Friday, August 30, 2013

Grizzlies Saved My Life

It happened on a chilly August morning in a high-mountain meadow about seven weeks into a ten-week, 1,000-mile solo backpack trip through the most remote, rugged, wild country left in the continental United States. (I had left from my front porch in Missoula, Montana, and was on my way to Waterton, Alberta, traveling mostly off trail, crossing only three roads along the way.)

I lay safely hidden behind a downed, subalpine fir tree watching a silver-tipped sow grizzly and her two cubs about 100 yards or so upwind of me. She was lying down, resting, keeping watch of her young ones as they wrestled, rolled and chased each other in the grass. The cubs ran and pounced on their mom a few times and she nudged them away with her snout. When one cub tried to suckle her she swiftly swatted the youngster with her powerful big paw, in a seemingly effortless motion, and sent the startled cub rolling. Then she got up, walked over, and reassuringly licked the cub until all seemed well in the world.

I departed on this big, wild adventure deeply depressed and wasn’t so sure I planned to return. A few drunken nights prior I drove to a trailhead with my Remington Model 870 12-guage shotgun planning to walk a ways into the woods and pull the trigger with barrel in mouth. Instead, I sat in my car thinking of my son, my family and my friends, sobbing so hard I was shook until I passed out. I awoke at sunrise and drove back home.

I still struggled with father’s death the fall before and my wife of 14-years demanded divorce; I had grown too damn miserable to live with. Years of accumulated shame, guilt, fear, confusion and sorrow was rumbling throughout me like thunderous dark clouds ready to let loose a dangerously potent storm. As a leader in the wildlife conservation realm I was commonly praised for my straightforward honesty while secretly hiding a dishonest life. I was living a lie, suffocating beneath a deep internal avalanche, and I hated myself. Turmoil ate away at me like cancer. So, as I have often done in my life, I escaped to the wilds.

When I first I retreated to the wilds of Montana fresh out of a Marine Force Recon unit I developed a particular fondness for and connection to grizzly bears. They’re beautiful, powerful, fascinating, potentially dangerous animals that are gravely maligned and misunderstood. Some people hate them and many fear them because they don’t know and understand them. They’re bears. They are what they are; they do what they do. They want to (and should be) given respect, space and left alone to live and be themselves. I’ve dedicated most of my life fighting to protect wildlife and wild places always with this thought in mind: If we save enough room for grizzlies, which need a lot of space, we pretty much keep entire watersheds and ecosystems intact that sustain an abundance and diversity of species – including us.  As Doug Seus, founder of Vital Ground (a national nonprofit focused on the protection of critical grizzly habitat) succinctly puts it: “Where the grizzly walks, the earth is healthy and whole.”

Such thoughts and more buzzed around my brain as I watched that sow and her cubs in that high-mountain meadow on that chilly August morning. Then it struck me: I had spent so much time alone in the wilds because in the wilds I could truly be myself. In nature, in the wilds, there are no societal-created norms, judgments and expectations. Everything is what it is. A grizzly might judge me as a threat or feast but doesn’t care who I fall in love with and sleep with. I was fighting to defend and protect wildness, naturalness and the freedom of wild grizzlies while denying and suppressing my own wildness, naturalness and freedom. Like the grizzlies, I am what I am and do what I do. I want to (and should be) given respect, space and left alone to be myself. I accepted myself that day while watching those magnificent and tenacious animals. In no small way, those bears helped save my life.  (I often joke with friends that grizzlies made me gay.)

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Wildlife and wild places preserve truth and reality of life, death, and our primeval connection to this Earth. To deny that is to deny ourselves; to destroy it is self-destruction. To embrace, understand and accept it is to embrace, understand and accept our own innate nature and wildness.

Everything is what it is; including us. We are part of it all. We ignore that at our own peril. I learned that from wild grizzlies, in a wild high-mountain meadow, in a truly wild place. 

Let’s keep it wild.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

It's That Jaeger Time of Year

It’s about 2 am after one too many shots of Jagermeister and I am peddling my cruiser bike home on a dark night along an empty Missoula street. Periodic street lights guide my way among a hodgepodge of shadows cast by Norway maples planted long ago between sidewalk and houses.  Then there, in front of me, smack dab in the middle of Park Street, stands a deer.

It’s not unusual for whitetails to wander this part of Zootown, being as close as it is to Pattee Canyon and South Hills – a quiet neighborhood scattered throughout with lush, nutritious lawns, city parks and schoolyards inundated by fattening, assumingly delicious domestic grasses, shrubs and forbs. But this was a rare, large, handsome buck with an intimidating rack of antlers, fully polished, with chest puffed in a proud pose reminiscent of Bambi’s dad.  It was like a scene from Northern Exposure.

So I stopped and gawked at him gawking at me. In my goofy state of mind I couldn’t help but narcissistically hope he was equally impressed. He was obviously confused.

He seemed rather rutty -- which is no surprise considering the chilly autumn evenings we’ve been having.

When I was a Marine training in the Black Forest of Germany I met a seasoned Jaegermeister who told me about the vision of Saint Hubertus, the Patron Saint of Hunters, (an image now the label on fruity, bitter green bottles of liquor) who, on a Good Friday around 680 A.D., while skipping out on church to hunt the forested Ardennes, came upon a white, ghost-like stag with a Christian crucifix appearing between its antlers. Perhaps the good Saint was a bit tipsy. Since long before it became more associated with late night bombs the symbol has traditionally been pinned upon the hats of German Jaegers to bring good luck.   
I sensed no predatory desire to make winter meat of this particular animal on this particular night on Park Street. But somewhere mixed among surprise and awe emerged a slight, primeval yearning of anticipation for the approaching predatory season.  There’s already a hint of cool yellow on aspens and larches in the high country.

Yup: It’s that time of year in Montana and I am, if nothing else, a hunter.    

The Jagermeister label contains a verse written in German from the poem Weidmannsheil by a forester, hunter and ornithologist named Oskar von Riesenthal (1830-1898) that translates: 

It is the hunter's honour that he
Protects and preserves his game,
Hunts sportsmanlike, honours the
Creator in His creatures

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bears Without Fear: A Book Review

We fear bears, bears fear us and fear leads to conflict. Bears ultimately suffer. 

My biggest fear regarding bears is that we won’t give them the respect and space enough they need and deserve to survive into the future. Bears are neither the mystical beasts nor the dangerous vicious killers we sometimes make them out to be; they are bears. The more we get to know and understand them the less we fear them and the better we can all get along.   

Kevin Van Tighem of Canmore, Alberta, knows bears and (considering all the time he’s spent around bears since he was a child in the early 1960s) it’s probably safe to assume a few bears know him. A naturalist, hiker, hunter, fisherman and biologist who recently retired as the superintendent of Canada’s Banff National Park, Van Tighem has combined his extensive knowledge and experience with research and fine writing to produce a wonderful, informative book called Bears Without Fear (Rocky Mountain Books, 2013).  

“They haunt the edges of the forests of our imagination,” Van Tighem writes. “Since the dawn of time, humans and bears have lived uneasily together. . . There was a time when humans had little defense against bears. Now, in most cases, bears have no defense against us.”

With human populations and development continuing to expand, and critical bear habitat shrinking, how can we ensure wild bears always grace our planet?  “Bears and humans can share our increasingly crowded world safely,” Van Tighem writes. “But for that to happen, we need to learn to respect bears for what they really are, and to see that the choices we make almost always affect bears and other wildlife.”

Through facts, stories and photos Van Tighem’s book helps us better understand bears and how to live with them. Sections include the history of bears in human cultures, myths about bears, and the natural history and habitats of black bears, grizzlies and polar bears.  A section about bear research includes studies on how to reduce human-bear conflicts, and the book concludes with lists of places to see bears and tips for keeping ourselves and bears safe while in bear country. 

"While it remains true that bears are capable of attacking and killing people, it remains no less true that they almost always chose not to,"  Van Tighem writes. “The most dangerous thing about a bear is not its claws, teeth or disposition; it’s how we react to it.”

When we destroy their habitat, cause unnatural mortality, or they perceive us as an imminent threat to their young or their food, Bears don’t have a lot of choice as to how they react. 

We do. 

“Past human choices have brought us to a time when almost every bear species in the world is under threat,” writes Van Tighem. “The choices we make tomorrow – about resource development, roads, agriculture and tourism, as well about our own personal behavior in bear country – will determine the future of the dwindling bear populations that survive today.”

Bears Without Fear is packed with knowledge to help us better understand bears; let’s hope it helps us all make better choices. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Chief Mountain: Alienating the Sacred

Photo of Chief Mountain by Riley McClelland
“There is something innate to human nature, something basic to our civilized sensibility that recognizes certain distinctions of worth in reality. And the name we have traditionally given to the highest of these is ‘the holy’ or ‘the sacred.’”  -- Patrick O’Neill

It’s difficult to know what’s sacred nowadays.  Money seems to top the list. I suppose one person’s “sacred” place is another’s gas and oil field.  Apparently, for some folks, a gas and oil field is sacred.

Why else would anyone consider drilling for gas and oil around Chief Mountain in northwest Montana along the border of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Nation. The Chief is a prominent peak along the Rocky Mountain Front, a rugged 200-mile overthrust wall of steep, reef-like mountains rising from the Great Plains.  Elk, bighorns, pronghorn, 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. 

Prayer Flags near Chief Mountain. Photo by Jason Davis
If anything remains sacred, this is the place.   

Seven 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, mostly around the Badger Two Medicine area south of Chief Mountain.

Working as a professional conservationist I had to be cautious about using emotional arguments, about calling a place “sacred,” but instead focus 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 Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front 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.”  

If only everyone were as passionate and emotional about sacred places.  

While working along the Front, 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 two remedies; Medicine Grizzly Lake and Chief Mountain. “Go there,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”   
The mountain has been sacred to the Blackfeet for hundreds of years and remains sacred to many First Nation people throughout North America who travel to the mountain for sweet grass ceremonies, placing prayer flags and other religious rites. In the early 1900s as white settlers came through they observed native burial sites along the base of the Chief.


We hear the term and pass it along.  We portray and pretend modern-day Native Americans have mythical and mystical connections to land as if it were genetic. Some of them do. Others, like most of us, will sacrifice the sacred for money to buy homes, cars, televisions, gas, heat and food on the table. This is why the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently leased a large swath of land aroundChief Mountain for gas and oil development with the blessing of some tribal leaders and members eager for profit. Others are angered, sickened and saddened. The Blackfeet are as divided as the rest of us on such things. 

I envy and can only imagine the bond native people once had to the land and wildlife. They understood they were part of it. In a small way, I think I can relate: Through a lifetime of hunting, fishing and roaming remote and wild places, for as long as 10-weeks at a time, I've developed my own intimate connection to wildlife and wild places.  People close to the land often find reverence for it.  The sacred is what sustains us. This may be why many people today regard gas and oil as more sacred than wild places--or at least worth sacrificing the sacred for.  Our society is so divorced from our planet we forget that clean air, clean water and wild places still sustain us all.  That's why we crap in our kitchen. 

Elders from Southern Alberta’s Siksia Band pass on this tale: Near the end of days a Great White God will appear from the top of Chief Mountain and upon his departure the mountain will crumble and be destroyed. 

Perhaps that Great White God is dangerously addicted to gas and oil and willing to alienate the sacred.

Note: Leases don’t always result in drilling but it’s a step in that direction. In 2006 Questar Corporation donated leases to Trout Unlimited ensuring that no gas and wells would go in. If you'd like to help stop development near Chief Mountain please sign this petition now. To learn more, click here: Save the Sacred Chief.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Bipartisan Call for Climate Action

I was serving as president of the Montana Wildlife Federation (an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation) when Larry Schweiger took charge of the national organization in 2004. At the time, many hunters, anglers and others in Montana were concerned about his plans to make climate change a top priority. Now, nine years later, most everyone agrees climate change should, indeed, be a top priority for all of us who cherish wildlife and wild places. Larry has proven to be a true leader. Let's all heed his good advice and ACT TODAY! 

A Bipartisan Call for Climate Action
By Larry J. Schweiger
President and CEO, National Wildlife Federation

Nearly a decade ago, I returned to work at National Wildlife Federation with a commitment to confront climate change. I knew from the latest scientific findings at the time that a change in climate would disrupt historic weather patterns and threaten fish and wildlife with massive extinctions. I also understood that what befalls nature would befall humanity.

Since that time, the scientific warnings have grown much louder, the evidence more definitive and the consequences more menacing. Yet because carbon-polluting industries hold sway in the halls of the U.S. Congress, lawmakers have done little to end the carbon emissions that are triggering the planet’s fastest rate of climate change in 60 million years.

On June 25, I was in attendance when President Obama gave what will one day be seen as his most important speech. “Science, accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind,” he explained. “The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. Last year, temperatures in some areas of the ocean reached record highs, and ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record—faster than most computer models had predicted it would. These are facts.”

The president then warned that “all weather events are affected by a warming planet. The fact that sea levels in New York, in New York Harbor, are now a foot higher than a century ago—that didn’t cause Hurricane Sandy, but it certainly contributed to the destruction that left large parts of our mightiest city dark and underwater.”

With the nation experiencing larger forest fires in a longer fire season, “western wildfires scorched an area larger than the state of Maryland,” he added. “Just last week, a heat wave in Alaska shot temperatures into the 90s. And we know that the costs of these events can be measured in lost lives and lost livelihoods, lost homes, lost businesses, hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency services and disaster relief.“

Yet because so many members of Congress are under the influence of polluters, they continue to ignore the overwhelming body of climate science and they refuse to pass any carbon-capping legislation. The president has been forced to use the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rule-making authority to regulate carbon, setting forth a series of important but insufficient measures that he can take without congressional action to begin addressing this defining threat to life in the 21st century.

On August 1, the president received an unexpected boost for his call for climate action from an unlikely chorus of former EPA administrators who served under presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Together, they published “A Republican Case for Climate Action” in The New York Times, an op-ed that began: “Each of us took turns over the past 43 years running the Environmental Protection Agency. We served Republican presidents, but we have a message that transcends political affiliation: The United States must move now on substantive steps to curb climate change, at home and internationally. . . The costs of inaction are undeniable.”

Calling the president’s plan “just a start,” the former Republican EPA administrators—William Ruckelshaus, Lee Thomas, William Reilly and Christine Todd Whitman—urged Congress to put a price on carbon and made clear “More will be required. But we must continue efforts to reduce the climate-altering pollutants that threaten our planet. The only uncertainty about our warming world is how bad the changes will get, and how soon. What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.”

Despite this stark warning from four of our finest EPA administrators, leaders in the House of Representatives continue to pretend climate change is not a problem. The many bad environmental bills passed by the Republican-led House outrages me as a former Republican committee member from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
In his speech, the president challenged us with these words: “So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a president, as a father and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.”

Regardless of our political party affiliations, we must heed President Obama’s challenge. We must unite to solve the climate crisis, and demand that lawmakers face reality to protect our children’s future. 

Are you with me on this?

If you are with Larry (as I certainly am and we all should be) PLEASE take action today. Here are three simple things we all do right now: 

1) Learn more about the National Wildlife Federation and Climate Change here: NWF and Global Warming

2) Sign this letter: Help Polar Bears Win Against Big Polluters

3) Check out this list from Conservation Hawks of actions we should all take: TAKE ACTION! 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Our Wild World Unraveling: Thoughts on Climate Change from a Hunter, Fisherman and Backpacker

Summer 2015: Up north in Alaska temperatures are increasing twice as fast as most other places; Rivers and lakes are getting as hot as 80 degrees; Thousands of salmon and trout are dying; Wildfires are raging through subarctic forests; The permafrost is thawing; Villages are sinking.

Our world is rapidly unraveling from the top down.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, our leaders continue to deny and evade the issue and do little to nothing. But it's not like an overwhelming force of Americans are demanding action. It's far easier for all of us to just look the other way.

It's not going away. It's getting worse.

I am not a scientist or a wildlife biologist. However, I am an avid hunter, fisherman, backpacker, hiker, mountain biker, backcountry skier and snowboarder who deeply cherishes the wildlife and wildlands surrounding my home. That is what brought me to Montana when I was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1986, and it's what keeps me here. It's my passion and love for wildlife and wild places—inspired by my hunting and fishing—that keeps me fighting for the conservation and protection of fish and wildlife habitat and the wild places that sustains them.

The scientific evidence regarding climate change, and the consequences of human-caused release of global warming pollution, is conclusive and overwhelming, with even stronger evidence seeming to come forth every week. Those of us who are close to the land, and spend time among wildlife in wild places, are seeing much of this evidence first hand:  Warmer temperatures, shorter winters, less snow pack, earlier snow melt, less water and more drought.

Several years ago, I hiked from my front porch in Missoula to Waterton, Alberta. During this ten-week, 800-mile backpack trip, mostly off trail, I only crossed three roads, traveling through the Rattlesnake, Mission Mountains, Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas, and Glacier National Park. This is some of the wildest, most unique and precious country left in the United States, providing the last strongholds for rare, threatened and endangered species such as grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, lynx, wolverines and pure strains of Westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout. With strong populations of elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose and other wildlife, these places also provide some of the best hunting and fishing left in the nation.

But even here, in such remote, wild places, I witnessed evidence of what scientists and wildlife biologists have been warning us about for years. Snowpacks, so crucial in the arid West for supplying water to our rivers and streams, are rapidly declining. Diminished water flows makes for shallower, warmer streams, with less oxygen, making it more difficult for coldwater fish such as trout to survive. Increasingly, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks are implementing summer closures of rivers to fishing to protect trout overly-stressed from hot, dry conditions. On my journey, I also saw large chunks of forest impacted by increased occurrence of mountain pine beetle, which scientists are linking to trees being less resistant to insect and disease because of drier, more stressful conditions, and was particularly concerned by the rapid death of most white bark pines, which provides an important food source for grizzlies and other wildlife. I also walked through large expanses of charred forests burned by recent wildfires. Our western forests evolved with, and are adapted well to fire. However, drier conditions, combined with an increase in dead trees from beetle infestations, are resulting in more frequent, more damaging fires than what historically and naturally occurred, with serious implications for wildlife. Towards the end of my adventure, while hiking through Glacier National Park, I could visible notice a profound decline in the size of glaciers I have visited in past trips. Many scientists are predicting the glaciers in the park will be gone by 2020.

I know and have worked with hunters, anglers, outfitters, guides, ranchers, county commissioners, tribal leaders and others throughout Montana and the West, and I hear similar reports and concerns from them about changes on the landscape, and its impacts to water, fish, wildlife and our western way of life. What I hear from fellow hunters and anglers is consistent with a survey commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation, examining the attitude of hunters and anglers regarding Global Warming; We hunters and anglers are witnessing the effects of global warming and believe immediate action is necessary to address it. Eighty five percent of us believe we have a moral responsibility to confront global warming, and eighty percent of us believe our nation should be a world leader in addressing this issue. I am definitely among the 75 percent of hunters and anglers who agree that Congress should pass legislation that sets a clear national goal for reducing global warming pollution with mandatory timelines.

Trout Unlimited has compiled some particularly startling predictions: If current trends continue, we could lose up to 60 percent of our western wild trout populations, 90 percent of our bull trout populations and 40 percent of our northwest Pacific salmon populations by 2050. Trout and salmon require cold water, and climate change equals warmer water and less water.

Others can speak more authoritatively about the importance of wild places, wildlife, and associated hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities to the economy of Montana and the West. And it's true. In Montana alone, more than one million people enjoy our state's abundant wildlife each year, contributing more than $880 million to our state's economy. But more importantly, our nation's wildlife and wild lands—along with related hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreational pursuits—provide unique cultural, social and even spiritual values not only for us Montanans, but for all Americans. This is why great American leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt fought so long and hard to protect what remained, in his day, of our nation's wildlife and wild places. Today, our wildlife and wildlands face threats that Roosevelt probably could never have fathomed. But I am confident he would not have shied away from the challenge. Neither should we.

This is not, nor should be, a partisan issue. In Montana, I know Republicans, Democrats and Independents who all share a concern about global warming, and a desire to see something done about it. For those who are still not on board: I urge you to take a closer look at the scientific evidence and consensus, set aside partisan politics and various industrial and corporate pressures, and tackle this issue with the sense of urgency and immediacy required. We have a moral obligation to do what we can and as quickly as possible.

The consensus in the worldwide scientific community is overwhelmingly unanimous, undeniable and strong, as is the actual on-the-ground evidence. To deny this is happening at this point is akin to denying the world is round and cigarettes are bad for you. It's time to wake up and do something.

My son Cory and I at a rally in Glacier National Park 2007
We need to all urge our politicians and leaders to take immediate steps to curtail green house gas emissions; develop more conservative, responsible energy policies that include alternative and renewable sources of energy, more efficient ways of using energy, and reduce our need to burn fossil fuels.

Even with immediate, yet important reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, changes will continue with negative impacts to fish, wildlife and wild places and so it is also critically important that any legislation regarding climate change include funding specifically dedicated to help states protect and restore fish and wildlife habitat. By protecting and restoring critical habitat, we can help ensure that fish, wildlife and wild places will be more resistant and resilient to change, better adapt to change and be more likely to survive change.

All of us need to help spread awareness and persuade and rally other citizens to these efforts -- We need to urgently send a message loud and clear: The time for action is now!

What we do? What can you do? We can all do our best to keep informed, inform others and demand action. Below are some links to effective hunting, fishing and conservation organizations focused on climate change, with plenty of information, facts, statistics and suggestions and guidance for taking action. Check them out and get involved today -- our our hunting, our fishing, our wildlife, our wild places and our wild world depends on it.

Montana Wildlife Federation

Trout Unlimited

Conservation Hawks

National Wildlife Federation

Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Seasons' End (Bipartisan Policy Center)

Note: This essay is an updated version of my testimony presented before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: Climate Change and Wildlife Hearing, February 7, 2007. Unfortunately, little has been done since then and many politicians and American citizens continue to deny and evade the issue. 

An Inspirational Sidewalk Stumble Upon Theodore Roosevelt

Downtown Berkeley, California
“I ask of you the straightforward, earnest performance of duty in all the little things that come up day by day in business, in domestic life, in every way, and then when the opportunity comes, if you have thus done your duty in the lesser things, I know you will rise level to the heroic needs.” — Theodore Roosevelt, University of California in Berkeley, May 14, 1903.

January 25, 2013, Berkeley, CA:  Friday morning, on my way to work, I was pleasantly surprised to quite literally stumble upon this engraving on a city sidewalk: “1903 President Teddy Roosevelt Speaks.”

It inspired me to do a little homework: Roosevelt was friends with then UC Berkeley President Benjamin Ide Wheeler and had promised to visit the campus on a whistle-stop speaking tour of western states. After speaking in San Francisco on May 13, Roosevelt crossed the bay to Oakland on a tugboat and, at midday on May 14, 1903, swept into Berkeley on a special train. The San Francisco Chronicle described it this way: “As the President appeared and made his way out under the cloth canopy at the front of the stage, the vast audience rose in a body and sent up mighty cheers which rolled back and resounded through the ravines of the hills.”

The next day Roosevelt met writer and naturalist John Muir in nearby Oakland and they traveled together by train and stagecoach to Yosemite.

Roosevelt with UC Berkeley President
Benjamin Ide Wheeler, 1903
“I spent a delightful three days and two nights with him,” Roosevelt wrote of the trip. “The first night we camped in a grove of giant sequoias. It was clear weather, and we lay in the open, the enormous cinnamon-colored trunks rising about us like the columns of a vaster and more beautiful cathedral than was ever conceived by any human architect. All next day we traveled through the forest. Then a snow-storm came on, and at night we camped on the edge of the Yosemite, under the branches of a magnificent silver fir, and very warm and comfortable we were, and a very good dinner we had before we rolled up in our tarpaulins and blankets for the night. The following day we went down into the Yosemite and through the valley, camping in the bottom among the timber.”

And they talked, and talked, late into the nights.
Prior to their trip, Roosevelt and Muir didn’t always see eye to eye. Muir, a founder of the Sierra Club, valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities and was more of a preservationist. Roosevelt, an avid hunter, pushed for the sustainable use of natural resources and was more of a conservationist. But both men strongly opposed reckless exploitation. So the two set aside their differences, focused on their common love for the wilds and not only became lifelong friends but, together, became an even more potent force for the protection of wildlife and wild places – including, of course, many of the places where I now love to hike, camp, backpack, fish, hunt and explore.

Roosevelt with John Muir, Yosemite, 1903
We can learn a lot from Roosevelt and Muir.
Right after his trip with Muir, before heading back to D.C., Roosevelt stopped and gave a speech in Sacramento urging the citizens of California to do everything in their power to use forests and streams wisely and “preserve the natural wealth.” He ended with this: “We are not building this country for a day. It is to last through the ages.”

And Friday morning, on January 25, 2013, after I serendipitously stumbled upon a Berkeley sidewalk, Roosevelt helped renew my enthusiasm for and dedication to my work – to continue doing my small part to help protect and advance this great American conservation legacy.

We can sometimes find inspiration at unexpected times in surprising places.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wolves and the Abandonment of Science, Reason and Logic

July 24, 2012

In a sad, but justified move, the family of Olaus Murie recently demanded that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) cancel the organization’s Olaus J. Murie Award because of the RMEF’s “all-out war against wolves” that is “anathema to the entire Murie family.” 

I conceived and created the Olaus J. Murie Award (with coordination and approval from the Murie family) on behalf of the RMEF in 1999, when the RMEF was a science-based conservation organization. The award recognized scientists working on behalf of elk and elk habitat in honor of Olaus Murie, who is widely considered the “father” of modern elk research and management for the ground-breaking work he conducted at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the 1940s. He also wrote “Elk of North America” in 1951 – the first, most thorough and comprehensive scientific treatise on elk and elk management, which has since been updated several times by the Wildlife Management Institute.  (I have read Murie’s book several times, and was honored to have written a chapter for the most recent edition, North American Elk: Ecology and Management.

Since then, the RMEF got rid of all the good leaders who not only helped create and shape the RMEF, but had solid, impressive backgrounds in wildlife biology, ecology and science-based wildlife management.  The organization now ignores and defies science and panders to outfitters, politicians and hunters who have little understanding of wildlife and, in particular, interactions between wolves and elk.  The group has abandoned principle for income and popularity.

During my ten years as the conservation editor for RMEF’s Bugle magazine, I wrote many award-winning science-based articles and essays regarding wildlife, ecology, natural history and wildlife management.  Several of those stories focused on science that the RMEF itself helped fund showing clear, solid evidence of improvements in the health of habitat and elk herds living among wolves; how wolf predation was mostly compensatory and not additive; how elk behavior, habits and habitat choices changed in the presence of wolves, and many other interconnected complexities that factored in such as habitat conditions, habitat effectiveness, vulnerability,  bull-to-cow ratios, breeding behavior, calving and calf survival rates.  In those days, the RMEF helped convey and disseminate accurate information to keep people informed , supporting the kind of good, solid science that Olaus Murie himself began and would have been proud of.

Today, the RMEF is run by a former marketer for NASCAR and the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, with no understanding of wildlife or elk ecology, who has called wolf reintroduction the “worst ecological disaster since the decimation of bison herds;” continues to erroneously claim wolves are “decimating” and “annihilating” elk herds; who viciously attacks anyone who disagrees; and does what he can to keep the truth from being published.  (Myself and other science-based writers have all been banished from writing for Bugle, with no explanation.)

This, despite the tremendous recoveries and improvements to elk and other wildlife habitat in Yellowstone thanks to wolf recovery; that there are now more elk in Montana (and more hunting opportunity) than ever; that I see as many elk as always in the country I hunt, and that Montana outfitters are claiming the best elk hunting success in years.

Good for the Murie family! The RMEF has become a disgrace to the good, science-based research and management that Olaus Murie began and promoted.

Bear Safety (Keep Bears Safe)

I recently saw an advertisement for an event put on by a Montana outfitting company, including (among other things) a presentation on “bear safety.”  Considering how we've driven grizzlies to near extinction, and have confined bears to a fraction of their original range, they could certainly use some safety tips  – but they are smart enough to generally evade and avoid us.  I doubt many bears will show up for the presentation; they tend to be like me and just do what they do, feel comfortable and at home roaming the wilds, and accept that whatever happens just naturally happens.

I took my 12-year old son backpacking a few weeks ago, and at the trail head we ran into a man carrying a .45 on his hip. “Why do you have a gun?” my son asked.  “To protect myself against bears,” the man said. When the man left, my son looked at me and asked, “That’s silly, huh Dad?”  Indeed!  My reply: “Well, it certainly shows he, like most people, is sadly detached from nature and uncomfortable in the mountains.” 

My son has seen several grizzlies in the wild, and since he was a baby I’ve repeatedly told him, showed him and taught him that bears can be dangerous under certain circumstances, to respect bears, be humble around them, move cautiously through bear country, be alert, and give bears plenty of space. They are pretty well in tune with and adapted to their environment, and they generally know when something’s amiss or when someone has entered their territory.  Sure, get between a sow and her cub, or a boar and his food cache (I’ve inadvertently done both) and you might be in trouble – particularly in national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone where bears sometimes lose their natural fear of people. But even then -- though bears may get nervous or agitated, get their hair up, snap their jaws, maybe even do a bluff charge -- they rarely attack people.  

I’ve managed to avoid conflict by looking away from them, holding out my hands, slowly walking away, and softly and calmly (and humbly) saying out loud: “I’m not going to hurt you so please don’t hurt me.”  In other words: Show them you are not a threat to them or their cubs. They seem to appreciate the gestures. It is, after all, their home – one of the few and increasingly shrinking places we’ve left for them. In the rare instances when bears do attack it makes the news, which gives them an unfair and unjustified reputation. (The scientific name for grizzlies, Ursus arctos horribilis, is a terrible misnomer and should be changed.)

Consider this:  Glacier National Park has the largest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48 and receives more than two million human visitors a year. Yet less than one person a year has been injured by bears, and there has been only 10 bear-related fatalities since the park opened in 1910. The most common and frequent causes of death in Glacier are automobile accidents, heart attacks, drowning and lightning. 

Once, after nearly a week of bushwhacking alone in the wilds of Glacier, I came upon a trail and met four wonderful women from San Francisco hiking with bells on and carrying bear spray. I shared a camp with them that night, and they spoke a lot about their fear of grizzlies. They asked me how I could hike alone off trail without bells and bear spray and not worry.  I shared the statistics with them and told them that, instead of carrying bells and bear spray, it would make far more sense for them to not get in a car, carry a defibrillator, attach a lightning rod to their packs and wear a life preserver. They became a bit more comfortable in the wilds after that.  

Bear safety? Respect them, be humble around them, move cautiously through their homes, be alert, and give them plenty of space. Better yet: Support good groups like the Vital Ground Foundation that protect critical grizzly habitat and gives bears the room they need and deserve.

Help keep bears safe!

The Canadian Threat: "Now is Not the Time to Think!"

"Now is not the time to think!"  John Candy, Canadian Bacon
June 20, 2012

I’ve spent a large part of my life roaming the wild backcountry of northern Montana year-round – backpacking, hunting, fishing, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. Although I’ve had a few humbling encounters with grizzlies, almost drowned once crossing a tumultuous, spring-fed creek; got buried up to my chest in an avalanche, and experienced a lightning strike a bit too close for comfort, for the most part I always felt pretty safe and secure. I never ran into nor saw any sign of criminals (well, except for a shady-looking character I suspected of poaching a cutthroat trout), drug dealers, suicide bombers or terrorists (though there are folks who seem to consider the wolves I have seen as a threat to our very existence as a nation and a world.)

Apparently, according to the latest fear-mongering rhetoric coming out of Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg’s office, I am lucky to have not been killed, captured, tortured or attacked by Al Quaeda and Hezbollah extremists. But Rehberg has a plan to keep us safe and protect the American way of life – even though it entails sacrificing more than 30 federal laws, acts and regulations overwhelmingly backed by American citizens; will trample rights and eliminate public accountability for land that belongs to the public; will diminish the health of public wildlands and wildlife most Americans cherish, and calls for the expansion of federal government, federal spending, federal authority and federal control (things Rehberg is normally staunchly opposed to, but in this case seems to think is necessary to protect us from evil.)

“Border security is national security, and in Montana that means safety for our families and communities,” Rehberg says. 
He claims his plan is “absolutely necessary to secure our borders against illegal immigrants, drug dealers, human traffickers and terrorists.”

Rehberg is one of 59 co-sponsors of the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, known as the “Border Bill,” recently passed by Congress. The legislation would give Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection unprecedented access to all federal lands within 100 miles of the U.S. border (In Montana alone, that amounts to more than 32,000 square miles – nearly a third of the state!) allowing the agency to construct and maintain roads and fences; use vehicles to patrol federal lands; install, maintain and operate surveillance equipment and sensors; use aircrafts and deploy temporary tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases – all in some of the most wild, pristine places left in the United States, including Glacier National Park; the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear Wilderness areas, and Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. The bill would allow Customs and Border Protection to skirt laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, the Wilderness Act, Clean Air Act, Federal Water Pollution Control Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Rehberg says the bill will give border patrol the ability to more easily conduct certain activities on public lands in an effort to crack down on drug trafficking and illegal immigration. “It’s time to put an end to the dangerous turf war where federal land managers hide behind environmental laws in order to prevent border patrol agents from doing their jobs on federal land,” he says. "It's not acceptable for Montana families to be at risk because federal bureaucrats can't get along. . . It will end the bureaucratic turf-war that has prevented U.S. Customs and Border Protection from accessing the physical border on federal lands.” 

But interestingly enough, U.S. Customs and Border Protection doesn’t seem to agree with Rehberg. The agency already has a memorandum of understanding with the departments of Interior and Agriculture that allows the departments to work together in situations that might require the pursuit of suspects or investigations on public land. Last July, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials testified against the bill, saying the agency “enjoys a close working relationship with the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture that allows us to fulfill our border enforcement responsibilities while respecting and enhancing the environment.” One agency official noted: “It's working well and the bill isn't needed.”

So if it’s not really needed, why is Rehberg so adamant about it? The answer likely lies in his reassurance that the bill will not prohibit activities such as gas and oil development, logging, mining and cattle grazing.  That would, after all, be consistent with his long-held views and many efforts to remove federal protections of our last remaining wild places.  

But as Rehberg well knows, it’s easier to sell fear than truth. Or, as H.L. Mencken put it: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and hence clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."  

According to Richard Falkenrath, a Brookings Institution scholar and former deputy homeland security adviser, the best way to prevent  terrorists from entering the United States would be to “invest in a state-of-the-art terrorist watch list complete with biometric screening.”  After all, terrorists are most likely to enter the United States the same way the Sept. 11 hijackers did -- through airports. But then again, that wouldn’t open up federally-protect wildlands to gas development, mining, logging and road construction  – and it certainly wouldn’t protect us from the apparent danger emanating from our northern neighbors.

In  the 1995 satire “Canadian Bacon,” Alan Alda plays a U.S. President who, along with his national security advisor, decides to fabricate a threat from Canada to boost political standing and win more votes.  In the movie, a news anchor reports on the Canadian danger: “Think of your children pledging allegiance to the maple leaf. Mayonnaise on everything. Winter 11 months of the year. Anne Murray - all day, every day.”  A patriotic American sheriff named Bud Boomer (played by John Candy) takes the threat seriously and hastily organizes drastic measures to protect our country.

Says Boomer: “There's a time to think, and a time to act. And this, gentlemen, is no time to think.”

Apparently, Rehberg took Boomer’s advice too seriously. 

Postscript: Fortunately this bill did not pass and Denny Rehberg is no longer serving in Congress. 

The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act would affect more than 32,000 square miles of Montana.

Stripers Were My Elk

My father and I with some hefty stripers, around 1973
Written in 2001, this essay was published in the anthology, "American Nature Writing 2002" edited by John A. Murray.

It was a cool September evening and I was seventeen, on my way to pick up a date for a high school dance, when I caught a glimpse of the rising moon. Bright and fat as a peach, it stirred in me inexplicable urges. I rushed back home, grabbed the keys to Dad’s boat, and headed for offshore islands in search of striped bass. In my delirium I had forgotten my date. But it was, after all, a striper moon.

The incident inspired my oldest brother to create a collage of images clipped from magazines. On a beach in the foreground stood a beautiful woman glancing longingly out to sea. Far in the distance was a figure fishing from a boat, a small Boston Whaler like my father’s. The caption read, “Oh well. . . I guess he’d rather chase bass.”

Adaptable, migratory, alluring, striped bass are more like elk than any other fish I know. Like elk, female bass are called cows. In countless hours of pursuit, their enigmatic lurking have haunted and taunted and baffled me. Stripers, like elk, have the power to take you over.

“That is the magic that rides the striper’s shoulders as it swims through the ageless pattern of its autumnal migration, south along the shore and deep into the souls of the men who live on it,” wrote John N. Cole in his 1978 book Striper. This book was a revelation for me. Although I was a senior in high school, Striper was the first book that I truly read and enjoyed. Cole tells of his passion for stripers and fishing and how both shaped his life, his values, and his thoughts. I could relate.

I had already spent a childhood, and then some, chasing stripers along the shores and islands of my Connecticut coastal home. One of my earliest memories is of a dusk-to-dawn foray in a boat. Still too young to fish seriously, I napped to the rocking of waves, and woke to the screech of monofilament rapidly departing a reel, my dad hooking and fighting a big bass, working the fish close enough to the boat to gaff. When he hoisted the fish over the gunwale, I was enchanted by the lean, pearly white giant scribed with vivid black stripes, its grand, sharp-edged dorsal fin and sweet, pungent odor. Later, I came to savor the white flesh which is, as 1600s-era New England fisherman William Wood noted, “One of the best fishes in the country . . . a delicate, fine, fat, faste fish.”

Known to reach 125 pounds, these anadromous fish commonly weigh 40 pounds or more and live twenty to thirty years, torpedoing up and down the New England coast, their powerful tails and armor-like scales chiseled by the harsh, rocky surf where sea and land meet.

But even as Cole’s book captured the magic of striped bass and the joys of fishing for them, it also clarified what I was already feeling about the striper’s future—and my own. “Ten years from now, at its current rate of decline, the striped bass will no longer roam the inshore waters of the Atlantic from Cape Charles to the St. John,” he wrote. “The northeastern migratory striped bass, that creature with its genesis in the great glaciers, will have vanished as a viable species.”

From the start, my father taught me conservation basics: to keep only what I would eat, to fish fairly and honestly with respect for the quarry. Later, he showed me the varied ways of pipers and horseshoe crabs, jellyfish and sea robins, scallops and mussels, and all that makes up the world of the striper. Eventually he also spoke of the importance of clean water and healthy estuaries for stripers and all ocean creatures.

From spring through fall, from shore and by boat, mostly at night and on rainy or overcast days, I madly pursued these fish as they migrated between their spawning grounds, in Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River estuaries, and their summering grounds, as far north as Maine. Along the way, I sometimes caught bluefish and weakfish, dug clams, trapped lobsters, netted blue crabs and jigged for flounder. But always stripers swam through my thoughts.

I cast hefty plugs from the surf. I drifted chunks of mackerel, eel, and sandworms from the boat. I anchored off islands, hooked three-pound baitfish called bunkers through their backs and let them send distress signals out among the barnacled-covered boulders where I hoped a huge striper lay waiting. I constantly hounded my father with questions: Do you think the cows are coming through? Where’s the best place to fish tonight? Can you go? Can you leave work early? Can I skip school?

Like elk, stripers temp you to extremes. There was the night the surf slammed our small boat into a reef, swamping us in the dark, frigid Atlantic where we struggled, neat to hypothermia, for our lives. Once, a rogue wave filled my waders, stole my breath and pulled me under. Failed engines left me drifting helpless in dark, foggy, rough seas. But there were countless crisp, starry nights flanked by brilliant crimson sunsets and sunrises. There was the amiable smell and bitter taste of saltwater; the feel of salt spray, sun, and wind; the clamorous, rapacious cries of seagulls, terns, and cormorants.

Between bouts of fishing, I slept on the fiberglass deck of the boat or on island beaches rife with sand fleas. Resting during one spontaneous four-day striper binge, I was awakened by the Coast Guard. They were combing the reefs and islands after my distraught mother reported me lost at sea. Thereafter I was confined to shore for a while but still managed to fish the surf. In an area otherwise congested with humanity, the beach, bass, sea, and islands were my wilderness. Later, I recognized my pleasure in Thomas McGuane’s collection of essays, An Outside Chance, in which he tells of fishing for stripers in Sakonnet, Rhode Island, within casting distance from mansions: And, to a great extent, this is the character of bass fishing from the beach,” he writes. “In very civilized times it is reassuring to know that wild fish will run so close that a man on foot and within earshot of lawn mowers can touch their wildness with a fishing rod.”

I remember one night in particular, with my father, anchored alongside a narrow reef, stretching nearly a mile from a sumac-covered island to a boat-wrecking pile of barnacled rock exposed only at low tide. It’s an unusual reef because the ride flows over it in the same direction whether coming in or going out. The trick is to stay close to where reef meets Island as the tidal current flows through the eel grass carrying food to hungry, waiting bass. Suddenly my bunker began to splash along the surface and in the moonlight I could see the fins and wake of a long, lean striper slice towards my bait. Then there was a brief chaos of sound and flying water as though a flat rock had fallen from the moon. Then silence, and a dead rod, my bunker now floating motionless.

When I began to reel in, my father hissed, “Wait!” Soon we saw a swirl, followed by a huge dorsal fin, then a tail, moving with leisurely purpose toward my bunker. Like some great cat batting a mouse, the big bass had stunned my bunker with his powerful tail. Now he snatched it up and ran, the line, lots of it, spooling freely in the general direction of Long Island. I counted anxiously to ten, flipped the bail switch, leaned back with all my weight, and drove a 4/0-size hook into the bass’s jaw. In the twenty minutes before the fish came to gaff, I was as alive as it is possible to be.

Sometimes, particularly on cold, overcast autumn days, I would spot a mad swarm of seagulls and terns fiving the surf, picking at bait fish frantically sandwiched between sky and boiling bass. There might be time to drift close and cast a Goo-Goo-Eyes lure among the fray. I would swim the big plug across the surface, tracking the swirls as a fish closed in. Then the horde of bass and baitfish would vanish as quickly as they had appeared, leaving me to wonder where they had gone and why. There was so much mystery about them, so much to learn.

My father, Edward Stalling Sr., with a 48 lb striped bass, around 1974
Happy that I shared his passion, my father taught me the most promising reefs and jetties to fish at certain seasons and tides, his knowledge based on a lifetime of fishing this shoreline and keeping meticulous notes, always searching for patterns and cycles. He might have caught a great silvery beast under the full moon off the southeast of corner of a particular rocky island in late October, when the tide was two hours out. Or he might have seen a school of cow stripers throwing shadows like a squadron of dirigibles on a certain grassy sandbar the first week of June as the tide began to turn and rise. So we studied tide charts and calendars and fished those places when the conditions seemed ideal. The stripers weren’t always there, but we found them often enough to keep us hungry to learn more. The pursuit of stripers, like hunting elk, requires knowledge, time, patience and persistence.

My father loved to show me the best places to look for stripers, but he also took me to the place where he used to look for them—the salt marshes that are now Saugutuck Estates, the estuaries turned golf-course resorts, the brackish waters, where freshwater meets salt, that are now industrial dumping grounds. I was baffled by those who would fish for and eat stripers, yet think nothing of filling in salt marsh to build a new home—just as I am now puzzled by those who hunt and eat elk, yet glibly build houses in the heart of elk habitat. Later, through books and college, I learned of ecology and biology, and Leopoldian notions of a conservation ethic. But such studies were affirmations of what striped bass, and my father, had already taught me.

Like elk, stripers once numbered in the millions. In 1614, a Captain John Smith, sailing off the coast of New England, reported, “I myselfe at the turning of the tyde have seene such multitudes passe out of a pounde that it seemed to me that one mighte go over their backs drishod.” The fish spawned in every major tributary from Virginia to Maine, and were so numerous the colonists used them for fertilizer. In 1629, colonists passed the first conservation law of the New World, forbidding the use of stripers for fertilizer. 

In 1879, trainloads of striped bass began making overland journeys from New Jersey to San Francisco as part of a zealous effort to establish a West Coast fishery. It worked. Stripers now range from California to British Columbia. When the Army Corps of Engineers built the Santee and Pinopolis dams in the 1940s, they unwittingly trapped spawning stripers that had run up South Carolina’s Santee and Cooper Rivers from the Atlantic. Surprisingly, these fish survived and thrived, living year-round in freshwater. Fishery biologists have since stocked this strain in reservoirs across the country, including labyrinthine Lake Powell at the border of Utah and Arizona. They’ve also mixed the eggs and sperm of stripers and white bass, creating a hybrid that is stocked in lakes and raised commercially for food. Good, I once thought. Why not spread the majestic striper wealth!

But now I wonder how this quintessential East Coast native is affecting aquatic species endemic to North America’s Pacific coastline. Should a fish that historically has spent ninety-nine percent of its life in saltwater displace the native fish, amphibians, and other wildlife that evolved, adapted, and live in rivers and lakes? Do stripers belong in a man-made lake that was once a maze of beautiful desert canyons? Should we devise our own species from two wild fish to suit our whims? Is this desire to improve upon nature like moving elk to Alaska or red deer to North America? Are hatchery-reared fresh water stripers any wilder than domesticated elk behind game-farm fences?

By 1979, when I was a senior in high school, the future of stripers looked dim. My dad and I caught our share of older, bigger fish, but the number of young bass had plummeted, and we no longer ate their sweet meat. PCBs had contaminated their flesh. These toxic chemicals had worked their way from industrial plants along the Hudson and Chesapeake estuaries into the wild food chain all up and down the East Coast. That year, Congress enacted the Emergency Striped Bass Act, directing the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service to investigate the causes of decline and recommend restoration measures. The resulting efforts have mostly focused on fishing restriction and raising stripers in hatcheries.

At meetings of the local striped-bass club, in which my father served as president, I observed heated debate about the causes and cures for the striper decline. It was popular, if not easy, to blame the commercial fishermen. I despised those who would haul stripers from the surf with nets. But later, when I read Peter Matthiessen’s book Men’s Lives, a tribute to Long Island haul seiners, I had second thoughts. Matthiessen relates eminent striped-bass biologist Dr. Edward Raney’s view on whether commercial fishermen are the real bogeymen: “If the sportsmen would put equal energy into the correction of known contributing causes to scarcity of stripers, the future of the species would be far brighter.”

Striper populations periodically cycle up and down, but each “high” in the cycle is a bit lower. With our proclivity for damming rivers, filling wetlands, and dumping chemicals, we’ve destroyed the spawning and rearing habitats needed to restore their numbers to Captain Smith’s days. With stripers, as with elk, few people seem willing to address the bedrock issues of habitat, pollution, human greed, population and consumption. But, like elk, stripers are astonishingly tenacious, surviving in spite of our continued desecration of their home.

Although they have recently made yet another remarkable come-back, nobody seems to fully understand why. Fishing regulations and hatchery-reared stocking may have contributed, and certainly efforts to reduce contaminations in the Hudson River have helped. But the Chesapeake—where nine-tenths of the East Coast’s migratory stripers spawn and spend the first three years of their lives—is still laden with acid rain, aluminum, sewage, chlorine, and industrial and agricultural chemicals that poison water, deplete oxygen, and decimate aquatic nutrients and vegetation vital to striper eggs, larvae and fry.

Cleaning up the Chesapeake, like protecting elk winter range and migratory corridors, is the key to the species’ survival and viability, Even if the Chesapeake is cleansed, though, it seems sad and unwise for so much of the striper’s fate to precariously hang on the health of one estuary.

I’ve known striped-bass fishermen who love to catch the fish but care little about protecting the waters in which the great bass dwell, A fellow elk hunter recently confided that he’s more concerned about bowhunting opportunity than elk. I can only wonder why the magic of the species—and the oceans or mountains—elude such people.

Me, packing out an elk in the wilds of Montana
In 1985 a forestry job brought me to Montana and elk. I fell in love all over again. I began summer mornings with devout studies of Olaus J. Murie’s Elk of North America and the Wildlife Management Institute’s Elk of North America: Ecology and Management. I spent every day I could pursuing and watching elk, year-round, on foot, snowshoes, and skis through steep alder and ninebark jungles.

Elk have lured me through many long, lonely nights of extremes in cold, snowy mountains. I’ve hunted hard, killed elk, and savored their flesh. And in the countless hours and miles of unpredictable adventure chasing these magnificent creatures, I’ve come to deeply cherish elk and the land they animate.

As with stripers, my devotion to elk and elk hunting kindled concern for their well-being and their habitat. Like the East Coast stripers migrating through the shadows of the most heavily industrialized and populated stretch of the United States, elk continue to adapt to and survive human expansion and development. But how much can they stand, and how long can they continue to adjust and subsist? And what will they become in the process? Stripers cruising a desert lake are like elk that become dependent on human feedgrounds. They seem different, something less, not the enigmatic, wild animals that can evoke our passion and our stewardship.

Elk have become my stripers, and stripers were my elk, and through an obsessive quest for these mysterious beasts I’ve come to admire all that they are and all that sustains them. From the barnacles, plankton, and sharks of striper country to the lichen, sedges, and grizzlies of elk country, I relish and respect what makes these creatures whole—and how they, and their habitat, have helped make me whole. In Striper, John Cole wrote, “If we allow fish and fishermen to vanish, we deny our heirs this critical opportunity to find themselves in the nets they pull from the sea.” The same can be said of elk and elk hunters.

My father, Edward C. Stalling Sr. 1925-2003
When I used to walk with my father along the rocky Connecticut shore where he spent nearly eight decades fishing for stripers, he would often show me where, as a boy, he and his pals would skinny-dip, steal corn, hunt ducks, dig clams and oysters, catch blue crabs, and fish. In his youth the Connecticut coast still held wild expanses of hardwoods, miles of rugged, empty oceanfront, small farms, and fishing villages. But cornfields are now country clubs, and duck marshes have become gated communities. 

My father would often tell me of a moonlit night in his youth when he watched, for hours, the green backs and spiny dorsal fins of thousands of bass (some the size of punching bags) as they pushed their way through shallow reef over a sandbar, headed for southern breeding grounds. I have never seen such a gathering of stripers, but his stories still feed my dreams.

When my father used to visit me in Montana, he would see the same forces whittling away at the country. When he reminisced, I would hear a wistfulness born out of his vanished youth, but beneath this lied a deeper sorrow for all the wild country that has vanished with it.

Stripers and elk have furnished me immeasurable adventure, joy, and nourishment. I do what I can to aid efforts that sustain the wildness on which they, and I, depend. When I am old, I hope to look with content, not sorrow, at oceans and mountains still clean and wild—a world where stripers and elk still captivate and inspire their pursuers.