Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Humbling of an Asshole

For those of you who have known me for more than a few hours, this should come as no surprise: I can be a real asshole at times. Particularly when I am angry, which doesn't happen as much as it used to or as much as some people seem to think. What usually angers me most is rude and of obnoxious behavior from others, directed towards me or others. In other words, asshole behavior in others brings out the asshole behavior in me.

It doesn't happen all the time. It depends -- Kind of like a wild grizzly who might tolerate a person one day, but attack the next. I'm certain it has a lot to do with their mood, and mine.

The other day I was in one of those moods, and was then provoked.

A guy in a big huge truck came right up behind my Subaru and started riding my ass, within inches it seemed. And his rig was jacked up so high that his lights shone right through my back window. It made me think of one of those movie scenes in which an alien ship descends on a car and lights the whole thing up. And then he lays on the horn. Bright lights and loud noises is a bad, sometimes volatile mix for me.

I had stopped behind a line of traffic backed up from a red traffic light, and backed up so far that I could not get into the left turning lane, even when the left-turn green arrow started blinking and everyone within that lane had turned. But a white car blocked my freedom.

Which bugs me. A lot. I remember my dad showing me places along the Connecticut coast and tell me things like, "See that subdivision there? That used to be a salt marsh where we went skinny-dipping, caught crabs, and fished for snapper blues." And now here I am, 40 years later, stuck in traffic where, just to the left of me (where the Home Depot and the mega, multi-movie-theater complex now is -- along with a mega chunk of earth now sealed off by concrete and asphalt) is where I used to hunt pheasants, ducks, geese, and white tailed deer when I first moved here.

And this is where the guy is riding my ass. Bright lights and loud noise. So I do what I've done numerous times before; I get out of my car and walk back to have a chat with the obnoxious asshole. Usually they roll their windows up or keep them up, lock the doors, and yell through the glass things such as, "What, are you crazy? Get back in your car." I usually respond with things such as, "Come on, please, just lay off -- back off and be nice. Okay?"

Which is exactly what I sad to the ass-riding, horn-honking asshole while holding up traffic near the box stores and parking lots where I used to hunt. Most the time people respond by saying things such as, "Okay, okay, I'm sorry, now get back in your car." And so I do, and that is that.

Until the other day.

This guy didn't do that. He told me to "fuck off," and then flipped on his high-beams and laid harder on the horn. Bright lights and loud noise. Then I say, "Wow, you really are an asshole." He opens his truck door, leans out, and says, "What the fuck did you just call me." This about the time when the asshole in me emerged. I walked up to him and yelled, "You're a fucking asshole, now stop!"
He punched me. Hard. And he had a hell of a punch. My glasses cut into my eye. I was totally unprepared for that; I was caught off guard. I was shocked and awed. I responded with violence.

Which bugs me. A lot. Once, not so long ago, I took a court-ordered anger-management class. The instructor was awesome, if not harsh, and called me on (and made me aware of) my bullshit.

"Ah, so you're the savior, you're going to confront all rude behavior in the world and put an end to it," he would say. "And we can thank you for that?"

But they deserve it; there should be consequences for their actions.

"And you have appointed yourself judge, jury and executioner?"

But sometimes I can't help myself, I can't control myself.

"Oh bullshit, Dave. You have full control of your behavior, but you're turning that control over to them -- you're letting them control you!"

Ouch! I hate being controlled.

And so it happened again. I let the ass-riding, horn-honking asshole control me. He called my bluff. I met my match. Christine Stalling has long told me to stop doing this crap. "Someday you're going to do that to someone as crazy as you and it won't work out like you hope." As always, she was right.

It turns out he is a fellow Marine. Much younger; maybe 25, or 30. A good-looking guy, with a hell of a punch, and a temper. He seemed like an asshole.

Just like me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Plight of the Bighorns


Back in October I took a break from elk hunting to photograph bighorn sheep at the National Bison Range in Moise. I was surprised how close one ram let me to get, and then I noticed something was wrong. Several times he dropped his head to the ground and struggled to lift it back up. The weight of his heavy horns he long proudly carried had apparently become too burdensome. He was dying. I returned the next day and found his body.

After posting a photo of the ram on Facebook, and speculating about his death, my friend Stacy Courville, a wildlife biologist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, said the sheep most likely died from pneumonia, which had recently infected the Bison Range. So I talked to Jeff King, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager who oversees the range. Courville was correct: A bacteria called  Mycoplasma ovipheumonia had infected the bighorn populations, causing pneumonia. More than 35 wild sheep had died in just a few months. King and others suspect that the bacteria was transferred to the wild herd from a domestic sheep herd about a mile west of the range.

Once the bacteria infects a herd of wild sheep, it can be devastating, and not much can be done.  

Mycoplasma ovipheumonia has no cell wall, so antibiotics do not work on it,” says Mark Penninger, an Oregon-based wildlife biologist who heads up the bighorn sheep program for the U.S. Forest Service. “It is carried with no ill effects by many domestic sheep and goats, but is deadly to wild sheep. Our wild sheep have not evolved with this pathogen. It can sometimes kill wild sheep by itself, but is often a precursor that compromises the respiratory system's ability to move things, such as bacteria and viruses, out with mucous. Then the sheep die when their body responds by producing more mucous, which results in pneumonia. It is quite the dilemma when trying to protect and restore bighorn populations.

When a bighorn sheep population is initially infected, often as many as a third, and sometimes up to 90%, of the herd may die of pneumonia. Most survivors are apparently immune, but their lambs are not and usually die before weaning. In some populations, annual pneumonia outbreaks in lambs continue for decades after the initial infection, which prevents the population from bouncing back. In other populations, lamb survival returns to normal relatively quickly. Why some populations recover and others do not is one of the most important questions scientists are trying to answer. Some researchers hope that wild sheep herds could eventually develop an immunity.

But in the meantime, bighorns are being infected and dying throughout their range.

More than 90 bighorns recently died of pneumonia near Plains, and another 39 died near Gardiner. “We’re losing hundreds of wild sheep to this disease every year and it is decimating herds across the west,” said Kyle Meintzer, director of the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) based in Bozeman. “For example, in 2013, 400 wild sheep in California were lost, and that’s 80 per cent of what was the largest herd in the state. Wildlife managers were forced to sacrifice the herd in the Tendoy Mountains in Montana due to recurring pneumonia and low lamb survival. Wildlife managers, with the help of hunters, will remove 100 per cent of the herd and later will repopulate the herd with healthy bighorns.”

Unfortunately, killing wild sheep because of suspicion of exposure is the prudent thing to do in many cases, according to Mark Penninger. “A wandering wild sheep can cover a lot of miles and return to its herd with death in its breath. Killing one sheep could prevent the loss of an entire herd. Capturing and testing is rarely practical due to urgency and terrain.”

Although scientists don’t know exactly how the disease is transmitted, what factors contribute to transmission and whether transmission of other bacteria, even among wild sheep alone, contributes to the bighorn die-offs, mounting evidence suggests that domestic sheep are a major vector. A 2008 study by Colorado Division of Wildlife scientists showed that a single domestic sheep that wandered onto bighorn winter range caused a die-off of more than 86 bighorns from 1997 to 2000.

What can be done? The most viable – yet controversial – proposals involve separating wild sheep from domestic sheep by large distances so they cannot come in contact. “The science is clear that domestic and wild sheep can’t live together,” says Kevin Hurley, Conservation Director for WSF.

In the Salmon River country of Idaho, where 76-percent of the bighorn populations was lost to pneumonia, legal battles ensued between sheep herders, conservationists and the U.S. Forest Service when the Payette National Forest decided to keep domestic sheep off grazing leases within bighorn sheep range. In 2008, a U.S. District Judge ruled in favor of the decision. But leaders of hunter-conservation organizations, and wildlife biologists and mangers with state and federal agencies, would prefer to work with the sheep ranching industry to find viable solutions rather than fight things out in court.

The WSF recently met with members of Congress and federal wildlife agencies on solutions to create safe zones against deadly pneumonia bacteria and viruses that are infecting wild sheep herds in the U.S. “Having a disease-free zone around the new herd is necessary to prevent new infection and assure the success of restoration,” says Kyle Meintzer.

Steve Torbit, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Rocky Mountain Regional Center in Boulder, Colorado, calls for “livestock producers and wildlife folks to roll up their sleeves and work together to find areas suitable for domestic sheep.” Torbit and other bighorn advocates hope they can persuade western sheep ranchers and federal officials to develop a strategy that will allow bighorn sheep populations to expand through conservation and further reintroductions across the West. “I don’t want to start a new range war, because it’s not good for anybody, and it’s certainly not good for wildlife,” he says. He favors a collaborative process that brings ranchers, sportsmen, tribes and conservationists together to protect the range and wildlife but still allows ranchers to thrive – creating safe zones for wild sheep far from domestic sheep, and setting aside other zones for domestic sheep far from bighorn habitat.

As Kevin Hurley puts it: “If you believe in compromise and conservation, both sides have to give up something.”

Friday, November 11, 2016

United We Stand (Happy Veteran's Day)

Veteran’s day held particular relevance to me this year, coming three days after the most divisive election I can remember. As I gathered with fellow veterans this morning at the Western Montana State Veteran’s Cemetery, it reminded me of this: We’re still united.

When I served in a Marine Corps Force Recon unit in the early 1980s, I served with people from all walks of life, with a diversity of values and beliefs, from all the various parts of our nation, and from all social-economic spectrums. Sure, we had our disagreements. We argued. We got angry with each other at times. But we worked together when it counted. We risked our lives for each other. Some gave their lives for us.

I often feel the same bond with fellow hunters and anglers. Sure, we have our disagreements. We argue. We get angry with each other at times. But we work together when it counts to protect the wildlife, wild places, access to our public lands, and our hunting and angling heritage and traditions.

It’s the American way.

So thank you to all who serve and have served this great, big diverse nation of ours. May we always fight together when it counts.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Defend the Constitution: Restrict Assault Rifles

Yesterday was the first time I shot a semi-automatic, military-style rifle since I left the Montana Army National Guard 14 years ago. It reminded me just how deadly they can be in the wrong hands. Most anyone can rapidly become fairly proficient with them. My teenage son, who had never shot such a weapon before, put a deadly group of multiple shots into a paper plate from 25-yards in about ten seconds. He can't do that with my bolt-action hunting rifle. Neither can I. Nobody can.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and its followers like to say things such as, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." "You can kill people with a baseball bat as easy as a gun." That's true. But it's a hell of a lot easier to kill a lot of people quickly with the right choice of weapons. Nobody can go into a school and kill 22 kids in less than five minutes with a baseball bat. It's a lot easier to kill people when you have a weapon designed and made to efficiently kill lots of people in a short amount of time. This is why I was issued M16-A2 rifles, HK 9mm submachine guns, M60 machine guns, M203 grenade launchers and other potent, deadly weapons in the Marine Corps and National Guard -- not baseball bats. (See "Myths, Lies and Bullshit from the NRA.")

Some weapons are made for efficient, deadly assaults, hence the term "assault rifles." (There are those who resent that term, and claim its use shows a lack of knowledge about guns, and yet even some of the manufacturers and gun dealers who sell them call them "assault rifles.")

These weapons should be further restricted -- more extensive and thorough background checks along with registration, training and licensing requirements. And no, that would NOT violate our Second Amendment Rights. President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush didn't think so, and neither do I.

There have and always will be restrictions on Second Amendment rights. Even our "founding fathers" who crafted and approved of the amendment often fervently disagreed on it. Constitutional scholars, politicians, and others have had many rationale, reasonable, heated debates over it ever since. I am not allowed to have an M60 machine gun, an M203 grenade launcher, an M1 Abrams tank, a LAAW (Light Anti Tank Assault Weapon), Stinger anti-aircraft missile or a nuclear warhead. Those all seem like reasonable restrictions to me. We all draw the line somewhere.

Where does the NRA and its supporters draw the line? And why is it they think that wherever they chose to draw the line is what the rest of our nation should except --  and that any restrictions that cross their line is unconstitutional?

It is not unconstitutional for citizens to speak out and fight to make changes through the democratic process as outlined in our Constitution. To the contrary: It's very Constitutional. It's the American way. It's patriotic. What's actually unAmerican is for a special interest group to spread lies, myths and misconceptions and bully, threaten and intimidate our elected public officials and others to get their way -- effectively hijacking our democratic process, against the will of a majority Americans, preventing us from making our nation more safe. More sane.

There is no legitimate reason for citizens to own weapons designed and made to rapidly kill a lot of people in a short amount of time. The risks and dangers to our nation and innocent people far outweigh any benefit that can possible be gained. The NRA defends the rights of people to own pretty much any sort of weapon they desire -- not because of Second Amendment rights, but because they have become an arm of and public relations firm for a huge, powerful, wealthy and influential gun and weapons manufacturing industry. They have purchased our Congress to do its bidding through money, threats and intimidation. It's about profit, not the Constitution.

It's time for change.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Elk Hunt Report 2016 (Archery): You Can go Home

They say you "can't go home." You can; it just hurts more.

I hunted some rugged, remote, wild country I used to hunt years ago, country that is like home. It's where I grew up as an elk hunter. I killed a lot of bulls back there with my bow in my 20s and 30s. The country hasn't changed much, but I have. It's as secure as elk habitat security gets: steep, thick brush, tons of blowdown, no trails. In fact, the mountains seem steeper and the brush seems thicker. It hurt more than usual and I can't just blame age; I am out of shape for this sort of thing. My 10-pound mobile elk camp seems heavier, and not as comfortable as it used to. (See "Spartan Camps: Hunting Elk Like a Force Recon Marine.") But something else is missing: The obsessive-possessive-compulsive drive I used to have for this sort of thing. Nowadays, I take a lot more naps on sunny hillsides.

I did see a half-dozen elk; heard a lot of bugling; saw a black bear, a moose and a mule-deer buck. And here's a nice improvement from the past: I heard wolves howling one night.

The bugling still excites me, and I never refuse a call. But a mentor once told me, "If you start worrying about how you're going to get an elk out of a spot before you kill it, then you will stop being a good elk hunter."

I worried.

The first bull I called in on day two (the same bull, I think, whom I heard bugling through the night as I lay under the stars on a ridge top in my sleeping bag) came close. Too close. He had me pin-pointed and walked straight up to me, 10 yards out. I couldn't move. When he turned and walked behind a big spruce, I nocked an arrow and drew, and held. One more step . . . one more step. Lucky for him, he never took that step. He knew something wasn't quite right, and he turned and trotted off, stopping a few times to look back. I couldn't coax him to return. It was lucky for me, too, I suppose; I'd still be trying to pack him out. (Yes, I worried about it.)

Day three I took a hard fall after stepping on dead, downed, fall-on-your-ass, slippery-smooth lodgepole while crossing a large pile of crisscrossed blowdown in a hell-hole of a spruce bottom as it was starting to get dark. But an elk had bugled up the ridge on the other side. What else to do? In fact, he grunted a few times right after I fell. I caught up to him, grunted back, got his attention, and he started coming in. I first saw him at about 50 yards, shadows of his long tines cast on the surrounding pines in the evening light. He took his apparent frustration out on a small subalpine fir; he nearly ripped it out of the ground. Then he came closer. Thirty yards. Twenty yards. Then he walked behind a large upended root-wad of a felled spruce. Time to notch an arrow and get ready.

And then I saw the sight to my bow was broken off. Gone. No way I could chance a shot -- chance wounding this bull (I have always believed a missed shot is a fortunate accident that could easily result in wounding).  I quietly watched him for a while, until he got suspicious and slowly wandered north.

Yes, David Petersen, I can see you shaking your head, hear you chuckling, and imagine you rightfully thinking, "I told you so." It's time to stop relying on the wheels, pulleys and technology I sometimes hypocritically rant against. Time to start instinctively shooting my recurve.

It's a good time in my life to switch over. The killing doesn't drive me so much anymore. Besides, I don't know how the hell I would have packed that bull out of there. (Yes, I worried about it.)

May he grow to be king!



Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Elk Vulnerability: Secure Habitat Protects Healthy Herds and Hunting


Photo by Dave Stalling
Forty-five years ago Alan Christensen went elk hunting with his uncle and some friends. Though more than a foot of snow had fallen, the elk stayed up high, out of reach. “But my uncle was a logger and had the only four-wheel-drive around,” Christensen says. “That got us into the high country where the elk were, away from other people.”

Today, four-wheel-drive trucks are standard equipment for most hunters.

“The technology and ability for people to get to and kill elk has changed dramatically in 45 years,” Christensen says. “That, combined with changes in habitat, more hunting pressure and better access to elk country have made elk more vulnerable to hunting.”

As a former Wildlife Program Leader for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, Christensen not only helped pioneer the concept of elk vulnerability, he did something about it.  In 1989, he joined with other wildlife professional from state and federal agencies, universities and timber companies to form an Elk Vulnerability Working Group. Through research, symposiums and publications, the group united biologists and managers to identify vulnerability problems and seek solutions.

In one major study, researchers examined elk mortality in areas with a high density of open roads, another where roads are closed to motorized vehicles during hunting season, and another area with no roads.  In the area with open roads, only five percent of all bulls lived to maturity (defined as 4-1/2 years). None of the bulls lived past 5-1/2, and the herd contained about 10 bulls to every 100 cows. In the area with seasonal travel restrictions, 16 percent of the bulls lived past maturity, most reaching 7-1/2, with 20 bulls per 100 cows. In the roadless area, 30 percent of the bulls lived to maturity, most reaching 10 years, with nearly 35 bulls per 100 cows. 

“As road access increases and habitat security declines, we can expect elk to be increasingly vulnerable to hunting,” researchers concluded. “Without access management, the results will include elk populations with undesirable sex and age structures, increasingly complex and restrictive hunting regulations to protect elk herds, and a loss of recreational opportunity.”

Other studies showed similar results.

“Vulnerability encompasses many factors,” Christensen says. “Densities of roads open to vehicles, increasing density of hunters, decreasing amounts of elk cover, improved technology . . . taken by themselves they may not be that significant, but put them all together and they’re very significant.”

Significant enough that in many elk states, rising elk vulnerability spurred wildlife departments to cut hunting seasons and switch more and more to limited-entry hunting.

“As a whole, elk populations are generally stable or increasing throughout Montana and the West,” Christensen says. “There are more elk now than at any point since the turn of the century. However, in some herds the problem is the sex ratios and age-class structures – in other words, a lack of mature bulls. This is not so much an elk vulnerability issue, it’s a bull vulnerability issue.”

Some hunters are happy to hunt for cows, spikes and raghorns. For them, the opportunity to hunt elk ranks higher than the opportunity to encounter a mature bull in the field. Until relatively recently, even some wildlife biologists believed mature bulls weren’t necessary, as long as young bulls bred with cows. They judged the health of herds through pregnancy rates and annual “recruitment” of newborn calves.

But numerous studies have since confirmed what many wildlife biologists already suspected: Lack of mature bulls in a herd can disrupt breeding seasons, conception dates and calf survival.  Younger bulls tend to breed later and over a longer period in the fall than mature bulls. As a result, calving seasons last longer and many calves are born late in the spring. Late-born calves miss out on the lush forage of early spring, and also have less time to feed on high-quality forage and consequently may enter the winter in poorer condition than calves born earlier.  Drawn-out calving seasons also make newborn elk more susceptible to bears, mountain lions, coyotes and wolves. When calving seasons are shorter, as is the case when mature bulls do the breeding, calves are all born around the same time. This “flooding strategy,” as biologists call it, overwhelms predators and allows more calves to survive.

Perhaps even more important, though less clearly understood, mature bulls maintain social order in a herd. The presence of mature bulls reduces strife, exhaustion and wounding among bulls and frees cows from unwanted advances by socially inept young bulls – helping elk save crucial energy that can be a matter of life and death during a harsh winter.

“Fish and wildlife agencies, and the federal land management agencies, want to maintain opportunities for hunters,” Christensen says. “But we also have an obligation to maintain healthy wildlife populations – which includes keeping a good ratio of mature bulls in the elk herds. People want healthy elk herds, but they also want access to elk and high hunter success rates. We can’t have it all. There are too many people and finite resources. Part of the solution is to get maintain good habitat security, get a handle on roads and make it less easy for hunters to get into elk country and shoot bulls.”

Thanks in large part to the leadership and efforts of Alan Christensen and others who participated in the Elk Vulnerability Working Group, land and wildlife managers developed standards to incorporate into management plans, ensuring protection of habitat security to reduce vulnerability and maintain healthy elk herds and hunting opportunity.  But some managers seem to be forgetting the history and the science.

The Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest (HLCNF) recently amended its Forest Plan, replacing the current wildlife security standard with a new standard that removes all traditional and measurable components of secure habitat.  
 

“A lot of time, effort, cooperation and good, solid science went into understanding habitat security and elk vulnerability, and developing reasonable standards that help us maintain healthy habitat, healthy elk herd, and public hunting opportunities,” Alan Christensen says. “It’s a proud part of Forest Service history. We need to stick to the science and maintain these standards.” 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Fighting Wild Flames: A Perceived Enemy of Our Own Making?


While I greatly appreciate, respect and admire the bold efforts of wildland firefighters, the wildfire situation in the West — at least here where I live in Montana — is greatly misunderstood and more complex than most people realize. In many cases, past and ongoing efforts to fight and suppress these fires have worsened the situation.

Our western forests evolved with, adapted to and depend on fire; fire is essential to the health of these forests. Different forest types evolved with various, differing fire regimes. For example, our low-elevation ponderosa pine forests were shaped by frequent, low-intensity natural fires that burned out the understory of Douglas-fir and grand fir, recycled nutrients, and created and maintained grassy pine savannas critical to deer, elk and other wildlife. The large pines have thick bark that make them resistant to fire. Our high-elevation lodgepole forests, on the other hand, evolved with and depend on less-frequent, high-intensity, “stand-replacement” fires that recycle and renew the forests every 100 years or so. (The serotinous cones of lodgepole require fire and extreme heat to germinate.)

We have drastically altered and disrupted the natural ecology of these forests. In the low-elevation ponderosa pine forests, for example (where most towns, communities and homes exist) past cattle grazing reduced the grasses, forbs and other “fuels” that once carried the cleansing, low-intensity fires. The logging and high-grading of large pines diminished the presence of fire-resistant trees, and the suppression of fire allowed for an understory of thick firs to replace what was once open pine savannas.

These thick, dense forests have become weakened by the over-competition for sun, nutrients and water (very limited in the arid West) — creating vast amounts of forests that are now highly-susceptible to disease and insect attacks, such as mountain pine beetles. Climate change — which has resulted in less snow, earlier snow melt and more drought — has exacerbated the situation. We now have large expanses of forests made up of dead and dying trees. The “prefect storm,” of sorts, for the large, frequent, high-intensity fires we see today — fires that, in some places, are larger and more intense than what naturally occurred.

It’s nature’s seemingly harsh way of correcting our mistakes. Unfortunately, it can have negative consequences for people.

Add to all this the growing numbers of people moving to places like Montana and building homes in these drastically-altered, fire-prone, fire-dependent forests. This is akin to building homes in a flood plain. It’s not a matter of “if” the wildfires will come — it’s a matter of “when” and “how big.”

In this new, modern-day West most people have little understanding of forest ecology and the risks and potential consequences of their actions and decisions. Manny refuse to even take simple, common-sense precautions that can reduce the risks. A lot of folks want to “keep” the forests around their homes “as they are” (not understanding the dynamic, ever-changing nature of forests) and oppose science-based efforts to thin forests, return low-intensity fires and restore forest health. The situation has also made it difficult, if not impossible, to allow necessary fires to burn.

So the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal and state agencies spend an obscene amount of money — and firefighters risk their lives — to save homes that have been built where they shouldn’t be while keeping forests less-healthy and perpetuating the problems.

What would really help is to learn about forest ecology; support efforts to restore forests; stop the development occurring in fire-prone, fire-adapted forests; make room for and allow for some wildfires to burn, and require those who do live within these forests to implement actions, such as thinning, to reduce the risk to themselves and the brave firefighters who risk their lives fighting a perceived “enemy” of our own making.

We need to learn to live among the forests we love while leaving room for the wildfires that sustain them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Habitat Security: Protecting Elk and Elk Hunting


Secure habitat results in healthier elk herds and better hunting.
For those of us who chase elk around the wilds, the last word we might use to describe these wily animals is “vulnerable.”  But when elk lose too much habitat security, or are too easily accessible for too many hunters, or technology evolves beyond the ability of elk to easily escape and evade bullets and arrows, elk can indeed become overly vulnerable.  When hunted elk – which often means bull elk -- become overly vulnerable, it can have negative impacts to the health of the herds and result in reduced hunting opportunities. 

Concerns about bull elk vulnerability originally sprang not so much from high mortality in the bull segment of herds, but from low calf numbers. In the late 1960s, wildlife biologists noticed that widespread declines in pregnancy rates and spring calf counts coincided with reduced mature bull-to-cow ratios in many herds.  Although yearling bulls are capable of breeding cows, serious questions arose about their reproductive efficiency and the social and ecological consequences.

In 1969, concern over a proposed timber sale in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, along the Middle Fork of the Judith River in Montana’s Little Belt Mountains, proved a catalyst for change in elk management. Forest Service officials viewed the sale as critical to the forest’s planned program of timber harvest. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists feared disastrous effects on elk. In an effort to resolve conflict, the two agencies met in March, 1970, and agreed to the Montana Cooperative Logging Study. This 15-year research project involved five government organizations and a timber company. About the same time, similar research began in the Blue Mountains of Washington and Oregon. The two research projects produced a wealth of crucial information concerning the effects of logging and roading on elk, elk habitat and elk hunting – spawning concepts such as habitat security and elk vulnerability.

Here are some of the findings from that extensive research:

In the absence of older bulls, a lack of social order may lead to more fighting among young bulls and increased harassment of cows throughout a more extended rut. Spending even more energy on the rut saps vigor in both bulls and cows, increases susceptibility to predators and tough winters and makes for less healthy calves. Since young bulls tend to breed later than old bulls, their calves are born later in the spring. Such late comers can miss out on prime growth-boosting spring forage and do not have enough time to gain adequate body weight before their first winter. In addition, calves are born over a longer period of time, instead of mostly all at once (what biologists refer to as “the flooding strategy”). All of this makes calves more susceptible to predation, disease and winter kill.

Because a large rack suggests a bull’s ability to adapt and survive, and put excess energy into antler growth, cows – when given a choice – pick larger, more mature bulls to breed, ensuring the best genes are passed on. A lack of mature bulls inhibits this adaptive genetic selection process. Wildlife biologists have noted that in herds that lack mature bulls, overall pregnancy rates are often reduced, conception rates are delayed and the rut can be extended by a month or more.

In other words: There are reasons elk herds evolved with a certain number of mature bulls in their herds and related social structures and breeding behaviors. Healthy herds need healthy big bulls. So in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s wildlife managers and land managers worked together to improve habitat security, reduce elk vulnerability, maintain and enhance hunting opportunities, and ensure natural bull-to-cow ratios and numbers of mature bulls in our wild elk herds.

As Olaus J. Murie, considered the “father of elk management,” wrote in his monumental book, “Elk of North America,” published in 1951:

“Looking to the future, in view of the needs of elk and exacting requirements of recreation based on multiple use, the safest course is to model elk management along natural lines, so far is reasonably possible, to preserve its distinct habits as well as its habitat.”

Controlling elk vulnerability is key, and maintaining and enhancing habitat security is inversely related. As security declines, vulnerability increases. For example, easy hunter access by too many open roads can make elk less secure, thereby increasing vulnerability.

Ironically, many state wildlife agencies once supported road-building projects for that very reason. In the early 1960s, expanding elk populations throughout the West appeared to be growing too large for available winter range. Logging and road-building on federal land seemed good for elk and elk hunting – the large openings in the forest produced forage and the roads provided access for hunters to kill more elk. By the early 1970s, however, wildlife biologists throughout the western United States and Canada noticed some disturbing trends – a decrease in calf production, accompanied by low bull-to-cow rations despite apparent improvements in the quality and quantity of forage.  Hunters simply killed to many mature bulls and wildlife biologists began questioning the impact of logging and roads on habitat security. In a game of hide and seek, elk were increasingly the losers because places to hide decreased and the density of hunters increased.

Vulnerability encompasses a diversity of factors, including hunter access and numbers, habitat, timing and duration of hunting seasons, terrain, weather, hunting equipment technology and hunting regulations.  Managers attempt to strike a delicate balance between elk being too vulnerable to hunting, which may result in excessive harvest, and being vulnerable enough to permit the desired harvest levels and types. Because habitat security can influence vulnerability as much as hunter numbers and hunting equipment technology, relying solely on state wildlife agencies to solve the problems through hunting seasons, bag limits and methods of take is not often effective. Hunting regulations, habitat conditions and the type of access allowed for hunters has increasingly become a shared responsibility of land managers, wildlife managers and hunters.

Hunters should get involved in wildlife and land management and help ensure the critical importance of habitat security is considered in all decisions. By protecting habitat security we protect healthy elk herds and good elk hunting.

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?”
Bingo!

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.

Sincerely,

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.

Uh-oh.

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 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.”