Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fathers of Conservation (Happy Fathers Day)

When I was growing up, my father often took me fishing. From the start, he taught me conservation basics: To keep only what I would eat, to fish fairly and honestly with respect for the quarry. Later, he also spoke of the importance of clean water and healthy watersheds. He volunteered for various organizations to help protect and restore the fish he so passionately pursued.

He took me camping, backpacking, trout fishing, taught me to identify trees and other plants, got me involved in Boy Scouts and shared with me all of his enthusiasm, knowledge, love and respect for the natural world. He not only inspired me to cherish all things wild and free, but encouraged me to speak up for and defend the things I love.

In other words: He greatly influenced and shaped not only who I am, but my core values, beliefs and what I do for a living. He was a wonderful and amazing man.

I’ve been taking my own son, Cory, fishing since before he can remember. Once, when he was 12, I took him on a four-day backpack trip into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness along the Montana-Idaho border. He has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, but at that time could still cover close to two rugged miles a day with a pack on – up and down rocks, over and under downed trees, through thick brush, across creeks and atop snowfields. But the going was slow.

One of the nice things about going slow is that I started paying closer attention to all the smaller things that make up the big, beautiful wild – the glacier lilies, swamp marigolds and shooting stars; the new light-green growth on the subalpine firs and the little three-pointed, mouse tail-looking bracts protruding from the Doug fir cones; the tiny splotches of green, yellow and orange lichens on black and white granite and rhyolite, and the colorful inch-long westslope cutthroats darting away from our shadows as we waded through little creeks.

At one point we talked about how all the little springs and snow-fed creeks we crossed led to Bear Creek, which flows to the Selway, which merges into the Clearwater and into the Snake, on to the Columbia and into the Pacific. About then, in a muddy spot between a melting patch of snow and a creek, we came upon fresh bear tracks and scat. Cory smiled and brought up my long joked about “dream” of someday going through the digestive system of a grizzly to fertilize the grasses and forbs that elk eat – “Which is only fair,” I tell him, “considering all the elk I’ve killed and eaten.” Or, as Cory so simply puts it: “Dad wants to be bear poop.”

Then came the question: “Dad, if you like elk and bears so much, why don’t you work for a group that protects elk or bears instead of trout?” (I was working for Trout Unlimited at the time.) So we talked about watersheds, and the need to protect, restore and reconnect watersheds to have clean, clear water for the wild trout, salmon and steelhead he (like his dad) loves to fish for. Like his grandfather loved to fish for. Like my grandfather liked to fish for. “Protecting watersheds, I explained means “saving all the parts,” including flowers, plants, trees, birds, bees, elk and bears.

He looked at me and asked: “So when you protect trout, you also protect elk and bears?”

That night, aside a beautiful high alpine lake, over the red hot coals of a fire, we cooked wild trout caught by Cory.

For everyone of us the past connects to the present and on to the future — a legacy of anglers, hunters and conservationists taking care of the wild places, wildlife, fish and the waters we cherish. Fathers play a huge role in that. The simplest little moments in life can make a huge difference.

So fathers: Take your kids fishing and enjoy — You never know how far it might go. And happy father’s day!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Dreaming of Winter. Again.

While I was driving home tonight, or early this morning, the rain from the shine of the headlights on water looked like ice. As the light progressed out to the peripherals, on both sides, they got progressively dimmer and grayer until it looked like snow on both sides of an icy road. Then fog. I slowed down, I think. It felt like it. It seemed as if it took forever to get home. But along the seemingly-long way I pondered why I suddenly already miss winter.

I was excited a few months ago when the first glacier lilies popped up. Just as, similarly, I get excited when I can begin swimming comfortably again in the rivers; or see the first hint of gold or red on a cold leaf; or feel the first cool kiss of a snowflake (and no two kisses are alike); or the first ice forms; or the first ice thaws, or the first blackbirds sing.   

It’s been a wonderful spring. But it’s over.

Today I got used as a source of protein by perhaps hundreds of tiny little mosquitoes, the kind whose bite leaves a bump and itches for a while. I understand why, and the importance of it all to everything else in the wilds I love. It's worth a small donation of blood. I have plenty. It’s the least I can do. A contribution, or annual fees. I like to give back. But I don’t have to like liking it.

I confess: Sometimes I feel revengefully satisfied knowing that honey bees lose
parts of their abdomens and digestive tracts, plus muscles and nerves, and then drop dead after leaving their stingers in me. But then I feel guilty for feeling that way, because I think from their point of view all of their stings were justified. (Although, to be honest, I truly have no idea what or how bees think, or even if they do think.)  Either way, it’s part of it, I'm part of it; it's all part of the wilds I love.

Another quick thought: Perhaps some mosquito with my blood gets somehow preserved in amber and future scientists at an isolated island theme park extract my DNA and clone me.  Lots of me!

Though I still wish I had my bug dope today.

I forget my bug dope on the first discovery of return of the mosquitoes every year. It’s an annual ritual; like being too eager to reach the high country again and end up post-holing through snow. Again. Every year. Or the first time each year I attempt to get out on the ice too soon. Again. Every year. So I forgot my bug dope. Again. Like every year.

I did swat and kill a ton. Guilt free. I do it for their own good. It helps them, in an evolutionarily-sort-of way. The quickest and luckiest avoid my hand and then pass on their quickest-and-luckiest traits to their several hundred egg-larva-pupa-adult offspring, and then the quickest and luckiest of them pass the quick-and-lucky genes on to their several hundred offspring and so on – effectively increasing the numbers of the quick and lucky in the ever-growing swarms.

I love watching the trout eat them, even though they were sucking my blood while I watched.

So now I miss winter. A lot.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing the above, I fell asleep scratching all the still-itchy bumps. I awoke from a dream that I was snowshoeing in the wilds and fell into and got stuck in a deep snow pit below a handsome subalpine fir (there’re far worse things to be stuck in a cold pit with.)  They say if you dream you never got out of a snow pit then you really never did get out of the snow pit and so you never wake up.

Fortunately, I woke up before I didn’t get out.  

I’m happy again.   

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jack Ward Thomas: 1934 - 2016

"Not only are ecosystems more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think." 
- Jack Ward Thomas

When I first moved to Montana out of the Marine Corps in 1985 I was determined to learn all I could about elk.  In addition to roaming the wilds and observing the magnificent animals year round, I also read the hefty treatise “Elk of North America: Ecology and Management,” committing myself to daily readings like one might approach bible study. One of the disciples of the book was Jack Ward Thomas.

Years later I took a job as the conservation editor for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle magazine, researching and writing articles about all things elk – natural history, ecology, behavior, habits and habitat and management. Naturally, one of my primary sources was Jack Ward Thomas.

In 2001, I had the honor of working with Jack, co-authoring a chapter to an updated version of "Elk of North America," this one called “North American Elk: Ecology and Management.”

Needless to say, I learned a lot from Jack Ward Thomas. A lot of people did.

On Thursday, May 26, after a long struggle with cancer, Jack Ward Thomas died at his home in Florence, Montana, surrounded by the love of his family. He was 81. He was a husband, father, veteran, scientist, author, professor and leader who contributed immensely to our knowledge of wildlife, forests and ecosystems and worked tirelessly to not only pass that knowledge on to others, but also to ensure that the science shaped management policies to help protect and enhance the future health of our wildlife and wild places.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management from Texas A&M, in 1951, he spent the first ten years of his career with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before moving to West Virginia to work as a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. While there, he earned a master’s degree in wildlife ecology from West Virginia University. He then went on to head up a Forest Service research unit at the University of Massachusetts where he also earned his PhD in forestry in 1972.
In 1974, he moved to La Grande, Oregon to work as the chief research wildlife biologist and program leader at the Forest Service’s Forestry and Range Sciences Laboratory.  It was in Oregon where Jack conducted ground-breaking research on the impacts of logging, roads, off-road-vehicles and other factors on elk and elk hunting. His Blue Mountains Elk Initiative brought together researchers, land managers and wildlife managers in a monumental, collaborative research project that helped define terms and concepts such as elk vulnerability, habitat security, habitat effectiveness and how all those variables and more effect elk and elk hunting.

Jack also helped launch the Starkey Project in Oregon, a joint wildlife research project conducted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service. The project measured the response of deer and elk to intensively managed forests and rangelands as well as open roads and various types and levels of motorized use. One of the most comprehensive field research projects ever attempted, studies examined key questions about elk, deer, cattle, timber, roads, recreation uses and nutrient flows on National Forests.
Results of Jack’s efforts were and continue to be worked into forest plans, and used by state wildlife agencies throughout the West to reduce the impact management activities can have on healthy, functioning ecosystems.

On December 1, 1993 Jack was appointed the 13th Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, a position he held until 1996. His approach to running the Forest Service can be summed up in his own words: "Always tell the truth and obey the law," and "We don't just manage land. We're supposed to be leaders. Conservation leaders. Leaders in protecting and improving the land."

After retiring from the Forest Service, he accepted a position as the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the School of Forestry of the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. (He once joked that "pontificating is easier than responsibility.")  He held that position until 2006 when he officially retired.

An avid and passionate elk hunter himself, Jack worked hard to help ensure the future of our hunting heritage, and was a staunch defender of public lands.  In 1995, at an Outdoor Writers Association of America conference I attended, Jack was asked if he thought proposals to sell our federal lands or turn them over to states was a good idea. This was his response:
"Speaking for myself, I won't stand for it. I won’t stand for it for me and I won't stand for it for my grandchildren and I won't stand for it for their children yet unborn. This heritage is too precious and so unique in the world to be traded away for potage. These lands are our lands -- all the lands that most of us will ever own. These lands are ours today and our children's in years to come. Such a birthright stands alone in all the earth. My answer is not just no, but hell no!"

Those of us who enjoy wildlife and public lands owe Jack Ward Thomas a great debt of gratitude.  His legacy lives on in the wild places we cherish.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION!: Do Not Delist Yellowstone Grizzlies

If you haven't done so already, today is the last day to submit comments regarding the proposed delisting of Yellowstone grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act. The comment period closes today,  May 10, at 11:59 pm.  Comments that merely state "I support" or "I oppose" delisting do not carry much weight; include a bit of detail.

Please click on the link below and comment today! Thanks.

There are friends, and organizations, on both sides of this issue who I have tremendous respect for. It's a tough issue. Here is my personal take on it:

Dear U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,

While I greatly respect, appreciate and applaud your tremendous and successful efforts to help Yellowstone grizzly bear populations recover from the threat of extinction,  there are too many legitimate concerns -- voiced by some very prominent grizzly bear biologists, managers and other experts -- to remove the Yellowstone grizzly population from the Endangered Species Act at this time. I urge you to err on the side of caution and ensure these concerns and threats regarding grizzlies are better understood and dealt with before you delist them.

Climate change and it's impacts on grizzly bear habitat, behavior and food selection is perhaps the greatest threat to the Yellowstone grizzlies. These threats and potential impacts are not yet fully understood. With traditional and critical food sources such as whitebark pine nuts, cutthroat trout, army cutworm moths, wild berries, elk and bison already on the decline, grizzlies are already wondering farther and into new territory in search of other food. This puts them in increasing conflict with humans, which means increased mortality for bears. I do realize that grizzly bears are adaptable, opportunistic omnivores, but the impacts of them adapting to new food sources has not been adequately addressed and is not yet fully understood. That, combined with a growing human population and other associated threats to grizzly habitat, adds up to some serious and legitimate concerns about the future of Yellowstone grizzlies.

There are also other, legitimate concerns about how state management of grizzly bears might impact the ability of grizzly bears to expand through critical linkage zones and eventually connect with other populations to help ensure the long-term genetic health and viability of the Yellowstone grizzly populations.

Until we know more about the potential impacts of these serious threats to the Yellowstone grizzlies, I urge you to err on the side of caution and not delist the population at this time. We have come a long way in the recovery of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem; let's ensure the long-term health, viability and survival of these bears is truly secure before acting too hastily. The bears deserve more time, caution and consideration.

Thank you for your consideration, and thanks again for all you have done and continue to do to help grizzly bears recover.


David Stalling

COMMENT HERE: Click on this link, and then click on the "COMMENT NOW" link in the upper right hand corner: COMMENT NOW!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Walking Bear Comes Home: A Tribute to Dr. Charles Jonkel

Dr. Charles "Chuck" Jonkel (photo by Eric Bergman)
“Bears are a very powerful symbol. We can learn a lot from bears.” – Chuck Jonkel

I learned a lot from Chuck Jonkel, the grizzled, gruff, inspiring bear biologist, teacher, activist and conservationist who spent so much time around wild grizzlies that he came to actually resemble the Great Bears in many ways.  He is the guy I always turned to when I had questions about grizzly bear biology, ecology, behavior and management.

Last night, April 12, 2016, Dr. Charles “Chuck” Jonkel died at the age of 85.

A co-founder and scientific advisor to the The Great Bear Foundation in Missoula, and founder of Missoula’s annual International Wildlife Film Festival, Jonkel was a pioneer in the research of black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears. He was known as one of the “fathers” of bear research, and part of what is sometimes called the “grizzly bear biology fraternity” along with Frank and John Craighead, David Mattson and Mark Shaffer. In 1966, Jonkel was hired by the Canadian Wildlife Service to conduct the first ever field studies of polar bears in the arctic. Jonkel’s monumental Border Grizzly Project, launched 40 years ago in Montana, was the most comprehensive study of grizzlies and their habitat ever conducted, and shaped critical habitat management and protection efforts that helped grizzly bears recover. After retiring as a wildlife biology professor at the University of Montana, Jonkel continued teaching courses for the Glacier Institute and elsewhere, helping people better understand bears and how to live cooperatively with grizzly bears to reduce bear-human conflicts and ensure the protection and conservation of grizzlies.

Jonkel was an advisor to the Great Grizzly Search, a collaborative effort by eight conservation and scientific groups to try and document the presence of grizzlies within the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. As part of that effort, Jonkel once persuaded me to go on one of the most wild, crazy and interesting adventures of my life -- a five-day journey that entailed swimming, hiking, and snowshoeing to the high country during a time of extreme avalanche danger to dig out a bear's den and gather hair samples. (I wrote about the adventure here: Into the Bear's Den.)

Unlike many scientists, Jonkel was not afraid to passionately fight for the protection of bears and their habitat, and express his spiritual connection to the Great Bears. Working with Native Americans, he helped revive a time-honored spring tradition of welcoming bears out of hibernation with what has become an annual Bear Honoring ceremony held by The Great Bear Foundation -- but all are encouraged to revive the tradition in their own way, which I have done.

Jonkel influenced generations of bear biologists, students, conservationists and others, and his legacy also lives on in his son, Jamie Jonkel, who is a bear biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

I, for one, am forever grateful to Chuck Jonkel for all he has done to help create awareness and understanding of, and help conserve the healthy, wild grizzly and black bear populations we are so fortunate to have in Montana and elsewhere.

May he forever walk among the Great Bears he so loved.

To learn more about Dr. Charles “Chuck” Jonkel, check out the documentary produced by The Great Bear Foundation and Salish Kootenai College: “Walkng Bear Comes Home: The Life and Work of Charles Jonkel.”   

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Gun Incident

It's not everyday you have a gun pulled on you, even in Montana.

My son Cory and I pulled into a small parking lot near a lake in the Seeley-Swan Valley today where we planned to canoe and fish. There was a guy standing near a big pickup who seemed to be glaring at me as I was getting ready to unstrap and unload my canoe. Eventually he walked over and introduced himself as Ken Liston. He asked if my name is Dave Stalling.

"Yes. Do I know you?" I asked.
"You're the wolf-loving, tree-hugger who insulted me online," he said.


Then I remembered. He was a participant in a recent discussion regarding wolves on a Facebook page run by a local nonprofit hunter-angler conservation organization. He kept posting common lies and misconceptions about wolves to which I responded with science-based facts. (No, the reintroduced wolves are not a different, larger, more "vicious" subspecies from what used to live here. No, they are not "decimating" our elk herds. No, they are not after our children. No, they are not associated with Muslims or the Communist Party.)  He is the type who responded with intelligent, insightful comments such as, "You're not a real hunter. You're not a real Montanan. You're a libtard."

At one point, he suggested anyone not born in Montana should have their place of origin tattooed on their forehead and then be removed from the state.

I gave up and called him an idiot.

"Ah, yes, I remember you," I said. "The guy who wants to tattoo people's foreheads and boot them out of Montana?"
"That's me," he said. "You insulted me."
"Yes, I did," I replied. "I think I called you an idiot?"
"Yes," he said. "I bet you don't have the balls to say that to my face!"
"Do you really, seriously think that anyone not born in Montana should have their place of origin tattooed on their forehead and then be removed from the state?" I asked.
"Yes, I do," he said.

"Well then, you do seem like an idiot," I responded.
"And from your hat, I can tell you are a fucking libtard," he said.
(I was wearing my Montana Wildlife Federation hat.)

I asked him to leave me alone.

"I'm with my son," I said. "We are going fishing. Please go away."

He got close up in my face in a very intimidating and threatening manner and proceeded to insult me. I felt trapped between him and my car. I got pretty nervous and asked him several times to back off. He only got more aggressive and threatening. I placed the palm of my hand on his face, holding his head like Tom Brady might grasp a deflated football, and shoved him away from me.

"Leave me alone!" I said again. "Go away."

He pulled a handgun out from a side holster (hidden under his jacket) and pointed it at me. It looked like a .45 caliber.

"Whoa!" I said. "Are you seriously pulling a gun out on me? My son is here (Cory was very scared). Knock it off asshole. Go away."

He dropped the gun to his side and said (seriously, he really did say this):

"Touch me again and I will shoot you. I'm too old to fight and too young to die."

"Wow! Did we just enter into a John Wayne movie?" I asked. "You really are a fucking idiot, aren't you? I will not touch you if you put your toy away and get the fuck out of here."

He put his toy away and got out of there. I called 911 and reported the incident and gave the operator a description, make and model of his truck, his license plate number and the direction he drove off.

While still on the 911 call, he returned and parked his truck near me. He got out and offered me a beer as an apparent peace offering.
"We're better than this," he said.
"No, you're not," I replied.
I informed him the police were on the way.
He left again.

While waiting for the police, I missed a phone call from a number I did not recognize. Assuming it might be the police, I called the number back.

It was him.

He again made a peace offering.

"How did you get my number?" I asked.
"I have my intelligence sources," he said.

The police apparently pulled him over, and eventually arrived to separately get my version of the story and then Cory's version. They were very professional and nice. They asked if I wished to pursue any charges against the guy. I said no. 

Throughout the incident, I kept reassuring Cory that everything was okay, and he kept assuring me that he was okay. But at one point he did say, "Dad, you really shouldn't threaten and cuss at someone when they point a gun at you -- you should cower a little bit."

He has a point.

He also said, "Be careful what you say to people online; you might meet them in person sometime."
After that, we spent a lovely afternoon on the lake, fishing. The worst part of the day? We didn't catch any fish.  

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Keeping The Badger-Two Wild

Badger-Two Medicine, Photo by Tony Bynum
I first ventured into the Badger-Two Medicine area when I was a troubled, struggling young man fresh out of the Marine Corps in 1986. It was there where I encountered my first wild grizzly, caught my first wild cutthroat, and killed my first wild mule deer. Good, wild medicine, indeed!

Last week, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the cancellation of oil and gas leases held by a company named Solenex within the Badger-Two Medicine, helping ensure the place remains forever wild. It’s a sweet victory in a long, ongoing battle that is not yet over. As Jamie Williams of The Wilderness Society puts it: “It is a turning point in the decades-long fight to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area of Montana. The Interior Department recognizes that the Badger is simply too sacred and too wild to drill. The cultural heart of the Blackfeet Nation deserves protection and respect.”

Ten years ago while serving as president of the Montana Wildlife Federation and working for Trout Unlimited I assisted a coalition of local hunters, anglers, ranchers, outfitters, businessmen and tribal leaders in a successful effort to protect a significant chunk of the Rocky Mountain front from gas and oil development, fairly close to the Badger-Two Medicine area. Working as a professional conservationist I had to be cautious about using emotional arguments, about calling a place “sacred,” but instead focused on the importance of hunting, fishing, clean water and wildlife to the economy. Being sacred is no longer enough to save a place; It has to be one form of human commodity or another. But when a local man from Choteau named Stoney Burke was accused of being “emotional” about places like the Badger-Two Medicine Area he pounded his fist on a table and shouted, “You’re goddamn right I’m emotional – if you can’t be emotional about a place like this then what the hell can you be emotional about?” He compared putting roads and gas wells along the Front to permanently scarring his daughter’s face. When someone mentioned that Forest Service lands are managed for multiple use, and so gas and oil development should be allowed, Stoney said, “Multiple use doesn’t mean you take a crap in your kitchen.”

Elk, bighorns, 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 declared it the “top one percent” of wildlife habitat remaining in the Continental U.S. It’s long been sacred ground to the Blackfeet Nation. Much of it has been permanently protected from gas and oil development.

Unfortunately, the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area – which borders Glacier National Park, The Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Blackfeet Nation – remains threatened. In 1981, the Department of the Interior began issuing oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine without full environmental review and consulting the Blackfeet people, violating laws that require they do so. Since then, some of the leases have been relinquished voluntarily by energy interests. However, a handful of companies have declined offers to buy-out or swap their leases for holdings in less sensitive areas. One of those companies, Solenex, filed suit in 2013, demanding access to their highly-contested lease area, precipitating the need to rid Badger-Two Medicine of leases once and for all. The recent cancellation of the Solenex lease is a promising step in that direction.

The Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, made up of a diversity of local hunters, anglers, businessmen and other citizens, has been helping the Blackfeet Nation fight this battle since 1984, along with the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society and several hunting and fishing conservation organizations. As the newly-hired western Montana field representative for the Montana Wildlife Federation, I look forward to re-engaging in this important effort to protect this unique and wild place.

While working along the Front a decade ago, I became acquainted with Chief Earl Old Person, Chief of the Blackfeet Nation. One time, while eating breakfast together at the Two Medicine Cafe in East Glacier, I shared with the Chief some personal struggles. He suggested a few remedies; one of them was the Badger-Two Medicine Area. “Go there,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”

I did. And I’ve gone back time and time again – backpacking, hunting, fishing and freely roaming the wilds. We need to ensure that people will always have that opportunity. By working together, we can all help achieve the vision of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance: “A child of future generations will recognize and can experience the same cultural and ecological richness that we find in the wild lands of the Badger-Two Medicine today.”

This essay was first published on the Montana Wildlife Federation blog: