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.