Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Long Ago Hunter Today: Finding Humanity in Our Wild Roots



While hunting in the remote Tatshenshini Provincial Park along the British Columbia–Yukon border, my friend Bill discovered the headless but mostly well-preserved remains of a fellow hunter, frozen for more than 550 years, who had been exposed at the foot of a melting glacier. “Kwaday Dan Sinchi,” he is called by First Nations people, “Long Ago Person Found.” His clothes were made from the skins of 100 ground squirrels. He carried dried salmon, a medicine bag and hunting tools. He likely fell into an ice crevice and froze to death. Fortunately Bill didn’t suffer the same fate, but if he did, would another hunter find him 550 years or more from now? Unfortunately few places remain as wild as the Tatshenshini, where humans can hunt as Bill and Kwaday have.

The “hunting hypothesis” of evolution suggests that hunting literally made us human in the sense that the development of tools and capabilities to kill for meat and defend against predators allowed our early ancestors to wander from the safety of trees, expand far and wide, and eventually start walking upright. Scholars debate the details, but I feel no need for evidence. I know I am a hunter and always will be. As Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux said, “When the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters.”   

Scholars debate the details, but I feel no need for evidence. I know I am a hunter and always will be. I was born a hunter, just as I was born gay. The two elements of my life are intricately woven together through nature and nurture and anchor me to my wild roots.

I particularly love elk. I spend all the time I can in elk country around my home in Montana, year-round, hiking, backpacking, and snowshoeing, observing and admiring elk. And each fall, I head into elk country with the intent to kill one. I like to think I’m a vegetarian of sorts, living off the wild grasses, sedges, and forbs that grow near my home. Most these plants are not palatable to humans, so I let elk convert them to protein for me. Perhaps someday I shall travel through the digestive system of a grizzly and fertilize the vegetation elk eat: Seems only fair considering all the elk I’ve killed and eaten.

In his essay, “A Hunter’s Heart,” Colorado naturalist and writer David Petersen summarizes it nicely:

Why do I hunt? It’s a lot to think about, and I think about it a lot. I hunt to acknowledge my evolutionary roots, millennia deep, as a predatory omnivore. To participate actively in the bedrock workings of nature. For the atavistic challenge of doing it well with an absolute minimum of technological assistance. To learn the lessons, about nature and myself, that only hunting can teach. To accept personal responsibilities for at least some of the deaths that nourish my life. For the glimpse it offers into a wildness we can hardly imagine. Because it provides the closet thing I've known to a spiritual experience. I hunt because it enriches my life and because I can't help myself … because I was born with a hunter’s heart.

From a young age, I found comfort being alone in wild places. Once, during a ten-week solo backpack trip, I watched a sow grizzly and her two cubs 100-yards or so upwind of me. She was lying down, resting, keeping watch of her young ones as they wrestled, rolled, and chased each other in the grass. The cubs ran and pounced on their mom a few times, and she nudged them away with her snout. When one cub tried to suckle her, she swatted the youngster with her powerful paw and sent the startled cub rolling. Then she got up, walked over, and reassuringly licked the cub until all seemed well in the world.

Then it struck me: I had spent so much time alone in the wilds because in the wilds I could truly be myself. In nature there are no societal-created norms, judgments, and expectations. Everything is what it is. A grizzly might judge me as a threat or feast but doesn’t care who I fall in love with and sleep with. I was drawn to the wildness and freedom of wild grizzlies while denying and suppressing my own wildness and freedom. Like the grizzlies, I am what I am. I accepted myself that day while watching those magnificent and tenacious animals. In a real way, those bears helped save my life. I am truest to my own nature in wild places among wild animals. And the more time I spend in the wilds, the less I want to be just a visitor and the more I want to be intimately connected to the wilds. So I pick and eat wild huckleberries. I catch and eat wild trout. I kill and eat wild elk.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Wildlife and wild places preserve truth of reality, of life and death, and of our primeval connection to this Earth. To deny that is to deny ourselves; to destroy it is self-destruction. To embrace, understand, and accept it is to embrace, understand, and accept our own innate nature and wildness.

But to think that hunting from an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) armed with high-power rifles, scopes, and other technology resembles our hunting ancestors is akin to thinking that an arsenal of modern semi-automatic weapons resembles our colonial Patriots armed with muskets—and somehow equivalently needed to launch a Tea-Party-like rebellion against the improbable event that our government (armed with aircraft carriers, fighter jets, tanks, drones and nuclear warheads) turns against us. We hang onto the past without grasping today’s differences. As Aldo Leopold once put it, “Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

We apply space-age technology to a stone-aged pursuit.

We hunters raise money to fund state fish and game departments overseen by politically appointed commissions (made of mostly of ranchers and hunters) who too often pressure agencies to lead us away from wildlife management to something more resembling animal husbandry, with a focus on producing more elk and deer for hunters to shoot. The good news is that many hunters rally around efforts to protect what little remains of our wild places, which benefits all species—including non-hunted species and fellow predators such as mountain lions, grizzlies, and wolves. But it seems a lot more hunters want roads and ATV trails punched into our wilds; want wolves killed off because they think they’re killing all “their” deer and elk; fight against efforts to protect the wild places that sustain the wildlife we hunt; and deny the human-caused changes in climate that melts glaciers and exposes ancient hunters. Most modern-day hunters are as detached from nature as the rest of society, and so we naively, ignorantly, and sometimes maliciously kill what sustains us.

And that, too, is part of being human.

Hunting is a significant ingredient to what made and makes us human. It is also, in large part, why hunting exposes all aspects of human nature—the good, the bad, and the ugly.


Note: This essay was originally published by the Center for Humans and Nature as part of their series, "Does Hunting Make Us Human?"  Here is the link: Long Ago Hunter Today

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Of Hunting, Elk and Sex Lines



I recently pulled a few consecutive all-nighters struggling to write an overdue essay for the Center for Humans and Nature I had (as is typical of me) procrastinated on far too long. The topic: “DoesHunting Make us Human?”  I started the piece with an anecdote about a friend of mine who -- while hunting in the remote Tatshenshini Provincial Park along the British Columbia-Yukon border -- discovered the headless but mostly well-preserved remains of a fellow hunter from long ago who had been exposed at the foot of a melting glacier.  “Kwaday Dan Sinchi,” he is called by First Nations people, “Long Ago Person Found.”  

But I couldn’t remember how old the remains were.  I had written a story about it years ago for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine. So I decided to call my friend Dan, the magazine’s editor, to see if he could look it up for me. Since I did not have Dan’s phone number on me, I decided to call the 1-800-CALL ELK line to reach the Elk Foundation and ask the receptionist to transfer me to Dan. 

Although I spent ten wonderful years as the conservation editor of Bugle, and I think Bugle remains the finest hunting-related conservation magazine out there, I always feel a bit awkward calling them. I’ve had a falling out of sorts with the organization, and have vocally and publicly had a few strong disagreements with the current leadership, particularly with their harsh stance against wolves. I have since been banished from writing for Bugle and shunned by much of the staff.  When I call, I feel a bit like I need to do the over-the-phone, verbal equivalent of wearing a fake nose and glasses and and disguise my voice for fear they’ll hang up on me (admittedly pure paranoia on my part).  

Nevertheless some good friends I respect work there, such as Dan, and I was desperate for the information.

So I called 1-800-CALL ELK.   

Or thought I did. I was so exhausted I apparently dialed 1-800-CALL EEK.   

EEK indeed! Instead of hearing an expected, pleasant greeting from the Elk Foundation receptionist I instead heard the automated voice of woman seemingly trying to sound sexy:

“Welcome to America’s hottest talk line. Ladies: To talk to interesting and exciting guys for free, please press one now. Guys: Hot ladies are waiting to talk to you! Press two to connect for free now. Ladies: Press one now. Guys: Press two now.”

There was no option to press three for guys wanting to talk to interesting and exiting guys for free. Maybe it’s a right-wing, homophobic Christian sex line. But even so, you’d think they’d at least welcome the closeted ones among them -- and I am certain there are many.  

So I hung up. Likely a good thing; I do not need more excuses and distractions to procrastinate.

I dialed 1-800-CALL ELK again and got it right the second time around, got hold of Dan and he found the number for me. 

By the way: Kwaday died 550 years, presumably from falling in an ice-crevice while hunting -- long, long before there were 1-800-SEX lines.      

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Killing Wolves: A Hunter-Led War Against Science and Willdife

"We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” -- Aldo Leopold, 1949

We Americans, in most states at least, have not yet experienced a bear-less, eagle-less, cat- less, wolf-less woods. Germany strove for maximum yields of both timber and game and got neither.”  -- Aldo Leopold, 1935

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." -- Aldo Leopold, 1949

2014: Idaho Fish and Game recently 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 have 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.

One of the cornerstones of our "North American Model of Wildlife Conservation" -- which hunters and hunting-based organizations love to tout and claim to support -- is that wildlife, all wildlife, be managed based on good, sound science.  That good, sound science shows 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.")

Elk populations are increasing in most of the West. In Idaho, the fish and game department is expanding elk hunting to reduce elk populations while simultaneously killing wolves under the guise of protecting and boosting elk numbers. Where elk populations do appear on the decline there are plenty of factors to consider in addition to wolves: Changes in habitat; the previous existence of artificially high elk populations at levels beyond the viable carrying capacity of the land; lack of mature bulls and low bull-to-cow ratios in herds (often resulting from early season hunting and too much hunting pressure on bull elk) which influences the timing of the rut and breeding behavior, the timing of spring calving, and often results in increased vulnerability of elk calves to predation; influence of other predators including mountain lions, black bears and grizzlies; unanticipated impacts of various hunting regulations and hunting pressure, and changes in behavior and habitat use by elk in the presence of wolves. And more.

Where I hunt, the growing presence of wolves has changed the behavior and habits of elk. Elk bunch up more for safety, and move around more to evade and avoid wolves. They are a lot more wary. I have adapted and adjusted to these changes and have no problem finding elk.This is part of the beauty and value of hunting within wilderness -- to adjust, adapt and be part of the landscape; to be, as my friend David Petersen put its, part of the "bedrock workings of nature."  We render the wilds a diminished abstract when we alter it to suit our own needs and desires and, in the process, make it less healthy and whole. There are those who espouse the virtues of backcountry hunting and yet seem apathetic or supportive towards the destruction of backcountry integrity. Those who understand the wilds know how critically important predators are to the health of the land; to remain silent about the nonscientific, politically-based killing of wolves in the wildest of places is to be complacent towards the degradation of what we claim to cherish.   

Yet hunters, in general, hate and blame wolves for pretty near anything and everything including their own lack of skill, knowledge and effort in hunting elk. Science is shunned and ignored. David Allen, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,  a national hunter-based conservation organization, claims wolves are "decimating" elk herds and calls wolves the "worst ecological disaster since the decimation of bison" despite research funded by the organization that shows otherwise. Most of what many hunters claim to know and understand about wolves and wolf and elk interactions is based on myths, lies and half-truths; they rapidly and angrily dismiss logic, facts and science as coming from "anti-hunters," "wolf-lovers" and "tree-huggers" from "back East." Most hunter-based conservation organizations and state agencies avoid the topic for fear of being pegged "one of them." Many actually help perpetuate the lies and half-truths to boost and maintain membership. Some try to come across as reasonable by stating that they think wolves should be managed just like other wildlife, such as elk. 

But wolves are not elk; being a top predator they have altogether different, and self-regulating, reproductive and survival behaviors and strategies. "Other" wildlife, such as elk,  are managed based on science -- based on what we know about behavior, ecology, breeding behavior, habitat use and selection and other factors. Wolves are being managed purely based on politics driven by ignorance and hate.  Many hunters and others in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho long advocated for the delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act and turning management over to the states. It happened. And now these states -- particularly Idaho -- are doing what they can to kill as many wolves as possible, science be damned.

Idaho is proving over and over that their state cannot handle the scientific, sustainable management of wolves. No public agency should have the power to decide such things as Idaho Fish and Game is doing with so little public accountability and oversight. They are acting on behalf of a small, but politically-influential segment of our population based on pure politics, lies, myths, misconceptions and half truths about wolves and ignoring what we do know about wolf biology, ecology, behavior and interactions with and impacts to elk.

As an avid and passionate hunter in Montana (who has killed and eaten 26 elk over the years) I am absolutely disgusted that no hunter-based conservation organization -- most of which claim to support and defend sound, science-based management of wildlife -- are speaking out against this slaughter which is a clear violation of the North American model of wildlife management these organizations claim to uphold. At best, many hunters and hunting-based organizations are remaining silent for fear of being ostracized; at worst, most hunters and hunting organizations are supporting this. More and more I feel like an anti-hunter who hunts. It's embarrassing, appalling and outrageous.

Even groups I support and respect, including Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and National Wildlife Federation are ignoring and avoiding this clear violation of science-based wildlife management and our North American Model of Wildlife Conservation they claim to uphold and defend -- I can only assume as to not upset their membership base.

As Aldo Leopold so aptly put it more than 50 years ago: "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 the cultural value of the shooting."

I am growing increasingly disgusted and angry towards my so-called fellow hunters, and most hunter-based organization, for continually talking "Aldo Leopold" and the "North American Model" out of one side of their mouths while ignoring or even supporting this sort of political, nonscientific "management" of a critical keystone, umbrella wildlife species that plays a critical role in shaping, maintaining and influencing healthy wildlife and wildlife habitat for all species -- including the species we love to hunt and the habitat that sustains them.

This is one of the flaws of our current and mostly good system of wildlife management in which states generally have full authority over managing their wildlife. State fish and game departments, such as Idaho Fish and Game, are overseen and controlled by state politicians and game commissioners (who are often ranchers and hunters) appointed by politicians -- and the hunting and ranching industries have more influence over state decisions than others. Aldo Leopold, widely considered the "father" of modern wildlife management, warned against such things more than 50 years ago.

A recent report about the flaws of the North American Model summed it up this way: "The scientists also express concern that the interests of recreational hunters sometimes conflict with conservation principles. For example, they say, wildlife management conducted in the interest of hunters can lead to an overabundance of animals that people like to hunt, such as deer, and the extermination of predators that also provide a vital balance to the ecosystem."

It needs to change.

More than half a century ago Leopold wrote: "I personally believed, at least in 1914 when predator control began, that there could not be too much horned game, and that the extirpation of predators was a reasonable price to pay for better big game hunting. Some of us have learned since the tragic error of such a view, and acknowledged our mistake."

We still haven't caught up to Leopold.

If we hunters truly believe in sound, science-based wildlife management, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, and the ideas and principles preached and promoted by the likes of Aldo Leopold, then it is time to speak up.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Taking a Bullet For Conservation: An Estate of Hope (An Excerpt)

An excerpt from "Taking A Bullet For Conservation: The Bull Moose Party--A Centennial Reflection 1912-2012," by Jim Posewitz. (Published by Full Circle Press, 2011 and distributed by Riverbend Publishing.)


The day President McKinley died, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president of the United States. He delivered his first message to Congress on December 3rd. Biographer Edmund Morris describes a portion of that speech:

“Then striking a note altogether new in presidential utterances, Roosevelt began to preach the conservation of natural resources. He showed an impressive mastery of the subject as he explained the need for federal protection of native flora and fauna. Urgently, he asked that the Bureau of Forestry be given total control over forest reserves, currently parceled among several agencies, and demanded more presidential power to hand further reserves over to the Department of Agriculture.” Roosevelt recognized that “. . . conservation of natural resources . . . had not yet dawned on the public mind.”

The effort to change those conservation perceptions in the public mind began with his first message to Congress and eventually included seven national conferences on the subject. A man of action as well as words, Roosevelt’s administration waded into securing a public land estate destined to be a protected estate for wildlife, fish, forests, open spaces, and those Americans who value nature and outdoor amenities. For those who appreciated those amenities, it became an estate of hope. Roosevelt described a philosophy that immediately became his method of operation.

“I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the Nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.”

That philosophy, coupled with the 10-year old “Creative Act” now in the hands of one of its creators, enabled the president to get right to protecting forests, watersheds, wildlife, fisheries and other public resources. As president, from September 1901 to march of 1909, Roosevelt compiled the following record: 

• Expanded the forest reserve system from 43 million acres to 194 million acres;
• Started 30 irrigation projects;
• Saw the National Monument Act become law;
• Created 18 National Monuments including Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon;
• Added five new National Parks to the system;
• Established game ranges in Oklahoma, Montana, Arizona and Washington; and,
• Established 51 Wildlife Refuges.

When the 7-1/2-year old presidential whirlwind subsided, 230 million actress had been set aside for conservation of natural resources and for Americans to enjoy. It was 359,375 square miles, roughly equivalent in size to the combined areas of Delaware, New York, Maine and Texas. It was just shy of 10 percent of America. When he finished, he told us why he did it:

“The things accomplished that have been enumerated above were of immediate consequence to the economic well-being of our people. In addition certain things were done of which the economic bearing was remote, but which bore directly upon our welfare, because they add to the beauty of living and therefore to the joy of life.”

It worked. When those words were written, America’s antelope population hovered around 5,000 now there are over a million. Wild turkeys had faded to about 100,000; they now number well past 4 million. White-tailed deer numbered about one-half million, and their population now is over 30 million. When Roosevelt was scouring remote western wild lands for elk, the nation had about 40,000; today, they too exceed 1 million and are back in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan and Arkansas. 

Midway through America’s Conservation Camelot, in 1904 Roosevelt had to stand for election to the presidency. The tension between Roosevelt and his own party that began in Albany simply escalated as Roosevelt’s meteoric career carried him into the White House. The nature of that relationship was well articulated by a New York Sun editorial before the 1904 Republican Party convention. The Sun, described by biographer Edward Morris as a “banner journal of business conservatism,” editorialized: “Roosevelt steps from the stage gracefully. He has ruled his party to a large extent against its will.” The Sun’s editorial then went on to single out Roosevelt’s conservation record writing:

"A vote is like a rifle: it's usefulness depends
upon the character of the user."
-- Theodore Roosevelt 1913
“And, then, there is the great and statesmanlike movement for the conservation of our National resources, into which Roosevelt so energetically threw himself at a time when the nation as a whole knew not that we are ruining and bankrupting ourselves as fast as we can. . . This globe is the capital stock of the race . . . Our forests have been destroyed; they must be restored. These questions are not of this day only or of this generation. They belong all to the future.”

The editorial concluded with a rhetorical question: “What statesmen in all history had done anything calling for so wide a view and for a purpose more lofty?”

The wonder is that he accomplished it “against the will” of both his own party and also his partisan opponents. While Wall Street and special corporate interests struggled to find ways to resist Roosevelt’s 1904 nomination, he went on to win the election by the largest margin in American history up to that point. The people loved him and what he was doing for the country. Political party bosses and special interests would have to wait for a venue other than and open vote of the people to purge the reform-minded Theodore Roosevelt. . .

. . . The current political struggle over America’s natural resources continues with each new generation. In the 1912 election, the American conservation ethic was basically abandoned by the political party that once had a progressive component responsible for its birth. This political orphan, however, found a home 20-some years later when our nation was plagued by an economic depression and a drought-driven dust bowl in the “Dirty-Thirties.” In the depth of those desperately hard times, conservation was once again politically embraced by a Roosevelt. This time is was Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Conservation became part of the New Deal and the Soil Conservation Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps programs were among a new wave of conservation reforms. Another critically important aspect in the emergence of serious conservation in America was the creation and support of citizen-driven nongovernmental organizations. It was a necessity recognized early by the giants of conservation who were also battling from within the government. George Bird Grinnell formed the first Audubon Society in 1886. One year later, in 1887, he co-hosted the dinner with Theodore Roosevelt that became the genesis of the Boone and Crockett Club.

When the Taft administration was capitulating to the corporate resource raiders, the recently fired Gifford Pinchot gathered like-minded conservationists and formed the National Conservation Association. The mission of this later organization was “Figure out how to restore the world that Roosevelt had constructed.” In a democracy, a pattern of individual people taking action recurs.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt re-energized conservation within government in the 1930s, a similar resurgence of energy occurred in the nongovernmental sector. The National Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, The Wilderness Society, and others emerged in that difficult and dirty decade. It is how democracy works, and it may be the only way the wild things we value can be sustained from one generation to the next. We can take a lesson from this conservation heritage story: The necessity for all of us to participate in the public affairs within a democracy. It we take time to look, history teaches us the importance of being both politically critical and also personally active.

Fish, wildlife and the clean, wild places they need to survive, never had a vote. Those of us who value them have to do it for them.

Let’s observe the 100th anniversary of the Bull Moose Party, and the years that follow, with vigorous advocacy on behalf of America’s fish and wildlife resources. We can do it in honor of that original Bull Moose, Theodore Roosevelt, who challenged us to become the person:

“ . . . who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”



Retired from a 32-year career with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Jim Posewitz is the Founder and Executive Director of Orion: The Hunter's Institute; an Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy at Montana State University; an avid and passionate hunter, angler and conservationist, and (in addition to "Taking a Bullet for Conservation") is the author of: "Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting," "Inherit the Hunt: A Journey Into the Heart of American Hunting," and "Rifle in Hand: How Wild America was Saved."  He is also a long-time friend, mentor and inspiration to me and many others who strive to follow the tremendous example he sets to carry on our conservation legacy.  



Saturday, December 14, 2013

Neuter the NRA

December 14, 2012 was my 52nd birthday. In more than a half-century of living, I never felt such deep sorrow, anger and confusion as I did that day. That was the day a 20-year-old man named Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, shot his way through a glass window, entered the school and shot and killed eight boys, 12 girls -- all between the ages of six and seven -- and six women who worked at the school. He shot his victims multiple times (he shot one boy 11 times) then shot and killed himself.

Adam Lanza did all this in just 10 minutes, firing hundreds of rounds from his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S, a 5.56mm semi-automatic rifle that fires about 45 rounds a minute. It’s basically a civilian model of the M16-A2 I was issued in the Marine Corps without the fully-automatic capability.

The incident hit me harder than even 9/11. As horrific as the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were, I could at least make sense of why terrorists would attack us. It’s more difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of the Sandy Hook massacre. Like many Americans, I’ve tried to make sense of it all. I think of it often, particularly when I help my son get ready for school; wrestle, play and laugh with him; watch him put on his backpack, walk out to and get on the school bus, and immediately miss him and look forward to when he gets home.

But what if he never came home? What if me and his mom received a call later in the day to inform us that our beautiful, smart, wonderful happy son was brutally and horrifically murdered at school, his body ripped to shreds by bullets, along with 19 of his classmates and six adults? I can hardly bring myself to even think about it.

The people of Newtown lived it, and they will likely re-live it every day of their lives. They will never see their children again. I don’t know how they cope.

I doubt it’s something our nation’s founders could even fathom back in the days of muskets when they crafted the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution.

Having served in a Marine Corps Force Recon unit and being a hunter, I have spent a good amount of time around guns; I am very familiar, effective and proficient with a variety of deadly weapons. In the Marines I was issued various rifles for different tasks, most all of them specifically designed to fire a lot of rounds quickly and efficiently kill a lot of people in a short amount of time. The NRA likes to claim that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and a person inclined to kill could kill people with a baseball bat. True. But nobody can kill 26 people in ten minutes with a baseball bat. This is why I was issued M16s, MP5 HK 9mm submachine guns, M60 machine guns, M240 grenade launchers and other potent, deadly weapons in the Marine Corps and not baseball bats.

I’m not so na├»ve as to blame a gun for what happened at Sandy Hook. There’s obviously more to it than that. There’s no doubt mental health issues were involved as well as the unfortunate dark side to human nature and behavior. But the gun played a role; a huge role. It enabled Adam Lanza to kill 26 people in 10 minutes.

Do we Americans have too easy access to deadly weapons? Would we, as a society, be safer if we further controlled access to firearms and banned certain weapons? Would it be a violation of our Constitutional rights to do so?

The NRA and the gun and ammunition industry accuses those of us who promote further gun restrictions in response to Sandy Hook as exploiting tragedy for political gain. I disagree. I think we have a moral obligation to examine such issues and do whatever it takes to try and prevent such a horrific tragedy from ever happening again. I don’t pretend to have answers, but as a society we should and must collectively have rationale, reasonable discussions about such issues. But the NRA stifles debate through bullying, fear tactics and perpetuating lies and distortions of truth. (See Lies and Distortions from the NRA)

The NRA does an admirable job at promoting the safe, responsible use and handling of guns. There was a time they were a rationale, reasonable organization. But they have grown into an arrogant, uncompromising political powerhouse that defends the rights of people to own pretty much any sort of weapon they desire -- not because of Second Amendment rights, as they deceptively claim, but because they have become an arm of and public relations firm for a huge, powerful, wealthy and influential gun and weapons manufacturing industry. They have purchased our Congress to do its bidding through money, threats and intimidation. It's about profit, not the Constitution. And so they feed people lies, distortions, and misconceptions to rally flag-waving, so-called "patriots" to protect industry profits under the guise of "Constitutional rights."

Despite the fact that Presidents as diverse in views and policies as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton supported stricter background checks to purchase guns and bans on certain types of weapons, the NRA and gun industry now viciously attack any politician who even suggests such legislation and accuses them of being “anti-Americans” trying to “destroy” our Constitution and American way of life.

But there have and always will be restrictions on Second Amendment rights. Even our nation’s founders, who crafted and approved of the amendment, often fervently disagreed on it. Constitutional scholars, politicians, and others have had many rationale, reasonable, heated debates over it ever since. I am not allowed to have an M60 machine gun, an M240 grenade launcher, an M67 Abrams tank, a LAAW (Light Anti Tank Assault Weapon), Stinger anti-aircraft missile or a nuclear warhead. Those all seem like reasonable restrictions to me. We all draw the line somewhere. Where does the NRA and its supporters draw the line? And why is it they think that wherever they chose to draw the line is what the rest of our nation should accept -- and that any restrictions that cross their line is unConstitutional? Our founders were smart enough to establish a Constitution that could adapt with changing times, and they set up a process in which we the people could collectively change things through a democratic, legislative process. To further adapt and refine our 2nd Amendment is not a violation of Constitutional rights.

But the NRA and gun and ammunition industry have hijacked the system and effectively silence debate through money, threats and intimidation. The current NRA leadership even defies the wishes of their own members. A poll of NRA members conducted last summer by GOP pollster Frank Luntz showed that NRA members and gun owners overwhelmingly support background checks and other common-sense measures that would help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and keep Americans safe. Yet the NRA – no doubt following orders from the industry – fought viciously against common sense regulations that most Americans support and desire.

The NRA and gun and ammunition industry have controlled our Congress for too long. It’s time for all Americans to speak out. We need to demand that our elected officials listen to we the people. We need to show the NRA and gun and ammunition industry that they don’t run this nation – we do! It’s time to neuter the NRA.

If you agree, there are three actions you can take right now:

1) Sign this petition: Neuter the NRA
2) Check out and “like” this Facebook Page: NeuterNRA FB
3) Share this with friends and family and encourage them to do the same.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act: Moving Our Legacy Forward

You’d be hard pressed to find a healthier, more ecologically sound example of our conservation legacy than the Rocky Mountain Front – a rugged 200-mile overthrust wall of steep, reef-like mountains rising from the Great Plains alongside the communities of Augusta, Choteau, Dupuyer, Pendroy and Browning. Elk, bighorns, pronghorn, badgers, wolverines, lynx, mountain lions, wolves and an abundance and diversity of other wildlife thrive on this land; Clear, clean rivers sustain some of the last remaining healthy populations of westslope cutthroat trout; Grizzlies still wander out onto the plains like they did when Lewis and Clark came through; The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared it the “top one percent” of wildlife habitat remaining in the Continental U.S., and it provides some of the best hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreational opportunities in the nation.

Always a scared place for the Blackfeet Nation, the Front remains a remarkably special place today -- and that didn’t come about by accident or lack of effort.

This legacy dates back to 1913 when – in response to pressure from hunters, anglers and others – Montana legislators created the Sun River Game Preserve, setting aside 195,877 acres of critical elk habitat in the upper reaches of the Sun River drainage. Years later, hunters and ranchers set aside their differences and worked cooperatively to establish a zone for Sun River elk to winter where they wouldn’t raid haystacks and knock down fences. In 1947, in a deal brokered by hunters, one rancher sold 20,000 acres of prime elk winter range to the state now known as the Sun River Game Range,  a wildlife management area administered by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). In the 1950s, hunters, anglers and wildlife officials and others rallied to keep oil and gas exploration and a missile site out of the preserve.

The legacy continued through the 1970s with the creation of the Ear Mountain and Blackleaf Wildlife Management areas to protect elk, mule deer and grizzly habitat. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up until today the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF), Trout Unlimited, Montana Wilderness Association, The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation and other organizations have worked cooperatively with local ranchers, outfitters, guides, county commissioners, tribal leaders, businessmen and others to stop irresponsible gas and oil development within areas critically important for wildlife.     

This legacy also provides benefits to other places. Over the years, state wildlife officials have used bighorn sheep from the Sun River herd to re-establish the species in many other parts of Montana. With westslope cutthroat trout – Montana’s state fish, and a sensitive species of concern – still persisting along the front, fisheries biologists are tapping into this genetic pool in ongoing efforts to restore the subspecies to other parts of its original range.  

Threats to this special place persist, but we have a significant opportunity to continue this great conservation legacy by supporting and helping ensure the passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.  MWF is among more than 20 hunter and angler-based conservation organizations, including Trout UnlimitedBackcountry Hunters and Anglers, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to support the Heritage Act.

“Hunters really started to get the connection between good, unbroken habitat and restoring game populations one hundred years ago when they lobbied for the Sun River Game Preserve, the first of its kind in Montana,” says Gail Joslyn, a retired FWP biologist who spent most of her career working along the Front. “It’s what makes the Front so special, and why we need our representatives to help us finish the work that we began so long ago.”

Sponsored by Montana Senator Max Baucus, the Heritage Act would establish a Conservation Management Area on 208,160 acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands that would be managed to keep things the way they are while protecting these lands from unwanted changes such as excessive motorized use and road building. Activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, outfitting, chainsaw use, firewood gathering, cutting of trees for posts and polls, motorized recreation, mountain biking and grazing would continue to be allowed as they are now. In addition, the Heritage Act would add about 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear Wilderness complex to protect these lands from potential threats while allowing for the continuation of hunting, grazing, outfitting and other traditional uses. The Heritage Act would also prioritize the eradication and control of noxious weeds on about 790,000 acres of land. 

“The Rocky Mountain Front is a sportsmen’s paradise and considered worldwide as a crown jewel of the West,” Sen. Baucus says. “We have an obligation to protect our outdoor heritage for our kids and grandkids. It’s also critical for our economy to protect the treasures that bring people to Montana to open businesses, work, live and raise their families here. This is a balanced bill and a great example of a Montana-made proposal future generations will be proud of.”

The legislation is based on extensive public discussion, input and support from a variety of people of diverse backgrounds and interests who have set aside their differences to accomplish a common goal: To keep the Rocky Mountain Front as it is. An endorsement from the Great Falls Tribune called the Heritage Act, “politics as the art of the possible,” stating: “The measure embodies the ‘art of the possible’ by drawing and redrawing lines and allowing uses that have been painstakingly worked out with the folks who use the area the most.”

Many locals agree:

“My family has been ranching here for 128 years,” says Karl Rappold, a rancher from Dupuyer who has been fighting for years to protect the Front. “The Heritage Act will help protect the Front’s wild lands and working landscapes for generations to come.”  

Roy Jacobs, a hunter and taxidermist from Pendroy, shares similar thoughts. “I truly believe that the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage proposal is one of the most thoroughly thought out plans I have ever seen,” he says. “It doesn’t offend anyone or any group in any way. It truly leaves one of the world’s grandest remaining landscapes intact for future generations to experience and enjoy.”

The Heritage Act took a major step forward this past November when it was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The legislation will soon be brought before the full Senate for consideration. If passed it will then be brought before the House where Montana Rep. Steve Daines remains undecided in regards to the Heritage Act.

To ensure the continuation of our tremendous legacy it’s up to all of us to urge our elected officials in Washington DC to support the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. As Choteau hunter and outfitter Dusty Crary said the day the legislation cleared the Senate committee: “The Heritage Act has been custom-tailored to meet the needs of traditional uses while also protecting the beauty of the Front for future generations. It took a lot of work to get this bill just right, and I hope today’s bipartisan momentum can carry it forward to the finish line for us.”

To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and what you can do to help, check out The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front’s website at:  http://www.savethefront.org


An avid hunter, angler and wildlife advocate, Dave Stalling has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited. He is a past two-term president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, a founder of Hellgate Hunters andAnglers in Missoula and a recipient of  the Les Pengelly Montana Conservationist of the Year Award. He lives in Missoula. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Eagle and the Bull Trout: In Inadvertently Killing one Threatened Species, I had Fed Another

On a long solo trek through the wilds of northern Montana, I spent a rainy night camped under several large, protective spruce trees on the northwest side of a large lake where the shore is surrounded by dense willows and swamp, and fell asleep listening to the eerie, lonely cries of loons.

Awakened by the heat of the sun warming my tent, I hung everything out to dry and, on a whim, decided to push through the willows, wade through the swamp where the grass was chest high and the mud several feet deep in spots, to check out where a stream empties into the lake. Sitting on a log on a gravel bar at the inlet, an apparently anxious bald eagle screeched at me from her nest 40 yards or so away, and I could hear her eaglets chirping away. I found a large, fresh pile of grizzly shit full of thimbleberry seeds on the gravel near the willows, and watched several large cutthroats in the deep water near the end of the gravel bar, occasionally darting out into the current, or up to the surface, to snatch up whatever nymphs, mayflies, gnats or other morsels the river carried out to them. I went back to my tent, put together my four-piece rod, attached the spinning reel, grabbed my box of lures, and returned.

The fish were only interested in insects, it seemed, and mostly ignored my spinners. It was one of those times I would have had more luck catching dinner with a fly rod, drifting imitation mayflies or nymphs. But I was hungry, and those fish looked appetizing, so best make do with what I had. I took off my clothes, waded out up to my chest, and cast a heavy silver Blue Fox Vibrax out as far as I could and let it sink, with the hopes a fat trout may lay out there somewhere wanting to eat something more substantial than a bug. I retrieved the spinner slowly, holding my rod up high, varying the speeds so the lure might drop and rise and flutter a bit, looking like a wounded minnow. Then it stopped, and I quickly pulled the rod back to set the hook, hooking into something, but nothing moved.

Damn, I thought, I must have snagged a log or rock.

With only a handful of lures in my box, I have a personal policy that when I snag bottom, and exhaust all other means of freeing it, I put the rod down, dive in, follow the line and retrieve the spinner, no matter how deep or cold. It had clouded up again, and I was chilly, and I didn’t want to swim. But I didn’t have to. What I thought was a log began to move, stripping line from my reel and my rod doubled over. This fish was big. There’s a strange adrenaline high to fighting a fish (more for the fish, I suppose, since it’s the only one actually fighting for its life) and you become singly, intensely focused on the moment – which is partly why fishing is so popular, and why big fish usually make for better tales. It’s even more exhilarating to hook into a big fish while naked, in the midst of wild country, where there’s the highly unlikeable but fun-to-think about chance a grizzly might charge out of the willows and make a meal of me before I was able to eat whatever was on the other end of my line.

I’d put up a bit of a fight, I suppose, flap around in the shallow water as the bear drug me up onto the gravel, suffering perhaps as much pain as I was causing this fish, and the griz would gut me, eat me and brag to his buddies, holding his paws out as wide as he could, “He was this big!”

No one would believe him.

When I finally worked the fish to where he was flapping around in the shallow water, he was indeed big, 20” or more, and a bull trout. My excitement turned to guilt. It’s illegal to kill and eat bull trout, and illegal to intentionally catch them; they are listed and protected under federal law as a threatened under the Endangered Species Act. If you catch one, you need to release it. More conscientious anglers, or those fishing for fun not food, uses barbless, single hooks to cause less damage and ensure the fish survive; my treble hooks are barbed. I don’t want to treat fish like yoyos, for my personal amusement; I want to eat them. I reached into the water, held the tired fish, carefully removed the hooks, then held him lightly with both hands, his face into the current, until he gained back enough oxygen, strength and energy to give a push or two with his big tail and swim away on his own. But he didn’t go far. He floated to the surface, where the current started taking back out into the lake, flapped around a bit, went under, then back to the surface again, then down, then back up, several more times until finally he floated belly up dead. By then he was a good 50 yards or so out to where I could barely see him.

I had killed a threatened species! What else to do but hide the evidence by running it through my digestive system? I dove in and swam, a modified freestyle stroke, keeping my head up above water like when I was a lifeguard so as to not lose sight of the victim. About half way, as cold as the water was, I began wondering if I would soon be belly up myself, with the fish, and I thought of the irony that if my body were found people would think killed myself, as I had departed on this lengthy adventure in a bad state of mind.

I should write a letter, I thought, a sort of non-suicide note, and leave it in my tent: “I did not kill myself. I died, as friends always suspected I would, from my own bullheaded stupidity. Please submit my story for a Darwin Award.”

When I was about five yards or so from the dead fish, I felt a sudden rush of wind above my head and everything darkened around me. Wings, giant wings, and talons, sharp talons, right above my head, close enough to touch, moving fast, impressive, intimidating, a rare sight generally reserved for the last few seconds in the lives of unfortunate rabbits, grouse, ducks and other small prey. The eagle rushed past and crashed into the water just ahead of me, the spray from the splash hitting my face. She sunk her talons into the fish and began flapping her wings, up and down a few times, flapping harder, having difficulty getting off the water with such a heavy load, but she finally did it, gained ever more momentum, lifted from the lake, fish secure in her grip, and I watched her circle around and deliver what was going to be my supper to her fledglings in the nest by the gravel bar.

In inadvertently killing one threatened species I had fed another; and so it was noodles yet again for me. I barely made it back to shore, drained of energy and chilled to near hypothermia. I put on my clothes, hurried back to the tent, and climbed into my sleeping bag. When warmth returned, I laughed out loud, and random thoughts danced through my head. Like this:

Sometimes I will shake willows along lakes and streams and watch trout eat the bugs that fall of the branches. When a grizzly walks through the brush, alongside lakes and creeks, does he unwittingly knock bugs into the water that feed the trout he may eventually eat? Or help fatten up some bull trout for eaglets?