Wednesday, December 31, 2014

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

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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wolves at the Door: How Hunter Hysteria Helped Justify Litigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In no small way, hunters helped justify the litigation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Autumn Ambivalence

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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Lessons From a One-Legged Elk Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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