Saturday, April 11, 2015

Eastern Elk: Are They Really Extinct?

John James Audubon's Rendition of Eastern Elk, 1847
Traveling along Interstate 95 from Washington, D.C., through Philadelphia to New York and north to New England -- a giant megalopolis of steel, concrete and asphalt from the Capitol to Boston -- you can still observe flocks of ducks and geese in the fragmented salt marshes, bunches of white-tailed deer in the small woodlots and, if you stopped and walked along the rocky beaches, you might see schools of striped bass, bluefish or mackerel passing through on their annual migrations along the Atlantic coast. It is difficult, however, to imagine herds of bison and elk roaming through country now so heavily urban. But they did -- at least 300 years ago.

When Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into New York Bay in 1524, bison and elk may have ranged across most of the East, from Massachusetts to Louisiana. In 1609 explorer Henry Hudson reported seeing Indians clothed in robes and moccasins made of bison skins when he landed on a small, wild island now known as Manhattan. In his 1966 book, The Elk, naturalist John Madson wrote ". . . elk were probably the most widespread of all American hoofed species, thriving from central California to the Atlantic savannahs; from Mexico into Canada. About the only places not occupied originally by elk were the Great Basin (most of Arizona, Nevada, and parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington), much of New England, eastern parts of the Atlantic coastal states, and sections of the deep South and Gulf Coast." Ernest Thompson Seton wrote extensively about North American elk during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In his seminal book, Lives of Game Animals, published in 1909, he cites explorers and trappers who recorded many sightings of elk in the East in the l6th, l7th and l8th centuries. He also describes their hasty extermination.

"There are few stories of blood lust more disgusting than that detailing the slaughter of the great Elk bands," Seton wrote. "The Deer of New England were killed off for the meat. But the wholesale massacre of the elk, like that of the Buffalo, was carried on for the joy of seeing the great creatures fall in dying agony; and, in later years, by tusk hunters who were too lazy to be hide hunters . . . The beginning of the nineteenth century saw the Wapiti perfectly described, catalogued, and started on the road to extermination. Thenceforth, travellers in Eastern America were obliged to record only the reminiscences of old settlers or the discovery of fossil horns and skulls."

In his Notes on the Mammals of Iowa, presented to the Boston Society of Natural History in 1871, J.A. Allen tells a fairly typical tale: "In the severer weather of winter they [elk] were often driven to seek shelter and food in the vicinity of the settlements. At such times the people not satisfied with killing enough for their present need, mercilessly engaged in an exterminating butchery. Rendered bold by their extremity, the elk were easily dispatched with such implements as axes and corn-knives, Now only a few linger where formerly thousands lived, and these are rapidly disappearing." 

Eastern elk, a subspecies believed to be extinct, were exterminated so quickly that it is difficult to determine their original range. The last few eastern elk probably holed up in isolated pockets of the northern Midwest, as Theodore Roosevelt wrote in Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, published in 1905: 

"Its numbers were soon greatly thinned, and about the beginning of the present century it disappeared from that portion of its former range lying south of the Great Lakes and between the Centaurs and the Mississippi. In the northern Alleghenies it held its own much longer, the last individual of which [have been] able to record having been killed in Pennsylvania in 1869. In the forests of northern Wisconsin, northern Michigan, and Minnesota wapiti existed still longer, and a very few individuals may still be found." 

When the final few elk fell among the oaks of central Minnesota in the late 1890s, a unique subspecies may have been silenced forever. But not all eastern elk disappeared because of European exploitation. Although there is evidence elk lived in Alabama, Delaware, Rhode Island, and the southwestern peninsula of Ontario, they were gone before European settlers arrived. In the March, 1926 issue of the Canadian Field Naturalist archeologist W.J. Wintemberg speculated on why elk may have disappeared in southwest Ontario.

"The extinction of the Wapiti, if caused by man, may have been due to either Iroquois Indian hunters, who came into the country from what is now New York State, after the dispersion of the Hurons, Tobacco Nation, Indians, and Neutrals (1649-1651), or to the Missisauga, who succeeded the Iroquois in the occupation of the country," Wintemberg wrote. "These later comers probably hunted with guns instead of the bows and arrows of the earlier Indians, and this may have led to the speedy extinction of the animal; at any rate, it appears to have disappeared from the country before the beginning of British settlement, late in the eighteenth century."

But ornithologist L.H. Smith, writing in The Ottawa Naturalist, July, 1901, offered a different view of how elk may have disappeared from Ontario:

"The first settlers came into the township of Adelaide in 1832. There were no elk here then, and I have never been able to glean any information from them about this great deer, although I have spoken to many. The most interesting information I have been able to get of this animal is from an Indian on the Kettle Point Reserve, in the county of Lambton . . . He was an elderly man when I spoke to him, perhaps between 60 and 70 years of age. He knows nothing of the elk himself, but his father used to tell him stories of shooting them in that part of the country when he was young ... How these great deer became extinct here will, perhaps, ever remain, to naturalists, a hidden secret. The Indian did not annihilate it because they never killed to extermination. If disease overtook them, as it sometimes does the great white hare of the far north, it is only reasonable to think that others would have come to replace the dead, or the few, if any, left would have increased again. We are quite in the dark concerning them. What we do know, is that the grandest of North American deer once roamed here, but it was before the white man came." 

Whether or not eastern elk were truly a distinct subspecies is a matter of debate. Ever since Swedish naturalist Carolus Lennaeus founded the modern system of classifying animals in the mid-l8th century, taxonomists have argued over just what exactly species and subspecies are. In general, animals evolve into different species and subspecies after becoming geographically isolated from others, adapting to their different environments, and changing over time through the process of natural selection. Tule elk in California, for example, have been isolated from other populations of elk for thousands of years. They have gradually evolved physical and behavioral adaptations that reflect their habitat and climate. They have significantly smaller bodies than all other elk, as well as longer rows of teeth and, perhaps, a unique ability to recycle nitrogen-all traits that allow them to not only live in extremely hot, arid country, but to actually flout the heat by rutting in July and August when temperatures are regularly 115 degrees. Some biologists classify tule elk as a separate subspecies because they are visibly different. Others say tules are genetically the same as elk found anywhere on the continent and differ only because of the environment they inhabit. If you took tule elk from the semideserts and tule marshes of California and move them to the high-country timber and meadows of Colorado, scientists say, they would grow large bodies just like the Rocky Mountain elk -- therefore they are not a different subspecies.

Former Eastern Elk and Probable Dates of Extinction
All that said, most elk biologists accept the existence of four subspecies currently living in North America and two considered extinct. After elk crossed the Bering land bridge more than a million years ago, entering North America from Siberia, they spread throughout most of Canada and the United States and went through two periods of isolation during which different subspecies may have evolved. The first, known as the Wisconsin glacial stage, lasted about 70,000 years. The second, following the glaciation, lasted about 10,000 years. The periods of isolation created four different populations: Roosevelt's elk along the northwest coast, tule elk in western and interior California, the now-extinct Merriam's elk of the Southwest and northern Mexico and another group, the largest, which roamed much of the United States and Canada east of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. This larger group may have been further isolated into three more groups when formation of the Great Plains divided the forests of the East from those of the West. The flat, open country of the plains, with its deep snow and cold winds, may have scattered the large herd as bands of elk split off and sought better forage and cover. One group, the Rocky Mountain subspecies, evolved in the western mountains. Another, the Manitoban, stuck it out on the plains. And eastern elk evolved in the hardwood forests. Whether these groups were truly isolated -- and, if so, isolated long enough to evolve into different subspecies -- may never be known.  

Elk of North America, edited by Jack Ward Thomas and Dale E. Toweill, states, "three of the six named subspecies of North American elk (Roosevelt's elk, Tule elk, and Merriam's elk) have met the basic criterion -- isolation -- necessary for the evolution of genetically distinct biological subspecies . . . Considering the available evidence, we do not think that the Eastern elk, Manitoban elk, and Rocky Mountain elk ever have been completely isolated from one another. We do think, however, that had the plains been allowed to continue their post-Wisconsin evolution, eventual isolation or near isolation of the elk populations might have occurred. It probably will never be known how well these three named subspecies of elk fitted the concept of biological subspecies."

If eastern elk were in fact different, few clues exist as to what may have distinguished them from other subspecies. Naturalist Vernon Bailey first split Rocky Mountain elk and eastern elk into separate subspecies in 1935, without having ever seen a single bone, antler or hide from an eastern elk. "At the time no existing specimen of elk from eastern North America was known to me," Bailey wrote in the Journal of Mammology, in 1937. "Hence my comparisons necessarily were based on incomplete descriptions by early writers and the excellent figure by Audubon in The Quadrupeds of North America." The figure Bailey refers to was drawn by John James Audubon around 1847 for the book he completed with Rev. John Bachman. As inspiration for his work, Audubon kept many live animals, including elk, on his private 30-acre estate called "Minnie's Land" (named for his wife) on the western shore of Manhattan, New York. "On our plate we have represented a pair of Elks in the foreground of a prairie scene, with a group of small figures in the distance; it gives but a faint idea of this animal in its wild and glorious prairie home," Bachman wrote of the painting, "The pair from which the figures on our plate were taken we purchased at Philadelphia: they had been caught when young in the western part of Pennsylvania; the male was supposed to be four or five years old, and the female was full grown. These Elks were transported from Philadelphia to our place near New York, and we had a capacious and high enclosure made for them."

A year after Bailey divided Rocky Mountain and eastern elk into different subspecies, he finally saw some physical evidence of eastern elk -- the skull, antlers and hide of a bull from Pennsylvania, killed in Potter County in 1853, and kept at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. "This is the only existing specimen of the eastern elk that I have been able to locate in any museum, or that might be considered at all typical of Cevuus canadensis canadensis [eastern elk] ," Bailey wrote. "This specimen indicates a smaller, more slender, and more brightly colored animal than C. c. nelsoni [Rocky Mountain elk] . The antlers are comparatively light, with slender beams and very long, slender prongs, just as Audubon portrayed them in his colored drawing. In addition the skull is relatively long and narrow, and in every way the specimen shows a striking resemblance to Audubon's figure of a bull elk from the western part of Pennsylvania."

Bones, skulls and antlers of eastern elk still occasionally appear -- records of what once roamed the hardwood forests preserved within the earth. In 1987, a man named Peter Mouradian II of West Allis, Wisconsin, found a set of 150 to 200 year-old eastern elk antlers in a peat bog near Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Public Museum later excavated the site and unearthed the bull's skull, several bones and some teeth.

But there may be more remaining of the eastern elk than old skeletons. In 1905, 18 elk were introduced to Fjordland National Park in New Zealand -- a gift from Theodore Roosevelt. The elk were survivors of an original shipment of 20, half of which came from Yellowstone National Park and half from a game reserve in Massachusetts owned by an Indian agent named H.E. Richardson. The latter are believed to be eastern elk captured in northern Minnesota by Native Americans. John A. Anderson, a New Zealander who has studied Fjordland elk since the early 1960s, says the possible eastern elk bloodline might explain some unusual characteristics he has seen in New Zealand elk, such as "bifurcated" antlers in which the dagger, or fourth point, forks at the tip. "Up until 1960 we all thought the elk introduced into New Zealand were Roosevelt's elk, simply because Theodore Roosevelt donated them," Anderson says. "Roosevelt's elk may have bifurcated antlers and everyone was happy to accept that this was why we were getting these antler characteristics in the Fjordland herd . . . If some of the wapiti shipped to New Zealand in 1905 were caught locally by Indians,' this sheds a whole new light on the evolution of the herd in Fjordland."

Eastern elk could have also hung on in the extensive forests of Ontario. While evidence is sketchy, numerous people reported seeing a band of elk near Sault Saint Marie on the Michigan/Ontario border in the early 1980s. These elk could be of eastern origin -- and could still exist in the wilds of Ontario.

In the early 1930s, game managers reintroduced 24 Rocky Mountain elk into Ontario from Alberta. A census taken 10 years later showed the herd had increased to 300. Too many elk in too short a time, biologists say, for all the offspring to have originated from two dozen Rocky Mountain elk. That's led many to believe a remnant population of eastern elk may still exist." Paul Di Biasy, a Pennsylvania writer who has researched the origin of New Zealand elk and has a passionate interest in eastern elk, is convinced that remnant populations of the subspecies still exist. "It can be proved historically," he says. "But it's going to be difficult to prove scientifically. A lot of scientific work, such as genetic testing, needs to be done."

If there does exist a pure strain of eastern elk -- if a distinction can be made -- I would like to see it isolated, propagated and returned to the East," Di Biasy says. "I would love to see the reestablishment of wild elk herds in the eastern United States. The elk certainly should be back on their native range and, if possible, they should be of the eastern subspecies." 

Note: This article was originally published in the Spring, 1994 issue of Bugle Magazine.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thoughts From the Marsh: What Have We Lost?

4:30 AM:

Walking home from a friend's I decide to stop at the store (about the half-way mark) to get some coffee and visit with my co-graveyard-shift and fellow-employee who works the four nights a week that I don't.

I was surprised to find the manager there instead. I shouldn't have been; she often fills in for employees who need time off for various reasons. She's a good boss.

I buy coffee, we chat, and I head off towards my next homeward bound stop: The cattail marsh, my favorite neighborhood haunt. I'm rarely there at night. Everything's different at night. I like visiting places at all hours, throughout the year, in all conditions, for many years, to become more intricately familiar with them and move past infatuation to true love. I love the cattail marsh.

As I approached I went into stealth mode. Or at least tried my best. I walked deliberately in the wet grass, putting my toe down first -- slowly, softly and cautiously -- then the heel . . . then pausing and listening . . . then repeating with the other foot, and so on . . . as if I smelled elk upwind; as if I were back in Marine Force Recon on patrol. I pretended to be the great gray heron I had observed and photographed in this very marsh a few days prior; nothing moves more patiently. I felt as if I were sneaking back into my childhood home hoping not to wake my mother (but which, of course, along with being in Force Recon, had more severe consequences than waking waterfowl.)

I failed. A duck sounded the alarm. Many others repeated it. The geese started honking. Busted. The place instantly became acoustically alive, as if I had turned on a sound switch, which I guess in essence I did. None of them sounded happy. QUACK! QUACK! QUACK! . . .  HONK! HONK! HONK!  I guiltily interpreted it as, "You bug us enough in daylight, damn it; leave us the fuck alone; let us rest for God's sake; get the hell out of here!"

As photogenically, semi-tame as these ducks may be, they obviously retain their instinctive alertness and responses derived from evolving as prey to others. I didn't feel too much a loser; foxes are stealthy above and beyond human ability, yet even they fail stalks an estimated 80 percent of the time. Far easier to attack from above, like an eagle, or from below, like a bass. (The biggest northern pike I ever caught was fishing late at night with a lure that imitates a duckling, temptingly and titillatingly swimming above large hungry shadows.)

I wish I could hone my predatory and evasive evolutionary instincts as well as a mallard. I try. But then again, I live in a safe, heated house down the road and, while perhaps not as much as most Americans, I am nevertheless detached and often obliviously blinded to the real world around me -- around us. Nowadays we're only prey to societal-created obligations, expectations, stresses, and the mostly all-around bullshit we call the modern world. We pretend to be free while enslaved. In gaining comfort and average-length-of-life-spans we've lost a lot. I want some of it back.

Just the previous morning I sat several hours on a wet, cold bed of pine needles atop a ridge in a ponderosa forest hoping to see wild turkeys. I saw two. They, too, busted me quickly and disappeared even quicker. They, too, are intuitively attuned to life in the presence of predation.   

Grizzlies used to roam in and around this marsh (fortunately, they still exist just north of here in what little remains of once wild America.) They likely dug beavers out from their dens for snacks back when this tiny remnant of a marsh covered much of this side of town. The Salish once camped along this marsh every spring to gather bitterroots on nearby south-facing hills now covered with homes. That was back when the marsh was part of a larger,  more healthy and intact wild watershed -- before people pulled into a 24-hour convenience store driving fossil-fueled vehicles on pavement to purchase gas, snacks, booze, cigarettes, soda and bottled water at all and any hour they desire.

Convenient indeed; but worth the tradeoffs? Worth the loss?

We humans want to control it all, even those of us who claim otherwise. Roads, houses, buildings; asphalt, concrete, trails; signs, maps, guidebooks; cell phones, GPS units, flashlights; bear spray, safety plans and search and rescue teams. We want safe, sanitized "wild" experiences. As Jack Turner so passionately puts it, we've rendered the wilds an abstract. We've rendered freedom an abstract. Even many hunters I know who feign being "in touch" with the wilds want to alter, shape and control it to suit selfish desires. Many want to eradicate wolves. (They don't want elk to be too wild, to behave and react too much like elk.)

Elk without wolves; ducks without foxes. We're suppressing and denying vital evolutionary innate knowledge and instincts -- not to mention creating a boringly dull and docile world. I want some of it back.

Maybe that's why I feel so damn alive in the presence of wild grizzlies. It's why the cattail marsh felt so alive in the wee hours of this morning -- primordial energy as invigorating as lightning; as powerful as a flood; as intense as a wildfire. It's not always pleasant, but essential for a healthy world. We evade it at our loss, perhaps even our peril.

We say society advances, but what are we leaving behind? What have we lost? 

Such were my thoughts from the marsh early this morning.  

In a few nights I will be selling snacks, booze, cigarettes, soda and bottled water to people driving fossil-fueled vehicles on pavement at all hours of the night -- and right on the edge of this remnant cattail marsh where grizzlies once snacked on beavers and the Salish camped every spring to gather bitterroots on nearby hills. 

What have we lost?

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Hooded Punk Kid Marine Wolf-Loving Hunter


• Ron Todd Summers: David, you rely on the studies of others whom have tainted your mind. Your still wet behind the ears and have a long ways to go before your opinion counts.

• David Stalling: Ron, I am 54 years old and have hunted, fished and roamed the wilds most of my life. I served in a Marine Corps Force Recon Unit; I earned degrees in forestry and journalism; I have worked for the U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, and served two terms as the president of the Montana Wildlife Federation . . . I've also killed 26 elk, most with a bow. And I fish. I've spent most of a lifetime around and observing elk, wolves, grizzlies and other wildlife. How long do the back of ears stay wet? Please tell me, what else do I need to do, and how much longer do I have to go, to become as wise as you old guru?

• Ron Todd Summers: David, first off let me say, I am sorry for saying you are wet behind the ears. Your profile picture should be changed and its misleading. If the wolves didnt play an important part in thining out the herd in yellowstone, then in 1995 when they were introduced was a big lie.

• David Stalling: Ron, Of course the wolves played a role in thinning out the elk herds. And that's a good thing. Elk herds are back within their historical range of variability -- at healthy, sustainable levels -- the habitat and other wildlife are better off for it. Why should my profile pic be changed and how is it misleading? It's me. It was taken recently in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness.

• Ron Todd Summers: You look like a 16 year old. I am surprised a hunter would support the reintroduction of wolves that are killing all our elk.

• David Stalling: Well, thanks . . . I think. I guess the wilds keep me healthy. I am kind of surprised a fly fisherman would be opposed to the reintroduction of a species that has helped restore healthy landscapes, including the critical riparian areas that help maintain healthy rivers and streams that sustain healthy trout populations.

• Ron Todd Summers: Your picture profile still makes you look like a kid. So now your saying wolves help fish?

• David Stalling: Thanks Ron. As I said, the backcountry keeps me healthy. You seemed a bit overly interested in my looks. A kid? You might consider getting new glasses. But yes, an overabundance of elk hammered the riparian communities in the Yellowstone area -- riparian areas are critical in maintaining the healthy, functioning river systems that sustain the fish you catch -- and the return of wolves has helped knock elk back to healthy, sustainable levels. As a result, the riparian areas have improved, as has the health of the rivers and streams that sustain the fish you like to catch. It's all connected -- there's lots of cogs to a wheel, and they all play a role. That is how healthy, functioning ecosystems work.

• Ron Todd Summers: No not interested in your looks. I am straight. You said you are 54 yoa, I simply pointed out that in the picture you look like a hooded punk kid. See and that explains a lot about you being confused. Fisherman have not caused the decline in elk and the wolves have not increased the cutthroat population. Do you know how messed up that sounds? I dont care what facts or studies you are basing this on, you will probably say next that the moon is responsible for the populations.

• David Stalling: A hooded punk 54-year old former Force Recon Marine kid wearing a backpack and mountain parka in the middle of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness in the winter? Can you see okay? And how does that explain a lot about me being "confused?" You need to read up a bit on ecosystems and understand how they function. Learn about the wild places you claim to spend time in and understand.

• Ron Todd Summers: A hooded punk kid playing in the snow doesn't make you a marine in the bitterroot, and an expert on ecosystems. Still not interested and very straight.

 • David Stalling: Check out my latest album, available at most punk rock record stores:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Frozen Solitude: A Winter Trek through the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness

Perhaps the best, and certainly the easiest part of my brutally cold winter trek through the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness took place on a scorching hot July day. I was on a four-day backpack trip to rescue my skis, which I had cached in the wilds the previous December. On the way out I met a river guide leading clients from Georgia down the Selway River. 

"Are those skis you have strapped to your pack?" he asked. I smiled and nodded. 
"You've either been out here a long time, or you're crazy," he said. 
"Both," I replied.

So I told him about my winter excursion, a 14-day, 125-mile trek through the remote 1.4-million acre wilderness in south central Montana and central Idaho. It's a story of wicked-cold temperatures, blizzards, avalanches, icy creek crossings, cliff jumps and a mortally wounded moose. The guide offered dinner in exchange for entertaining his clients with my adventure. We settled around the campfire and my story unraveled like a tall tale. Wearing only a T-shirt, shorts and Tevas, swatting mosquitoes on a warm summer evening, I struggled to convey just how brutally different the land becomes during the short, dark days of winter.

"It was day three of my winter journey," I began, "and all had gone as planned . . ." 

I had already skied up Lost Horse Creek to Bear Creek Pass, and enjoyed the long, gradual downhill trek along Bear Creek to the Selway River. Thus far skies were blue, temperatures crisp but comfortable, and the snow (as deep as 20 feet in places) was packed and easy to ski. Even getting out of my sleeping bag in the morning wasn't so bad. At this rate, I thought, I might just get through the wilderness and reach Elk City, Idaho in eight days instead of ten as I had planned. But by the time I reached the Selway River, clouds had rolled in, snow was falling hard, and the river had a cold, grey menacing look. Ice was clinging to the banks, snow was piled deep on the islands and boulders, and  emerald water was slowly carrying mini-icebergs north towards the Lochsa and Clearwater. The 40 or so yards across is an easy swim in sum­mer, but deadly in winter. I found a good fording spot, where the river was waist-deep, and built a large fire as a backup in case things went awry. I stripped off my clothes and, car­rying my pack high above my head, I tried to wade across. My feet grew so numb I could not feel the bottom as I tried to pick my way across the rocky riverbed. I'll never know if I stepped on loose rock or slippery algae, but my feet came out from under me and I fell into an icy bath. I barely made it to my fire, still hot enough to warm me. Once dry, I dressed, dried out the wet gear, cooked up some hot chocolate, ate, repacked, stripped and tried again. This time I wore wool socks and long johns and had better luck. I reached the west side numb, cold and humbled, and quickly changed into dry thermals, wool pants and jacket, windbreaker, boots, hats, gloves and wrapped my sleeping bag around me for added warmth. I remember feeling smug as my body temperature adjusted, thinking I had just completed the most difficult part of the trip. 

I was wrong.

As with human relations, my infatuation with the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness has grown stronger through adversity; you have to see the harsh side of people and places before you truly know them and can truly love them. The Selway drew me in when I moved to Montana in 1985, straight out of the Marine Corps, and began exploring the more remote parts of the country.  In those days, I worked four 10-hour days for the Forest Service, using all my three­-day weekends, vacations, sick days and occasional days of playing hooky to develop an intimate relationship with the place. I backpacked throughout the mountains in summer; fished and swam in most of the lakes; hunted elk and picked huckleber­ries in the fall, and searched for dropped antlers in the spring. I scaled the jagged, granite walls; crawled through the steep jungles of alder and menziesii; slipped, cussed and climbed my way through spruce bottoms tangled in blowdown; basked in glorious fall days in high mountain meadows graced by golden larch and the pungent odor of alpine fir; nearly drowned in one of the creeks and survived a punish­ing fall off a cliff. I've seen the mountain goats, elk, moose, wolverines, black bear, mountain lions, wolves and other wild critters that inhabit the place, all on my spring, summer and fall trips.

Winter, of course, is different.

Like flood and fire, winter brings death to the high country but plays a vital role in keeping the whole healthy; in its wake comes rejuvena­tion and life. l wanted to see the Selway in its harshest mood, when this brilliant, vibrant landscape falls into a deep, long silent sleep.

My first attempt failed. My friend Jim and I skied part way down Bear Creek on a clear January afternoon and camped under massive cedars. We awoke the next morning to a startling rumble that sounded like thunder. We dressed and climbed out of the tent to investigate. We watched in awe as a massive wall of snow let loose from a ridge maybe half a mile away, knocking out trees in its path and launching car-sized boulders as if they were pebbles. There are few things I fear as much as avalanches. While a Marine, on ski patrol in northern Norway, some comrades had been buried and had come close to death. Once, in the Bitterroot Mountains, an avalanche slammed me into trees and buried me up to my waist. I've had recurring nightmares of riding down a steep slope atop an avalanche and slowly sinking into blackness beneath a white tomb.

So Jim and I abandoned the trip that day and backtracked our way out.

We tried again the next year, in February, but ran into wet, sticky snow too difficult to ski on, and so retreated once again. On my third, successful attempt I went alone, during my Christmas break, as Jim traveled to warmer climes for vacation.

Crossing a clearing the day after my frigid river swim, I felt the snow beneath my skis move slightly, carrying me downhill. When it stopped, I cautiously backed out to a safer place in the trees. I dug a snow pit, examined the various layers and observed how the top, wet, heavier portion could easily slide on a lower frozen layer. In other words, avalanche danger was high. Retracing my path back down to the Selway River, I headed south, then west up a different drainage. Eventually I found a safer route, but the detour added an extra day to my trip. And then a blizzard moved in.

I spent two days in my tent, reading, writing in my jour­nal, and feeling lonely, vulnerable and restless. There were times I thought the wind would pick up the tent, with me in it, and carry me away. I kept knocking snow off the tent so it wouldn't collapse under the weight. The few times I ventured out in the brutal wind to relieve myself, I did not let go of my temporary home for fear of losing it in the whiteout condi­tions. When the storm subsided, only the top two feet of the tent showed above the snow. I had to dig my way out.

Skies cleared to blue, temperatures plummeted, and I packed up and moved on. That evening, as I sought a place to spend the night, my ski binding broke. I had just passed the halfway point where it was as easy to push on to Elk City, Idaho, as it was to turn back, and I was seven days into what I'd optimistically expected to be a ten-day trip. With skis rendered useless, I strapped on a pair of snowshoes I'd brought along for emer­gencies. As grey clouds rolled in, bringing another storm, I tied my skis to a distinguishable alpine fir on a prominent ridge where I knew I could find them come summer. Then I moved on as quickly as I could on snowshoes. The going would be much slower than skiing, and I had only enough rations for three more days. Toward dusk, another obstacle stopped me -- a series of sheer cliffs. Not wanting to risk adding another day by turn­ing back, I took my chances. Finding a section of cliff that looked to be only 20-feet high, I threw my pack down and watched it disappear in soft, powdery snow. Then I jumped. My body jabbed through the snow like a knife, stopping chest deep. Relieved that I had hit no rocks or trees, I laughed out loud with adrenaline-induced exhilaration. I had overcome fear, pushed limits and survived to tell about it.

After brushing off snow and digging out my pack, I noticed a scrawny old whitebark pine, covered in hoar frost with weathered, twisted branches reaching in all directions. The tree seemed the only living thing around. I felt a strong bond with this monarch, admiring it for its tenacious ability to cling to life in such a harsh place. I took a photo of that tree, so cold and alone in a barren land scape, and dubbed it Frozen Solitude. That old stone pine signaled a turning point. The rest of the trip was tolerably cold, and the hard-packed snow allowed snow­shoeing to go more quickly than anticipated. Bright stars and a fat moon lit up clear, brilliant nights that offered spectacular shows of aurora borealis. Up Wylies Ridge towards Square Rock, on past Black Mountain, Elk Summit and Running Lake, then down toward Meadow Creek, I covered many miles, legs often exhausted from lifting the extra weight of snow that often accumulates on top of snowshoes.

Near the end of my trek, I noticed fresh moose tracks down along a spruce bottom and followed them. Soon I saw blood, large red splotches brilliantly contrasting an otherwise white and grey world. Like ink on paper, the tracks revealed a story. I found the place where a mountain lion had leapt from behind a boulder, and could see where predator and prey rolled and struggled for a good 50 yards. Then the lion tracks went a separate direction. I continued on the blood trail, and came upon the moose, a large cow, lying in a creek. When she saw me, she tried to stand up, but fell back down into the cold, running water. Her left side was torn and bloody from tooth and claw. There was nothing I could do for her, not even sure it would be right if I could. Feeling sad, and intrusive, I moved on, contemplating my contradictory feelings of sorrow and elation. Seemingly brutal and unusual to us modern day people, such events occur every day in the wilds, in the real world, a world of life and death, decay and renewal. To be buried by avalanche, drowned in a river, frozen to death in a blizzard . . . such an end would be mourned by friends and family at home. But out there, out in the wilds, I would simply fertilize the sedges and forbs eaten by elk come spring. Wilderness, the last wonderful wild vestiges of the real world, can bring us closer to our roots.

By the time I approached Elk City, I had been without food for three days. I felt weak and exhausted, but even then, when I heard the obnoxious whining of a snowmobile in the dis­tance, I longed to return to the silence of winter wilderness. When I reached town, friends threw a party for me, but after so many days alone it was overwhelming to be around people. I had difficulty keeping food down at first; the greasy pizza and cheeseburgers were a shock to my stomach after the lean days of trekking.

The next summer, I returned for my skis, coming in from the Paradise area, which is only accessi­ble by car in the summer. After a wonderful evening with the river guide and his southern clients, I walked back to my tent, crawled into my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep thinking about snow and cold and ice and bliz­zards. I could hear the Selway River nearby, trickling water born from high mountain snowmelt flowing across the land, cascading over ledges and meandering through lush, green meadows, bringing life to this wild place; nourishment, suste­nance and life all derived from the harsh deadness of winter. I fell asleep, feeling warm, safe and content.

But that night, I dreamed of avalanches.

Note: This piece originally appeared in the 2005 Winter Issue of the Big Sky Journal, and received 2nd place in the Outdoor Writers Association of America's Excellence in Craft Contest, Nature Writing Category.

Friday, January 2, 2015

America's Public Lands: NOT FOR SALE!

"There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country." 
--Theodore Roosevelt, 1912

In 1872 the United States did something uniquely remarkable -- it created Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world. For the first time in our nation's history instead of selling, transferring and giving away all federal public domain lands to form states and advance settlement, we began setting some aside to protect forests, wildlife and remnants of wild, natural America for future Americans to see, experience and enjoy.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1891, the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve was created near Yellowstone -- later renamed the Shoshone National Forest, the oldest national forest in the United States. That same year, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act, which allowed the president of the United States to set aside forest lands on public domain. A decade later, presidents Harrison, Cleveland and McKinley had transferred about 50 million acres into the forest reserve system.

Then, of course, along came President Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt led efforts to create four national game preserves,  five national parks, 18 national monuments, 24 reclamation projects, 51 federal bird reservations and 150 national forests. All in all, he set aside 230 million acres of public lands for (as his first appointed Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot put it) "The greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time."

This American legacy has grown. We, the people of the United States, now own about 640 million acres of forests, mountains, meadows, prairies, desert, streams, rivers, lakes and other lands that not only provide us with clean air and clean water and help sustain us, but also sustains an abundance and diversity of wildlife and related recreational opportunities. These public lands are held in trust for the American people by the federal government and managed mostly by the Bureau of Land Management, the United States National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, or the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Department of the Interior, or the United States Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture. 

These lands are not managed by "city slickers" or "politicians" in "far off places" "back east" such as Washington DC, as some would have you believe. These lands are managed by professional land managers in district and regional offices, who live in and are part of local communities wherever these lands exist. Their management decisions are based on input from American citizens -- local and throughout the nation --  as well as input from professional, trained, educated foresters, wildlife biologists, fisheries biologists, range specialists, engineers, botanists, ecologists and others. Much of these lands are managed for multiple uses, including logging, grazing, mining, gas and oil development and other uses. Some are designated as wilderness, thanks to the Wilderness Act of 1964, to remain forever wild and "untrammeled by man."

These lands are open to all of us. These are places where we Americans can hike; backpack; camp; ski; snowboard; mountain bike; watch wildlife; take photos; fish; hunt and otherwise seek adventure, solace, solitude and freedom. 

But there is an alarming, disconcerting effort underway to sell and transfer these national public lands to states and other entities. Many lawmakers in the Republican Party are calling for the sale and transfer of our public lands to help pay off the deficit. Many state GOP leaders have established official party platforms calling for the sale and transfer of public lands. Republican legislators in Congress have already tried to sneak public land sales into amendments to various bills.

A group called the American Lands Council is running a slick campaign to promote the sale and transfer of our public lands by using lies, half-truths and misconceptions. They wrongly claim our public lands are being "mismanaged"  because it's not all being managed for gas, oil, mines, timber, cattle, greed and maximum profit; because there are not roads everywhere providing "access" for everyone and anyone who wants to drive a vehicle wherever they want to go; because not all of our nation's lands are being managed precisely the way they want them to be managed to boost their bank accounts, with negative consequences to clean air, healthy forests and wildlife as well as many recreational opportunities. They play on people's ignorance and fear to push for the dismantling of our public lands legacy for selfish interests. Make no mistake: These people are backed by large, powerful, wealthy timber, grazing, mining and gas and oil interests who would do to our public lands exactly what great, foresighted leaders like Theodore Roosevelt worked to prevent.  

This is our land, this is our legacy; let's not lose it to greedy interests who can only see profit -- let's keep our public lands in public hands. As Theodore Roosevelt himself put it: "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."

President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured."  Aldo Leopold -- a hunter, angler, writer and professor who is considered the "father of wildlife conservation" -- put it this way: "Wilderness is a resource that can shrink, but not grow."  Or, to paraphrase Will Rogers, "Once it's gone, it's gone; They're not making any more of it."  

One of the groups fighting to keep our public lands in public hands is Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), a growing group of good, ethical, conscientious and conservation-minded hunters and anglers from all over the United States and Canada fighting to protect our wild public lands, water and wildlife. They have earned my trust and support; I hope you will consider supporting them as well.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is currently holding a Public Land Plea Video Contest, with submissions being accepted until February 1st, 2015. Below is my submission, summarizing why keeping public lands in public hands matters to me. Please check it out. You can also see it on the BHA contest site: KEEP IT WILD - KEEP IT PUBLIC. 

Please go to the BHA video contest site and check out others. Vote on your favorite. And it you feel so inclined, please make and submit your own video -- Why does keeping public lands in public hands matter to you?

Video by Dave Stalling (Music by Woody Guthrie)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Seasons Under The Big Sky: A Year in the Wilds of Montana

Seasons Under The Big Sky: A Year in the Wilds of Montana
Music by John Denver (Seasons Suite: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring)
Photos by Dave Stalling

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wolves at the Door: How Hunter Hysteria Helped Justify Litigation

Last month the New York Times released a video, “Wolves at the Door, which rightfully points out tactical mistakes made by wolf advocates; mistakes that have helped fuel resentment towards "environmentalists" throughout Montana, Idaho and Wyoming where wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s and continue to expand.  The video, however, fails to adequately show the other side: How wolf hysteria among many hunters provoked and contributed to the divisiveness; helped erode trust and credibility towards hunters, and fueled justified skepticism towards the ability of states to manage wolves.

Before wolves were brought down from Canada and released into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 they were listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Although a small population had moved from Canada into northwest Montana on their own, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (after conducting numerous public hearings and completing an Environmental Impact Statement) decided to reestablish a viable wolf population in the Yellowstone area (one of three wolf recovery areas established in the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan). They were to be brought back as a “nonessential, experimental” population, which allows for more management flexibility when a species is restored to historic, but not currently occupied habitat because they can be treated as “threatened” and not “endangered.”  Here’s the part that has become hotly contested:  The plan identified a “recovered” wolf population as being “at least” 10 breeding pairs of wolves, for 3 consecutive years, in each of 3 recovery areas (northwestern Montana, central Idaho, and Yellowstone). A population of this size would be comprised of a "minimum" 300 wolves.

“As a hunter I thought, you know, we can handle this,” says Randy Newberg, star of a Sportsman Channel “extreme public lands hunting” show sponsored by Federal Premium Ammunition and who is featured in the “Wolves at the Door” video. “As long as the agreement is followed, this isn’t the end of the world.”

But to listen to most hunters, hunting organizations and the hunting industry you’d think it was indeed the end of the world.

The rabid lies, half-truths and misconceptions many hunters spread about wolves, and the irrational hatred they express for the animal, borders on insanity. Get on most any hunting forum where the subject of wolves comes up and you will see hunters making claims such as: "wolves have decimated elk populations;" "there are no elk left;" "Yellowstone has become a biological wasteland;" "the wolves introduced are a different, larger, meaner subspecies than what once lived here;" "wolves were reintroduced illegally;" "once they eat all our elk they will turn on our children;" "wolves were forced upon us by out-of-state environmentalists from the cities," "wolves are terribly viscous; they eat animals while their still alive and do not kill humanely." 

Even mainstream hunting organizations joined the hysteria. The current director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, David Allen, has repeatedly called wolf reintroduction the “worst ecological disaster since the decimation of bison herds” and erroneously claimed that wolves are “decimating” and “annihilating” elk herds. Like many hunters, he viciously attacks anyone who disagrees. (See: The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wolves and the Abandonment of Science, Reason and Logic.)

Many hunters promote the infamous “SSS” solution (Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up) – in other words, they advocate poaching – and few, if any hunters or hunting organizations speak out against such activities. It’s common in Montana to see bumpers stickers that state, “Wolves: Smoke a Pack a Day,” and “Save 100 Elk, Kill a Wolf.” Even the best of hunting-conservation organizations avoid the issue, as to not anger their hunter base. To speak out in favor of wolves within the hunting community – even to just point out biological and factual errors – can get one ostracized and labeled a “wolf lover,” which is akin to being an accused communist during the McCarthy era. The hysteria against wolves has influenced and inflicted western politicians who must appease their hunter-rancher constituents, as well as state wildlife agencies who are funded mostly by hunting and fishing license fees and must be responsive to hunters, politically appointed game commissioners and state legislators.

So when wolves reached recovery goals in 2002, as predicted, and wolf populations continued to grow and expand (currently at about 1,600) the process of delisting wolves and turning management over to the states got held up by a series of lawsuits filed by environmental organizations and decisions handed down by federal judges.  For those who had hoped to see wolves delisted sooner, it seemed a violation of the initial agreement.  But the experimental, nonessential recovery plan did not just state wolves would be considered recovered when numbers reach a "minimum" (not maximum) 300. It also states:

“Delisting may occur when analysis of the best available scientific and commercial information shows that gray wolves are no longer threatened with extinction due to: (1) Loss of habitat, (2) overutilization, (3) disease or predation, (4) inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms, and (5) other natural or manmade factors. In addition to the above, the final EIS, states that the following criteria must be met: (1) For 3 consecutive years, a minimum of 10 breeding pairs are documented in each of the 3 recovery areas described in the revised wolf recovery plan; (2) protective legal mechanisms are in place; and (3) the EIS evaluation has been completed.”

That leaves a lot of room for interpretation by wildlife biologists, environmentalists, hunters, politicians, lawyers and judges.  For example: When the state of Wyoming decided to manage wolves as “varmits” that could be shot on site in most parts of the state, many people did not perceive that as having adequate “protective legal mechanisms” in place.

“We’re now standing around saying ‘You can’t trust this process,’” says Randy Newberg in the “Wolves at the Door” video. True. And many of us were standing around saying “you can’t trust hunters and the state fish and game agencies to manage wolves based on science.”  Also true.

In no small way, hunters helped justify the litigation.

Granted, many citizens do not support any hunting of wolves under any circumstances, and were bound to oppose any and all plans that included hunting.  But even for those of us who supported eventual state management and limited hunting it became pretty difficult to trust hysterical hunters who basically control state wildlife agencies and weren’t coming across as very rational, reasonable or science-based.  Idaho Fish and Game hired a bounty hunter to try and eliminate two packs of wolves in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, one of the largest wilderness areas in the United States. Idaho hunters have organized wolf-killing competitions and killer co-ops to pay trappers to kill wolves. The state legislature and governor declared wolves a "disaster emergency" and allocated $2 million to killing wolves. More recently the department conducted secretive aerial shootings of wolves from helicopters with no public knowledge or input and spent $30,000 to kill 23 wolves. Idaho Fish and Game is doing this and more in an ongoing effort to appease many ranchers and hunters to protect livestock and maintain artificially high and unhealthy numbers of elk for hunters to shoot at. (See: Killing Wolves: A Hunter-Led War Against Science and Wildlife.)

Most hunters and hunting-based conservation organizations love to tout the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of principles that has guided wildlife management in the United States and Canada. One of those principles is that “science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy.”  This tenet draws from the writings of Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife management, who in the 1930s called for a wildlife conservation movement facilitated by trained wildlife biologists that made decisions based on facts, professional experience, and commitment to shared underlying principles rather than just the interests of hunting or culling of predators. Science in wildlife policy includes studies of the biology, ecology, population dynamics and behavior of the animals being managed.

What do we know about wolves?  We know they are apex predators that are generally self-regulatory. We know that 65 percent of wolf mortality is the result of wolves themselves. We know wolves have complex social structures and breeding behaviors that, when disrupted by hunting and trapping in some places during certain times of year, can cause packs to disperse and sometimes results in more packs, more breeding and more wolves.  Studies in Canada show that wolf predation on elk is often “compensatory” and not “additive” – in other words, when comparing elk herds where there are no wolves with elk herds where there are wolves, in similar habitats, overall mortality is often similar because of other factors.  A recent study that took a close look at 25 years of wolf management statistics in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming concludes that for every wolf killed the probability of getting an increased number of breeding pairs increases as does associated livestock depredation, and both increase at about the same five-percent rate.  A recent study in Wyoming funded by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Boone and Crocket Club, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Safari Club International concludes that wolves may not be as “detrimental” to elk herds as people think and that elk are adapting to the presence of wolves.

We know that the return of wolves to much of the western United States has resulted in significant overall, long-term benefits to wildlife and the habitat that sustains them -- including the species we love to hunt. (Check out: "How Wolves Change Rivers.")

In Yellowstone National Park we know wolves have knocked elk populations back to sustainable levels and, as a result, aspen forests, rangelands and riparian communities (previously hammered by too many elk) are recovering – benefiting streams, rivers, forests, grasslands and an abundance and diversity of wildlife they sustain.  We know the northern Yellowstone elk herd (one of six herds within the park) numbered 16,000 in 1932 and were knocked down to a more sustainable 6,000 by 1968 by Park Service shooters, hunters and winter kill.  We know the herd increased to an unsustainable 17,000 after the controversial shooting program ended and the Park Service adopted a “natural regulation” policy. We know that from 1976-2004 the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued a lot of cow elk permits north of the park and enough 3-14 year old cows with “high reproductive value” were killed to cause a significant reduction in the birth of elk calves and calf survival.  We know that the number of elk killed by wolves within the northern herd now exceeds the number killed by hunters, but they mostly prey on calves and older cows (14-plus years) with “low reproductive value,” and so the number of calves born has increased. (However, there is concern about current low bull-to-cow ratios within the herd and low calf survival, which is attributed to a complexity of factors of which wolves are only a part.)  We know the northern herd now numbers about 4,000 elk, well within the objective of 3,000-5,000 and much closer to the 5,000 population level that wildlife biologists estimated as a good, healthy, sustainable number more than 50 years ago. We know elk numbers are more difficult to estimate now because elk travel in smaller groups and hide within the forests and are not standing in the open in large numbers overgrazing their range like they used to. We know a higher percentage of elk (77 percent) leave the park as opposed to the 30 percent that used to leave. We know elk have adapted to the presence of wolves, are “leaner and meaner” (as one wildlife biologist put it) and that wolves are killing fewer elk (as most us hunters can attest, elk are smart and adaptable). We know that as elk populations first declined and then stabilized wolf populations also declined and stabilized from a high of about 175 to an estimated 85 today (some of this may be a result of hunting wolves outside the park, but biologists I have spoken to predicted and expected this sort of decline and stabilization).   

“We have a declining wolf population,” says Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project. “Numbers here got as high as we expected based on available prey. This suggests that once wolves reach a certain density you start to get social regulations of their numbers.”

Hunters can no longer shoot as many elk as they used to when the animals migrate out of the park to winter – but the landscape is healthier.

Many hunters and hunting organizations say wolves need to be managed like other wildlife. But various wildlife species are managed differently in accordance with what we know about the species being managed. We do not and should not manage ungulates, such as deer and elk, in the same manner that we manage predators, such as bears and mountain lions. Yes, wolves need to be managed like other wildlife but not in the same manner as other wildlife. Wolves are not elk. Wolves are not deer. Wolves should not be managed like elk and deer; wolves should be managed like wolves. We are not managing wolves based on good, sound science and what we know about their natural history, behavior and ecology – we are managing wolves based on anger, resentment, hatred and political pressure.

Like many parts of our society today, facts and science are often quickly dismissed by many hunters if it goes against what they want to believe; it seems a lot of hunters only support science when the conclusions match their preconceived notions. That is not in line with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

This, in large part, is why environmentalists filed lawsuits. Lots of lawsuits. Too many lawsuits. And it did, indeed, cause a backlash among those who were already not so fond of wolves or environmentalists.  As Lisa Upson, the executive director of Keystone Conservation, puts it in the “Wolves at the Door” video: “We should have thought harder about the potential for backlash.”

In 2011 Congress intervened, passing legislation that turned wolf management over to individual states while setting a dangerous precedence of politicians deciding when a species is recovered rather than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its scientists.

I can understand the frustrations of Randy Newberg as expressed in “Wolves at the Door.” But in other outlets he merely helps fan the fires. He refers to the process as a “betrayal of local citizens in the face of zealous groups who view wolves not as a canine, but rather a bovine - cash cow." He says that "the groups continual litigation of the issue for their own financial benefit did nothing to help wildlife. If anything, they set back the idea of species introduction/re-introduction by 50 years."  In response to the dangerously unprecedented Congressional action that removed wolves from the Endangered Species List based on politics and not science he said, “It upset a lot of the fringe operators and their attorneys who viewed wolf litigation as a lifetime annuity; but they would mistake me for someone who cares about their hurt feelings.” On one of his wolf hunts filmed for his Sportsmen Channel show, he calls wolf advocates “a bunch of wingnut screwballs from wherever telling us how to manage wildlife.”

Randy Newberg knows his audience, and knows how to turn wolves into his own cash cow.

There are many of us wolf advocates living right here in the West, close to the wildlands, wild elk and wild wolves we cherish. Some of us even hunt. (See: Why I Hunt: Thoughts from a Wolf-Loving, Elk-Killing Tree Hugger.) I never felt betrayed. I support several of the groups involved in the litigation, as do many of my friends here in Montana, and certainly do not consider them "zealous," "fringe" or "wingnut srewballs." Rather, I am embarrassed by the way fellow hunters and hunting organizations have reacted to the return of wolves.  The volatile, irrational fear, hatred and ignorance not only portrays hunters as knowing even less about wildlife than the “city folks” they like to deride, but helped fuel the litigation and related anger and resentment that led to passage of legislation that could potentially erode the Endangered Species Act.  

There’s plenty of blame to go around; “Wolves at the Door” only tells part of the story.  

“The Wolf Advocacy community made a strategic error early on,” says Hal Herring, a well-respected hunter, wildlife advocate and conservation writer who was interviewed for the “Wolves at the Door” video. “At some point the fears of the hunters and ranchers became realized when the lawsuits came in. Formerly very reasonable people were beginning to despise the Endangered Species Act . . . wolf recovery . . . the whole thing. It became a metaphor for overreaching federal power.”

I agree with Hal. I, too, know formerly reasonable people who now despise the Endangered Species Act.  But I also know many very reasonable people (who remain reasonable people) who are beginning to despise hunters and hunting – people who are having a difficult time believing that wolves are the “worst ecological disaster since the decimation of bison herds” and that wolves have “decimated” and “annihilated” our elk herds. The science is on their side.

If we hunters want to build, restore and maintain credibility, respect and support, we need to speak out in support of science and speak out against those who spread lies, misconceptions and half-truths about a wild animal that not only plays a vital role in the big ecological scheme of things, but that most Americans are glad to have back.