Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fathers of Conservation (Happy Fathers Day)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Dreaming of Winter. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though I still wish I had my bug dope today.

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

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

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

So now I miss winter. A lot.

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

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

I’m happy again.   

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jack Ward Thomas: 1934 - 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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