Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Frozen Solitude: A Winter Trek through the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

Winter, of course, is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that night, I dreamed of avalanches.


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

Friday, January 2, 2015

America's Public Lands: NOT FOR SALE!

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

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

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

Then, of course, along came President Theodore Roosevelt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is our land, this is our legacy; let's not lose it to greedy interests who can only see profit -- let's keep our public lands in public hands. As Theodore Roosevelt himself put it: "We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune."

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

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

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

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

KEEP IT WILD - KEEP IT PUBLIC
Video by Dave Stalling (Music by Woody Guthrie)





Wednesday, December 31, 2014

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

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






Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wolves at the Door: How Hunter Hysteria Helped Justify Litigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In no small way, hunters helped justify the litigation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

DANGER!: Grizzlies Seized My Imagination

I am currently working on a book of Montana bear stories for Riverbend Publishing which is due in February, 2014.  The book is a followup to my friend Ben Long's wonderful book, "Great Montana Bear Stories" published in 2002.  Riverbend sums the book up as such:
 

“'Bears seize our imaginations quite unlike any other animal,' writes Montana author Ben Long. 'Why are we so fascinated by bears?' In 'Great Montana Bear Stories' you’ll find out why. Here are dozens of exciting and instructive stories about grizzly bears and black bears and the people who encounter them. Carefully researched and skillfully written, these stories involve hikers, campers, ranchers, hunters, wildlife biologists and many others who came face-to-face with Montana bears. Some are comical, others tragic, some inspiring, and others simply terrifying. Whether you like bears or simply like incredible true stories, 'Great Montana Bear Stories' will keep you reading page after page."

Grizzly bears seized my imagination at an early age, long before I roamed the wilds of Montana and had my own close encounters and experiences with the Great Bear; long before grizzlies, in no small way, helped save my life (see How Grizzlies Made Me Gay).  Recently, while going through an old box marked "Dave's Stuff" that my mother had saved over the years, I came upon a book report I wrote in April of 1974 at the age of 13 while attending Long Lots Junior High School in Westport, Connecticut. Here it is:


David Stalling
English 7
4/28/74

BOOK REPORT

Title: Danger
Author: Ben East

Danger contains many stories, twenty three in all, and they are all true adventures that took place in the outdoors. The book tells how people got into dangerous situations and how they used their wisdom to survive. Some men found strength and courage they never knew they had in order to survive.

My favorite story was, "This Grizzly Climbed." It is about a man who was studying plant life and working on his master's degree in botany. He was in Mt. McKinley National Park taking sample borings from to determine their age. Without any warning, a grizzly started after him. He climbed the nearest tree and wasn't too worried for he knew he would be safe as grizzly bears don't climb trees. He was nearly ten feet up the tree before he looked down. He was terrified when he saw the snarling grizzly scrambling after him and climbing fast. He felt the bear grab his leg and its teeth tore his skin and muscle. The bear fell but quickly climbed again and this time his teeth bit hard into his thigh. The man was so frightened he didn't feel any pain. The bear fell again and this time did not try to climb again. The animal waited on the ground for the man to come down. The man could see his car and knew that only 300 yards of forest separated him from safety. When the bear went into the woods the man knew he would have to try to reach the car and help. He was now in terrible pain, but decided he had to get down before he got weaker. He got into his car after what seemed like a lifetime, and blew his horn until help came.

The author, Ben East, has hunted with gun and camera, fished, camped, traveled wilderness trails, ridden white-water rivers, and has written about sportsmen for Outdoor Life. He has interviewed the people he wrote about in "Danger" and checked their stories with newspapers, police blotters and hospital records.

Anyone who likes to read about high adventure and narrow escapes would enjoy reading "Danger."  

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.