Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Into The Bear's Den



Freezing, drizzling rain when we started off at the trailhead, followed by a challenging crossing of a turbulent, spring-swelled creek and a steep, rugged climb to the high country where snow remained deep and avalanche danger extreme. Early May – the worst possible time to head into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, but the best time to search for grizzly hair.

A few days earlier, taking a much more leisurely approach by plane, two aerial observers spotted fresh bear tracks high in the backcountry and traced them back to the very place where the bear had popped out of the snow, a furry eruption from a long winter’s nap. It’s just what they were looking for; since grizzlies tend to den higher than black bears, and this den sat at about 7,000 feet, it just could be a grizzly’s. They plotted the spot on a map and took a few photos to assist efforts to locate the den from the ground – if they could find anyone foolhardy enough to cross a raging creek and risk avalanche danger. That’s where Larry Campbell and I came in. Our mission was straightforward enough: hike, swim and snowshoe to the bear’s den, dig it up, find some hair and bring it back. It took five days.


The trip was part of the Great Grizzly Search, a collaborative effort by eight conservation and scientific groups to try and document the presence of grizzlies within the 1.4 million acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and surrounding country in southwest Montana and central Idaho, an immense 26,073-square-mile chunk of wildlands that hold the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states. It once took me 14 days to cross some of this country on snowshoes and skis, a 125-mile solo midwinter trek from Lost Horse Creek near Darby, Montana, to Elk City, Idaho. I’ve backpacked through these mountains in the 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’ve scaled its jagged, granite walls; crawled through its steep jungles of alder and menziesii; slipped, cussed and climbed my way across 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 its creeks and survived a close call with avalanche. I’ve seen elk, moose, wolverines, black bear, mountain lions and wolves, but never grizzly bears in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. This doesn’t mean they’re not there.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t think so. That’s why, in 1999, the agency approved a plan to “reintroduce” 25 grizzlies to the area as an “experimental, nonessential” population, which means they would not be fully protected under the Endangered Species Act as they are elsewhere where the bears are known to exist. The novel concept was a compromise crafted by an unusual coalition including the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife and the Idaho forest products industry. Other groups, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Great Bear Foundation, Friends of the Bitterroot (of which Larry Campbell is a member), Friends of the Clearwater, Wilderness Watch, Sierra Club and the Craighead Wildlife/Wildlands Institute did not support the plan. They believe grizzlies already inhabit this country and deserve full protection under the Endangered Species Act. Thus was born the Great Grizzly Search, to prove they’re already there. These groups endorse a more viable option of protecting habitat, letting bears roam in on their own, and perhaps “augmenting” existing populations by bringing in a few more. A sound plan, to be sure, but unlikely to receive political backing in a region where “No Grizzlies” stickers adorn many a pickup truck. “It’s just one more thing we don’t need here,” said one local resident at a public meeting. “We’re already fighting the economy, development, environmentalists and terrorists.” The governors of Idaho and Montana spoke against it, as did Congressional leaders. “They are schizophrenic, manic-depressive animals,” said Representative Helen Chenoweth. “I don’t want them at all in Idaho.”


Good populations of grizzlies roam Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear  Wilderness areas, and other parts of northern Montana. There are also grizzlies in the Seeley, Swan and Blackfoot Valleys, and in the Yaak – a place less wild than the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. There’s also a sizeable group in and around Yellowstone. But there’s no connection between the northern and southern populations, something wildlife biologists say is necessary to ensure genetic viability and long-term health of grizzlies. In its 1993 Grizzly Recovery Plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service emphasized the importance of restoring viable populations within the Selway Bitterroot area, providing a vital link where say a boar from the north might conceivably impregnate a sow from the south.
This may have already happened. 

Officially, the last “verified” grizzly in the area was 1946. Unofficially, reports trickle in, including a 1980 sighting by and Idaho Fish and Game officer. In 1998, a Forest Service packer saw a bear with a “prominent hump . . . and a dish-faced profile.” Another Forest Service official found a large track in the same area believed to be a grizzly’s. A Forest Service biologist called both men “experienced woodsmen” and “objective observers” and concluded: “I feel that the sightings are in all likelihood those of a grizzly bear.” But not enough verification, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so the agency persisted with the “experimental, non-essential” plan. No matter. Soon after taking office in 2000, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton put a halt to the grizzly restoration plan, experimental or not.

All the more reason to prove their existence; if the great bear still roams these mountains, the law mandates protection and restoration.


Which is why, in early May of 2001, Larry and I swam a frigid, violent creek and snowshoed our way up into the wilds. Not to say we were miserable. We spent the first night along a natural hot spring, popular enough in the summer that, as I poked around under boulders in search of dry kindling, I serendipitously discovered an old stashed bottle of cheap wine. We drank it, of course, while soaking in hot water and sharing tales of, what else?, close encounters with grizzlies.


If not fear, there is certainly apprehension when looking into the eyes of a wild grizzly from just a few feet away – even if the bear is sedated and confined to a 6-foot, cylindrical metal cage. Which is how I met my first wild grizzly many years ago while visiting with a wildlife biologist in Alberta. The bruin had raided a rancher’s grain so was captured to be moved back deeper into the wilds. Grizzlies evoke strong emotions; fear and awe to name just two. Smelling the musky stench of this burly boar, seeing his mass of bone, muscle, claw and thick, brown hair -- knowing that this animal under the right circumstances might tear of my limbs and consume me -- I also felt sorrow to see him humbled in a cage with a radio-collar around his neck. Subdued as he was, he seemed, well, merely like a bear; hardly the mythical beast we humans tend to either vilify or glorify.
 

Digging deep into the bear's den
“Bears are made of the same natural dust as we, and breath the same winds and drink of the same waters,” naturalist John Muir wrote. “A bear’s days are warmed by the same sun; his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours.” Certainly they warrant cautious respect, but mostly what they need from us is tolerance. 

I met a man who has lived in the backwoods of Alberta all of his 69 years, outfitting, logging, mining, trucking and whatever else he could do to get by. When our conversation wound around to grizzlies, he told of a coyote that chased a grizzly up a power pole. Zapped by the power lines, the bear came out of the sky like a runaway grand piano. Both were found dead, he says, the charred bruin on top of the flattened coyote. Not surprisingly, the man didn’t wrap grizzlies in a shroud of mystique. In Alberta, the bears aren’t endangered. “We have a good population here, and they don’t seem to bother anyone, although we do have an occasional incident,” he says. “In 1940, 1941, I saw grizzlies all around me when I was trapping with my Dad. I’ve been around them ever since. You either get used to them or your hair stands up all your life.”

My hair certainly stood up when, while hunting mule deer along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front several years ago a grizzly emerged from a copse of Doug fir just 40 yards to my front, walking right towards me. Before I could even decide how to react, he stood on his hind legs, sniffed the air, dropped to all fours and ran the other way. Another time at dusk in a dense, dark forest of spruce I stumbled onto a grizzly’s cache – a dead deer buried under dirt and spruce bows – and had a terrifying, primordial feeling that a bruin was close by, irritated perhaps, staring me down. I looked around and could barely see him in the shadows, perhaps 50 yards or so away, looking at me. I cautiously and humbly walked away, wondering if each breath would be my last. Another time, in the Badger Two Medicine area, I surprised a sow and her cubs and she bluff charged, full speed, to within perhaps 10 yards of me. It was a stern, dead-serious warning; I thought it was the end of my life.

Yet I never felt so alive.


In his book, “The Great Bear,” John Murray describes it perfectly: “Those who have packed far up into grizzly country know that the presence of even on grizzly on the land elevates the mountains, deepens the canyons, chills the winds, brightens the stars, darkens the forest, and quickens the pulse of all who enter it.”


Not to suggest they’re harmless. A few years ago in September, a bowhunter was gutting an elk in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley when he was mauled and killed by a grizzly. Such stories, though infrequent, often haunt me. Statistically, I know I’m more apt to fall off a cliff, drown, get struck by lightning or have a heart attack than fall pretty to a grizzly. But statistics don’t calm nerves when you stumble upon a steaming pile of bear scat. Invigorating, indeed, and a vital ingredient to wildness.
“When all the dangerous cliffs are fenced off, all the trees that might fall on people are cut down, all the insects that bite have been poisoned, and all of the grizzlies are dead because they are occasionally dangerous, the wilderness will not be made safe,” says Canadian naturalist Yorke Edwards, “Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness.”

All of which was going through my mind as Larry and I dug deeper through snow towards a bear’s den wondering if, perhaps, the bear was still there?

After our night at the hot spring, we strapped on our snowshoes and climbed and climbed and climbed; leaving behind the spruce and Doug fir, up into the lodgepole, then still higher into alpine fir and larch. We pitched a tent atop packed snow near a frozen lake and then, free at least from heavy packs, made quick time traveling to the rocky ridge where we knew at least one bear had slept the winter.
The rain below had been snow up high and the bear’s tracks were now covered. But we found a whitbark pine snag and a prominent rock outcrop that matched those in the photos taken from the plane, which in turn helped us find the general location of where the bear had emerged. After some time, and lots of digging, we discovered some discolored snow, light brown with some bear hair, where the bear must have tunneled out. Like a gold vein leading to the mother lode, we were able to race the bear’s path as we dug. About 10 feet or so down, knowing we were close, I asked Larry if he thought the bear might have been driven back to the den by the storm. “I don’t know,” he replied. And it caused us both to pause. It reminded me of my favorite Far Side cartoon, in which a fat mother bear sits atop a pile of bones in her den, holding up two human skulls as if they were puppets, telling her cubs, “Okay, one more time and it’s off to bed for both of you . . . ‘Hey, Bob, Think there are any bears in this old cave?’ ‘I don’t know Jim. Let’s take a look.’”

A quote about grizzlies from writer Bob McMeans also came to mind: “We must stay out of their bedrooms.” Leave them space, is what he meant, keep some country wild. Stop building homes and roads and trails everywhere. But just then it had a more literal meaning for me, so Larry stood ready with pepper spray while I continued digging. Soon enough, we reached a dark tunnel under the rocks. With headlamp on, I cautiously climbed in, barely squeezing my way through an opening as wide as my shoulders into a dusky room the size of a small tent. Luckily, no one was home. A musky odor remained, along with a soft bed made of bear grass. Hoar frost hung from the ceiling where moisture rising from the bear all winter froze to the granite wall.

And there was hair, lots of hair.


It seemed promising at first. The hair was brown with light, seemingly silver tips. Charles Jonkel, a renowned grizzly bear biologist who spearheads the Great Grizzly Search, suspected grizzly when he first examined it. But the samples didn’t have enough follicles attached, we were told, making it too tough to analyze for DNA. Larry went back to the site that fall, with renowned grizzly bear expert Doug Peacock, author of “Grizzly Years,” to gather more hair and look for other sign. Doug said the area was ideal grizzly habitat, and that the den just might be a grizzly’s. But the hair they brought back proved, conclusively, to be a black bear, a brown-colored black bear, which is common enough. So the hunt continues, like the elusive quest for Bigfoot, searching an enormous landscape for a relatively small, secretive beast.


Several years ago three yearling grizzlies, a sow and two boars, were seen near Noxon, west of Missoula, and just north of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. A mature sow, likely their mother, was found dead nearby, hit by a train. The cubs denned in the area that winter, and the young sow was found dead come spring. No one knows what happened to the boars.


The author climbing out of the bear's den
In the fall of 2002 a young grizzly bear was seen in the Hogback area of Rock Creek, about 30 miles southeast of Missoula, eating a dead moose. James Jonkel, a grizzly bear manager for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says the bear probably wandered south from the Blackfoot Valley. From Rock Creek the grizzly wandered west, over the Sapphires and into the Willoughby Creek area of the Bitterroot Valley where he got into garbage and hung out along the Bitterroot River. James says last he knew, the bear seemed to be headed back east towards Rock Creek. “He might be dead, he might have headed into the Pintlers, or maybe he went back towards the Blackfoot.”

I hope not. I like to imagine he crossed the river and headed west, maybe up Sweathouse Creek towards Bear Lake and Bear Creek Pass, then south, past Roaring Lion Creek and Lost Horse, past Lower Bear Lake and Upper Bear Lake, past the Grizzly Lakes and onward, south and west towards Bigfoot Lake, deep into the heart of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness.   

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Fall Lifts Me


Interestingly and perhaps ironically odd how during a time of year when so many things are dying and going to bed, I can feel so alive and happy. Distinct, often abrupt changes in seasons is healthy and invigorating, like a cold wet Autumn slap in the face. The antidote for winter becomes the antidote for summer. The fall lifts me; I might be overdosing -- time to head into the wilds again. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Autumn Ambivalence


There is fire in death
A fiery goodbye
A celebration of life
Under stoney grey skies
A bittersweet passing
A graceful letting go
To a long crucial rest
Beneath blankets of snow

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Lessons From a One-Legged Elk Hunter

Seasoned hunters learn to pack a few essentials: a good, sharp knife; long johns, hat and gloves;  toilet paper . . . that sort of thing. This year, Gary Edinger brought along a spare leg – one with a bugling bull elk painted on the knee.  

When I first met Gary ten years ago he had both of his legs (the ones he was born with) and he put them to good use, scrambling and traipsing through wild, remote country in pursuit of elk. Which is where I made his acquaintance. It was a warm September afternoon and I was hurrying down a gated, overgrown logging road-turned trail, toward the wilderness boundary where I planned to drop down into a narrow, granite-walled basin of spruce, fir and meadow to pursue elk with my bow. But before I reached the end of the road, I came across a hunter headed out. I was discouraged and selfishly bitter. I figured the tiny basin I was headed into wasn’t big enough for more than one ambitious bowhunter trying to fool rutting bulls—and now it was tainted. But it is public wilderness, belonging to us all, so I feigned a smile and greeted the man with my best attempt at pleasantries.

He was tall and lanky, perhaps in his late 50s, unshaven and sweating from a steep uphill climb. From his looks and the amount of gear he carried I figured he had been in the backcountry for weeks. The pack on his back was the size of a military footlocker, bulging at all sides as if it could burst open any moment, with a canvas tent the size of a duffle bag tied to the top. I’d be reluctant to burden a mule with the load he carried. But I’ve long had an aversion to heavy rucks, which is why I carried a backpack the size of a pillow, probably lighter than the full-sized axe and saw he had lashed to his pack frame.

To my initial chagrin, he was eager to drop his pack, take a break and chat. So I reluctantly obliged. And soon we were sitting on the ground swapping elk yarns, laughing and enjoying our shared passion for elk and wild country. He’s a logger from Wisconsin, travels West most years, packs in by himself, and enjoys the solitude of backcountry elk haunts. It seemed we share lots in common; except for our notion of elk camp.  

“You just out for the day?” he asked, looking inquisitively at my pack. “Five or six, depending on the elk,” I said. “And you? Have you been out here long?” “Four days,” he replied. We looked at each other as if we’d both met a fool.

He normally packs in with horses and mules. He likes comfort, he explained, returning each evening from a hard day’s hunt to a fire, a warm tent a hot meal. I don’t return anywhere, I told him, but sleep where I am—near the elk – sustained by energy bars, jerky and the hopes of fresh elk tenderloin.

We kept in touch, on and off, for several years, but he eventually faded to a distant memory. Until last September. He got my number from a friend and invited me to come along on an elk hunt. He needed help. Turns out he had recently lost his leg in a logging accident when a maple he was felling barber-chaired off its stump, violently jumped out and severed his left leg below the knee. He lost so much blood he barely survived, but managed to crawl to his skidder, drive his skidder to his truck, drive his truck to within cell phone range, and call 9-1-1. When the medical helicopter arrived he was unconscious. 

But now he was ready to get back into elk country, and wanted company and help. With not much else to do I decided to tag along and see what it would be like to do things his way – horses, mules, wall tent, wood stove and big, hot meals. So he picked me up in Missoula in a large truck, hauling a trailer full of stock, and we drove to a trailhead on the Idaho side of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness where he had an early rifle-season tag.

It wasn’t as easy as I thought, packing and loading a half dozen mules and horses and riding for nearly 13 hours – much of it in the dark – at first on main trails, then off onto some outfitter trails, and eventually what seemed like bushwhacking – riding up the bottom of a creek through and over thick blowdown, stopping often to cut out trees and re-establishing an old trail Gary had helped cut out years before. Though I came to appreciate the skill, knowledge and traditions of horsepacking, it seemed a lot of work. I could have hiked in faster. Sure, you can carry a lot of comfort on the back of livestock, but is it worth it? 

I also struggled philosophically. I’ve often gotten angry when I discover cut-out trails in remote wildlands that – as the wilderness act succinctly puts it – should be “untrammeled” by man. I resented helping Gary cut a trail into such a wild canyon. I didn’t keep my thoughts to myself, and before we even arrived to camp we became irritated and frustrated with each other over differing values, principles, beliefs, and views on many things. Gary thinks wilderness should be less restrictive and more accessible; I think we need to keep some places as wild as we can. He thinks the wolves are eating most of the elk; I think the return of wolves is a wonderful success story in the restoration of wildness. He’s glad few if any grizzlies still roam the Selway; I wish they came back with the wolves. I’m not so sure we should be hunting elk with rifles during the rut when mature bulls can be overly-vulnerable; he was out there to bugle them into rifle range and thrilled to be doing so.  And so on.

In sum: he is a rather conservative logger from northern Wisconsin; I am a fairly liberal tree-hugger from Missoula, Montana. Let’s just say during eight long days sharing a small wall tent together, things got rather tense at times. I spent two long days by myself, roaming the mountains, just to get away from him. The weather was warm, the country was drought-like dry, and we found no fresh elk sign nor heard a bugle or a grunt for days. Gary blamed the wolves; I think the elk were hanging mostly on the Montana side of the divide where there was more moisture this year, and where smart bulls seem to learn there is no early rifle season. I even ventured to the Montana side one afternoon by myself, and got some elk talking to me around some lush, green, wet meadows.

Then one afternoon, after not even speaking to each other for hours, an elk answered one of my calls. It snapped us both out of our doldrums and we both got pretty excited. We spent the next hour or so playing cat and mouse with the bull, sometimes him moving towards us, sometimes us sneaking in closer, me staying several yards behind Gary bugling and grunting while he impressively and adeptly climbed up and over and around brush and blowdown, rifle at the ready, as gracefully as anyone with two legs could do.  We worked together well, bonded by our common passion for the adrenaline of the hunt. And it eventually all came together. The bull came in silently, wearing an impressive 6x6 rack, while Gary and I waited behind a big, thick spruce log maybe 40 yards away. For me, the hunt was tainted when Gary  wounded the bull. We had to track it down several times and it eventually took Gary six shots to kill the elk.

Soon after the kill we fell back to disagreement (Gary doesn't think animals suffer). But we made relatively smooth, quick work of the boning out and packing meat to camp, and I was happy for his success. Then I thought of this: Despite our differences; despite our lack of compatibility; despite our differing views of the world, we both love elk and elk country and the notion of securing our own meat from the wilds. Though Gary and I will unlikely spend time in the mountains again, I have tremendous respect for him.

I found the entire hunt symbolic of us hunters as a whole; we’re all different, of course, and we have what can sometimes be bitter, contentious disagreements. But when we need to, we come together for common causes. It’s what I love most about groups like the Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, with their diverse membership interests. Yes, there’s sometimes tension and disagreement amongst us. But as we have proved over and over again, we work together when we need to, setting aside our differences to protect our common interests – a passion for the wildness, wildlife and the hunt.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Arduous Pursuit: What we Understand, we can Honor and Sustain



Photo by Bob Knoebel
America’s hunting and wildlife heritage teeters on a precarious perch. There are those who would lead us towards a more European model of animal husbandry and privileged hunting in which hunted wildlife are treated as a commodity, artificially manipulated to produce large-antlered, easy-to-kill animals for the highest bidders to shoot. Others defend our hard-won, uniquely American system. It is a system in which wildlife belongs to all, is managed as a public trust with equal opportunities for all Americans, and which fuels the conservation, protection and enhancement of wildlife and the wild places that sustain them.   

There’s no doubt where Jim Posewitz stands. Since retiring in 1993 from a distinguished 32-year career as a biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Jim has been a fierce, untiring advocate of America’s distinct wildlife and hunting heritage – showing us where we came from, where we’ve gone astray, and what we need to do to get back on track.

His first book, Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting, has become the bible on proper and ethical conduct for hunters, influencing thousands of young hunters in hunting education classes across the continent. His next book, Inherit the Hunt: A journey into the Heart of Hunting, outlines the history of North America’s hunting and wildlife heritage, its democratic roots, and the growing, dire threats of privatization and commercialization of wildlife and hunting. His third book, Rifle in Hand: How Wild America Was Saved, delves even deeper into the history of North America’s conservation movement, led primarily by hunters, and makes for the perfect follow up – the final in a must-read trilogy for anyone who hunts, desires to hunt or just want to understand hunting.  And as a bonus, check out Jim's latest: Taking a Bullet for Conservation: The Bull Moose Party - A Centennial Reflection 1912-2012. 

“This hunting tradition and the conservation ethic within that tradition covered a lot of ground before it got to us,” Jim wrote in Inherit the Hunt. “This legacy did not come to our generation to die. To keep it alive, we must learn the stories, we must appreciate their significance, and we must teach each successive generation how this heritage was delivered into our custody.”

Jim tell lots of stories, significant stories, stories that all of us who hunt and care about wildlife should read and share and learn and pass onto to others. In Jim’s words: “Stories that helped me understand the value of hunting in America.” Through his stories, Jim takes people along on a notable journey of recurrent, important connections to George Perkins Marsh, Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Jay “‘D’ing” Darling and many others. More importantly, he shows us that we all have such connections, we all have similar stories – we are all part of this remarkable legacy.

Until I met Jim Posewitz, I never paid much attention to such connections.  Like how I spent a childhood, and then some, chasing striped bass along the shores and islands of Connecticut’s coast – just a short boat ride away from where, in 1842, a common oysterman helped define the public ownership of wildlife in America; or how I grew up in the same state where, 1896, there initiated a Supreme Court case firmly establishing the notion of wildlife being held “as a public trust for the benefit of all people.” I developed a love for wildness playing in tidal estuaries just down the coast from estuaries where Theodore Roosevelt once roamed and developed his notable fondness for wild things. Like Aldo Leopold, I studies forestry and moved West. Like Roosevelt, I developed a passion for chasing wild elk through truly wild country and became, like him, a wilderness hunter. Like Roosevelt and Leopold and George Perkins Marsh and Alfred Aldrich Richardson and Jay “Ding” Darling and Jim Posewitz . . . and hundreds and thousands of other hunters through the course of our Nation’s history, all across North America, whose conservation ethic derived from appreciation gained through arduous pursuit of fish and game. 

Jim sums it up nicely: “Hunting was the passion driving people who committed themselves to the task.”

Like Jim, “I took to the hunt because somewhere within my nature throbbed the rhythm of the chase . . . to satisfy the urge I wandered wild places . . . I killed and savored the gift of wild things.” And in the countless hours and miles of unpredictable wild adventures chasing magnificent creatures such as stripers and elk and deer, I’ve come to deeply cherish the animals and the places they roam. Kindled by the chase, my devotion to wildlife sparked my concern their well-being and their habitat.
These are our roots. This is our legacy. These are the primeval connections that bind our heritage – vital connections between predator and prey, between wild things and humans, between conservationists past and present. We abandon these connections at our peril; we must come to nurture and understand this heritage because, as Jim Posewitz says, “What we understand we can honor and sustain.”
 

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve come to understand from Jim is the crucial importance of the arduous pursuit – the “doctrine of the strenuous life,“ as Roosevelt put it, “skill and patience, and the capacity to endure fatigue and exposure, must be shown by the successful hunter.” 

Unfortunately, there is an ongoing quest to make hunting easier, quicker, with more sure-fire results, changing the fundamental relationship between predator and prey. A look through most any hunting-equipment catalog shows a plethora of technology available to the modern-day hunter, including trail-monitoring devices to photograph, record and store animal movements; game scanners; hearing enhancers; night-vision goggles; range finders; animal scents; ATVS with gun mounts and thousands of other gadgets designed to increase our chances of finding and killing wildlife. Several years ago, hunters in Idaho were shooting elk from a half-mile away using .50-caliber rifles mounted on off-road vehicles. A game warden from Wyoming once told me that every year, more and more hunters use airplanes to locate elk, radioing their sightings to friends on the ground. Some so-called hunters simply pay to kill fenced, domesticated animals on game farms. In Texas, hunters commonly lure deer into automated bait stations and then shoot them from luxurious towers. More recently, some hunters started using drones to. (Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is leading the charge to ban the use of drones for hunting and scouting.)  

When hunters seek easier ways, focusing only on results and skipping the process (or, as Roosevelt put it, those who are “content to buy what they have not the skill to get by their own exertions”), they fail to gain the intimacy, knowledge, appreciation and respect for the prey, for the habitat, and for other wildlife that is gained through arduous pursuit. The connections are shattered. I suspect this growing disconnect is, in large part, why some hunters are either apathetic or outright opposed to policies that protect and enhance wildlife and wild places; they either ignore, or never really come to understand, our hunting and wildlife heritage.

Several years ago, over a beer or two, I shared with Jim a story of frustration. While working to protect wild places, some fellow wilderness advocates often chastise me for being a hunter. At the same time, some fellow hunters deride me for advocating for wilderness. “I don’t feel a part of either group,” I told Jim. “I just don’t know where I fit in.”  He laughed. “You know why?” he asked, smiling, leaning in close as if to let me in on some great secret. “Because you and I, we’re Leopoldians, and there aren’t many of us around.”


Of course he might just as well said “Rooseveltians” or even “Posewitzians.” Thanks, in large part, to Jim’s persistent efforts  there are, everyday, more and more of us Leopoldians around.


In his 1949 classic, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote:


"I have the impression that the American sportsman is puzzled; he doesn't understand what is happening to him. Bigger and better gadgets are are good for industry, so why not for outdoor recreation?  It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic; that their value is a contrast-value; that excessive mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the marsh. The Sportsman has no leaders to tell him what is wrong. The sporting press no longer represents sport; it has turned billboard for the gadgeteer. Wildlife administrators are too busy producing something to shoot at to worry much about cultural value of the shooting. Because everybody from Xenophon to Teddy Roosevelt has said sport has value, it is assumed that this value must be indestructible.”


Fortunately, Jim Posewitz has emerged as a leader – gently telling us what is wrong, wisely showing us how to get back on track, helping us understand where we’ve been and where we need to go.


Jim’s books are packed with wonderful stories of our past, present and future. Here’s a short one of my own:


In the fall of 1999, my friend Bill Hanlon was hunting Dall sheep with two of his friends in the spectacularly wild 2.5-million acre Tatshenshini Wilderness of northwest British Columbia. Six days into their hunt, walking along the face of a 20-foot wall of ice, they found the 550-year old. Well-preserved  remains of a human hunter, recently exposed on a receding glacier, replete with a knife-like tool called a tugwat and an atlatl, an ancient hunting tool used to hurl spears into prey. The body was recovered by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, who dubbed the man Kwaday Dan Sinchi, or “long ago person found.” Researchers say the person was male, in his 20s, and most likely fell into a crevasse and died. The country he once hunted and died in is probably not much different today – still wild and home to the same species of wildlife.


“I think of how tough and rugged he must have been,” Bill says. “Wearing just a skin cloak, carrying tools he probably made himself.”


Bill is pretty rough and rugged himself, and avid and passionate hunter. A Sparwood, British Columbia schoolteacher, he hunts elk in the East Kootenay region, in the same country where, in the early 1900s, one of his (and our Continent’s) conservation heroes, William T. Hornaday, used to hunt. With a love for the wilds gained through hunting, Bill helped found the Hornaday Wilderness Society, serves as the first chair of the British Columbia Chapter of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and is working to protect and conserve the same wildlands that he, and Hornaday, and many others have hunted, or currently hunt, or will (we hope) hunt in the future. 


As Bill told me about Kwaday Dan Sinchi, imagining that long ago hunter’s plunge into oblivion, he said, “If I should fall and die in the wilds, God forbid, I would only hope that if my remains are found long into the future, they would be found by fellow hunters still pursuing wild animals in country still wild.”  

These are our roots. This is our legacy. These are the primeval connections that bind our heritage – vital connections between predator and prey, between wild things and humans, between conservationists past and present. We abandon these connections at our peril; we must come to nurture and understand this heritage because, as Jim Posewitz says: “What we understand we can honor and sustain.”

Note: A version of this essay was published as the forward to "Rifle in Hand: How Wild America Was Saved," by Jim Posewitz, Riverbend Publishing, 2004.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

GO GRIZ! A Return to the Gridiron with Coach to Cure



I suspect I am one of only a handful of Missoulians who have never uttered “Go Griz!” – at least not in reference to the football team.

Although I am an alumnus of the University of Montana, and have lived in Missoula (on and off) for nearly 30 years, I have never been to a Grizzly game. I loved playing football – I was a decent offensive guard and linebacker in high school, and played a season for a community college -- but have never been much of a spectator. Besides, football season coincides with elk season and I’ve long felt more at home in the wilds among real grizzlies.  
   
The Griz are big in Missoula, particularly in the fall. It seems most every restaurant, bar and store in town has “Go GRIZ!” signs and merchandize. On game days half the town wears maroon and silver-colored shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, hats, socks, underwear and most anything else you might imagine adorned with the iconic grizzly bear or griz paw prints. When the griz win a home game, downtown can be insane with inebriated celebration; if they lose, downtown can be insane with inebriated drownings of sorrow.

Missoula can be obnoxiously Griz crazy.

Fortunately, not far from the outskirts of town, I often see real grizzly tracks and am occasionally lucky enough to get a glimpse of the Great Bear. I’ve always directed my “go griz” towards them.

When the gridiron Grizzlies won their first national championship in 1995 I had been in the backcountry for a week hunting. When I came out of the mountains I read a story about two grizzly bears that had been killed by hunters who mistook them for black bears. The next morning, when I arrived at the gym I worked out in, one of the other regulars greeted me and said,

“How about them griz?”
“Yeah, that pisses me off,” I replied. “Pretty fucked up.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked. “They won.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.

I can be obnoxiously crazy about real grizzlies.

Today, Saturday, Sept. 27, I am going to my first Griz game. The homecoming game. The battle of the bruins! Montana Grizzlies vs Northern Colorado Bears. And I’ll be going onto the field. Not with helmet and shoulder pads, but with my 14-year-old son Cory.

Cory has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a progressive, genetic, muscular-degenerative fatal disease for which there is currently no cure. There is, however, hope. Clinical trials are underway with promising results. But more awareness and money is urgently needed to turn hope into reality. That’s where the “Coach to Cure MD” effort comes into play.

With more than 600 college teams participating all over the nation, Coach to Cure MD is a one-day event sponsored by Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy and the American Football Coaches Association. The stated purpose is “to raise awareness of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a devastating disorder that robs young men of their mobility, their independence, and sadly their life; Generate new financial support for Duchenne research through donations, grassroots fundraising, and text donations; and demonstrate college coaches’ commitment to the betterment of young men and the core academic research missions of their universities.”

Cory will be the Grizzlies' honorary co-captain for the day and will be present at the coin toss. He’s pretty excited. I think I’m even more excited. And not just for Cory. It’s been a long time since I’ve stepped onto a football field. It’s already bringing back a lot of deeply buried memories. Good memories. I look forward to once agan hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling and experiencing the unique sounds, smells, adrenaline and excitement of a football game. 

I won’t be doing any blocking or tackling, but I might just slap a few players on the ass.

Go Griz!