of mature bulls in the elk herds. People want healthy elk herds, but they also want access to elk and high hunter success rates. We can’t have it all. There are too many people and finite resources. Part of the solution is to get maintain good habitat security, get a handle on roads and make it less easy for hunters to get into elk country and shoot bulls.”

Thanks in large part to the leadership and efforts of Alan Christensen and others who participated in the Elk Vulnerability Working Group, land and wildlife managers developed standards to incorporate into management plans, ensuring protection of habitat security to reduce vulnerability and maintain healthy elk herds and hunting opportunity.  But some managers seem to be forgetting the history and the science.

The Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest (HLCNF) recently amended its Forest Plan, replacing the current wildlife security standard with a new standard that removes all traditional and measurable components of secure habitat.  The Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF), Helena Hunters and Anglers, the
Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club, the Clancy-Unionville Citizens Task Force and the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers filed a suit against the Forest, demanding they maintain time-tested, science-based standards.   

“A lot of time, effort, cooperation and good, solid science went into understanding habitat security and elk vulnerability, and developing reasonable standards that help us maintain healthy habitat, healthy elk herd, and public hunting opportunities,” Alan Christensen says. “It’s a proud part of Forest Service history. We need to stick to the science and maintain these standards.”  

Note: This was written for and first published in the Fall 2016 newsletter of the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Fighting Wild Flames: A Perceived Enemy of Our Own Making?

While I greatly appreciate, respect and admire the bold efforts of wildland firefighters, the wildfire situation in the West — at least here where I live in Montana — is greatly misunderstood and more complex than most people realize. In many cases, past and ongoing efforts to fight and suppress these fires have worsened the situation.

Our western forests evolved with, adapted to and depend on fire; fire is essential to the health of these forests. Different forest types evolved with various, differing fire regimes. For example, our low-elevation ponderosa pine forests were shaped by frequent, low-intensity natural fires that burned out the understory of Douglas-fir and grand fir, recycled nutrients, and created and maintained grassy pine savannas critical to deer, elk and other wildlife. The large pines have thick bark that make them resistant to fire. Our high-elevation lodgepole forests, on the other hand, evolved with and depend on less-frequent, high-intensity, “stand-replacement” fires that recycle and renew the forests every 100 years or so. (The serotinous cones of lodgepole require fire and extreme heat to germinate.)

We have drastically altered and disrupted the natural ecology of these forests. In the low-elevation ponderosa pine forests, for example (where most towns, communities and homes exist) past cattle grazing reduced the grasses, forbs and other “fuels” that once carried the cleansing, low-intensity fires. The logging and high-grading of large pines diminished the presence of fire-resistant trees, and the suppression of fire allowed for an understory of thick firs to replace what was once open pine savannas.

These thick, dense forests have become weakened by the over-competition for sun, nutrients and water (very limited in the arid West) — creating vast amounts of forests that are now highly-susceptible to disease and insect attacks, such as mountain pine beetles. Climate change — which has resulted in less snow, earlier snow melt and more drought — has exacerbated the situation. We now have large expanses of forests made up of dead and dying trees. The “prefect storm,” of sorts, for the large, frequent, high-intensity fires we see today — fires that, in some places, are larger and more intense than what naturally occurred.

It’s nature’s seemingly harsh way of correcting our mistakes. Unfortunately, it can have negative consequences for people.

Add to all this the growing numbers of people moving to places like Montana and building homes in these drastically-altered, fire-prone, fire-dependent forests. This is akin to building homes in a flood plain. It’s not a matter of “if” the wildfires will come — it’s a matter of “when” and “how big.”

In this new, modern-day West most people have little understanding of forest ecology and the risks and potential consequences of their actions and decisions. Manny refuse to even take simple, common-sense precautions that can reduce the risks. A lot of folks want to “keep” the forests around their homes “as they are” (not understanding the dynamic, ever-changing nature of forests) and oppose science-based efforts to thin forests, return low-intensity fires and restore forest health. The situation has also made it difficult, if not impossible, to allow necessary fires to burn.

So the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal and state agencies spend an obscene amount of money — and firefighters risk their lives — to save homes that have been built where they shouldn’t be while keeping forests less-healthy and perpetuating the problems.

What would really help is to learn about forest ecology; support efforts to restore forests; stop the development occurring in fire-prone, fire-adapted forests; make room for and allow for some wildfires to burn, and require those who do live within these forests to implement actions, such as thinning, to reduce the risk to themselves and the brave firefighters who risk their lives fighting a perceived “enemy” of our own making.

We need to learn to live among the forests we love while leaving room for the wildfires that sustain them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Habitat Security: Protecting Elk and Elk Hunting

Secure habitat results in healthier elk herds and better hunting.
For those of us who chase elk around the wilds, the last word we might use to describe these wily animals is “vulnerable.”  But when elk lose too much habitat security, or are too easily accessible for too many hunters, or technology evolves beyond the ability of elk to easily escape and evade bullets and arrows, elk can indeed become overly vulnerable.  When hunted elk – which often means bull elk -- become overly vulnerable, it can have negative impacts to the health of the herds and result in reduced hunting opportunities. 

Concerns about bull elk vulnerability originally sprang not so much from high mortality in the bull segment of herds, but from low calf numbers. In the late 1960s, wildlife biologists noticed that widespread declines in pregnancy rates and spring calf counts coincided with reduced mature bull-to-cow ratios in many herds.  Although yearling bulls are capable of breeding cows, serious questions arose about their reproductive efficiency and the social and ecological consequences.

In 1969, concern over a proposed timber sale in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, along the Middle Fork of the Judith River in Montana’s Little Belt Mountains, proved a catalyst for change in elk management. Forest Service officials viewed the sale as critical to the forest’s planned program of timber harvest. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists feared disastrous effects on elk. In an effort to resolve conflict, the two agencies met in March, 1970, and agreed to the Montana Cooperative Logging Study. This 15-year research project involved five government organizations and a timber company. About the same time, similar research began in the Blue Mountains of Washington and Oregon. The two research projects produced a wealth of crucial information concerning the effects of logging and roading on elk, elk habitat and elk hunting – spawning concepts such as habitat security and elk vulnerability.

Here are some of the findings from that extensive research:

In the absence of older bulls, a lack of social order may lead to more fighting among young bulls and increased harassment of cows throughout a more extended rut. Spending even more energy on the rut saps vigor in both bulls and cows, increases susceptibility to predators and tough winters and makes for less healthy calves. Since young bulls tend to breed later than old bulls, their calves are born later in the spring. Such late comers can miss out on prime growth-boosting spring forage and do not have enough time to gain adequate body weight before their first winter. In addition, calves are born over a longer period of time, instead of mostly all at once (what biologists refer to as “the flooding strategy”). All of this makes calves more susceptible to predation, disease and winter kill.

Because a large rack suggests a bull’s ability to adapt and survive, and put excess energy into antler growth, cows – when given a choice – pick larger, more mature bulls to breed, ensuring the best genes are passed on. A lack of mature bulls inhibits this adaptive genetic selection process. Wildlife biologists have noted that in herds that lack mature bulls, overall pregnancy rates are often reduced, conception rates are delayed and the rut can be extended by a month or more.

In other words: There are reasons elk herds evolved with a certain number of mature bulls in their herds and related social structures and breeding behaviors. Healthy herds need healthy big bulls. So in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s wildlife managers and land managers worked together to improve habitat security, reduce elk vulnerability, maintain and enhance hunting opportunities, and ensure natural bull-to-cow ratios and numbers of mature bulls in our wild elk herds.

As Olaus J. Murie, considered the “father of elk management,” wrote in his monumental book, “Elk of North America,” published in 1951:

“Looking to the future, in view of the needs of elk and exacting requirements of recreation based on multiple use, the safest course is to model elk management along natural lines, so far is reasonably possible, to preserve its distinct habits as well as its habitat.”

Controlling elk vulnerability is key, and maintaining and enhancing habitat security is inversely related. As security declines, vulnerability increases. For example, easy hunter access by too many open roads can make elk less secure, thereby increasing vulnerability.

Ironically, many state wildlife agencies once supported road-building projects for that very reason. In the early 1960s, expanding elk populations throughout the West appeared to be growing too large for available winter range. Logging and road-building on federal land seemed good for elk and elk hunting – the large openings in the forest produced forage and the roads provided access for hunters to kill more elk. By the early 1970s, however, wildlife biologists throughout the western United States and Canada noticed some disturbing trends – a decrease in calf production, accompanied by low bull-to-cow rations despite apparent improvements in the quality and quantity of forage.  Hunters simply killed to many mature bulls and wildlife biologists began questioning the impact of logging and roads on habitat security. In a game of hide and seek, elk were increasingly the losers because places to hide decreased and the density of hunters increased.

Vulnerability encompasses a diversity of factors, including hunter access and numbers, habitat, timing and duration of hunting seasons, terrain, weather, hunting equipment technology and hunting regulations.  Managers attempt to strike a delicate balance between elk being too vulnerable to hunting, which may result in excessive harvest, and being vulnerable enough to permit the desired harvest levels and types. Because habitat security can influence vulnerability as much as hunter numbers and hunting equipment technology, relying solely on state wildlife agencies to solve the problems through hunting seasons, bag limits and methods of take is not often effective. Hunting regulations, habitat conditions and the type of access allowed for hunters has increasingly become a shared responsibility of land managers, wildlife managers and hunters.

Hunters should get involved in wildlife and land management and help ensure the critical importance of habitat security is considered in all decisions. By protecting habitat security we protect healthy elk herds and good elk hunting.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 Newsletter of the Montana Wildlife Federation.