Another Miracle for the Holiday Season

Organized chaos – sorting truckloads of food into boxes.

This time of year we often think of miracles. The Biblical story of the first Christmas is full of miracles. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah celebrates another miracle.

Here in Butte, we annually begin the holiday season with a miracle.

I’m talking about the annual Thompson Food Drive that benefits the Butte Emergency Food Bank. This has been going on for a long time, going back to the 1980s. Begun by Jim and Marge Thompson, owners of Thompson Distributing, the longtime distributor of Budweiser beers, the leadership has been taken over, this year, by Harrington Bottling, the local Pepsi bottler and distributor, but, it’s still the Thompson Food Drive.

More importantly, the annual food drive demonstrates the power of volunteers. I’ve been one of those volunteers and the job I’ve invented for myself is to be the photographer.

There are a lot of moving parts in this annual community-wide food drive, and every part of it involves volunteers.

I didn’t have my camera ready when my neighborhood’s volunteers, a young mother and a little boy, who looked like he was about a two-year old, were trudging alongside a fire truck, picking up bags of food from the curb. It was a frigid morning, but the mom and boy cheerfully walked through new-fallen snow to do their job.

The neighborhood collections go to one of several collection points where they’re loaded into big trucks and taken to the Food Bank, and that’s where the miracle workers really begin.

It’s a process that’s usually described as “organized chaos,” and that’s an accurate description. When the trucks come into the loading dock, the first wave of volunteers go into the truck with grocery carts and bring them in where another group of volunteers makes an initial sorting of the bags of food into other carts. The carts go to other volunteers who sort the food into boxes of similar products, and the boxes, and yes, those boxes are Budweiser beer cases, get stacked on pallets.

If that sounds fairly simple and straight- forward, you need to see it to believe it. If you want to see something similar in nature, throw some bits of food on the ground near an anthill, and watch the ants swarm over the bounty.

An elementary school child working diligently.

The annual food drive attracts volunteers of all sizes and ages, including one little guy in a baby carrier, learning about volunteerism before he could even walk or talk. There are elementary and high school kids and many older people who are veterans of many food drives.

High school students taking a quick break to smile.

If there’s a commonality among the many volunteers, it’s their smiles. They’re doing important work, and much of it is hard work, but just about everybody has a big smile on their face, because volunteerism on a community-wide scale such as this is infectiously fun. I always leave thinking this is the happiest place in town.

Of course, the volunteerism doesn’t stop on that first Saturday of December. Through the year, crews of volunteers put in regular shifts at the Food Bank sharing with many people the gift of food on the table to feed families.

There are other food drives during the year, such as the Postal food drive in the spring, but this is the big one, the one that fills the food bank’s shelves and feeds people throughout the year.

Butte, Montana is a special place and this annual food drive is just one special reason why.

The food drive wasn’t the only miracle going on. Not far away, at the Maroon Activity Center, hundreds of people got almost-new winter coats and jackets that other Butte people had donated.

While I’m at it, I might mention that on the same weekend as the food drive, the good people at Gold Hill Lutheran Church celebrated their Scandinavian heritage with their annual Lutefisk dinner. Lutefisk is one of those ethnic foods that is either loved or despised. As one Lutheran clergyman described it, “It’s the piece of Cod that passeth all understanding.”

The holiday season is truly a time for miracles.

Still Time for Hunting Montana

A flashback to four years ago and a great hunting day (and one of her last) with the late Flicka.

My Lab, Kiri, and I walked into a grassy swale on a southwestern Montana ranch a couple days ago and two pheasants flushed from the cover, surprising and thrilling both of us. As it happened, both those birds were protected hens, so shooting wasn’t part of the story.

An hour later we completed our stroll through the pheasant cover. We never did put up any roosters, though I did spot one, head down and making tracks down a little ditch created by a center pivot irrigation system tire. That pheasant made a successful escape.

A couple hours earlier Kiri and I walked along a warm water spring creek on the same ranch in search of ducks. One bunch of ducks flushed from their tropical paradise before I got in range, though I did get some shooting when we put up another little group of mallards.

I won’t count the covey of Hungarian partridge that flushed from an alfalfa field, as they got up within 20 yards of ranch corrals where ranch family members were feeding cattle. I love to get the occasional partridge, both for their delicious meat and feathers for flytying, but not at the price of losing my welcome.

Obviously, this isn’t the type of hunting story we look for if we happen to pick up a hunting magazine. We expect to see the results of a lot of shooting, more than a dead shotshell or two.

The real story is that there are lots of opportunities for hunting in early winter, even if the general deer and elk seasons have closed for another year.

The upland bird hunting season, Montana’s longest hunting season, still has almost a month to go before it closes at sunset on New Year’s Day. There is still time to chase some pheasants, or roam an aspen thicket for ruffed grouse. Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse, even wild turkeys, are still fair game.

It’s a different game now in early winter than it was in September and October. As the seasons progress, sharptails bunch up and if you see some sharpies the chances are they will see you first and take off and fly a mile or so. The pheasants of December are mainly the survivors of this year’s hatch. These are the birds that have evaded hunters and predators and if they survive the winter, these are the birds that will produce the next generation next spring. They’re survivors and not forgiving of hunter mistakes.

As for waterfowl, the late season is my favorite time for bagging some prime drake mallards. They’ve been feeding on waste grain in the stubble fields and a fat mallard is a gourmet treat on the dinner table.

I’m actually hoping for some colder weather in coming weeks that will move ducks off the rivers and onto these little spring creeks.

I rarely hunt geese, but on my walk of a few days ago, I saw big bunches of Canada geese, both in the air and on a field where they were feeding. Goose hunting can be challenging, but there is definitely no shortage of birds.

The waterfowl season, here in the Pacific Flyway portion of Montana, runs through January 6, then closes for a few days, and reopens on January 12 for a long weekend before it closes for good on January 16. Of course, check the regulations or go online to Fish, Wildlife & Parks for more details on season dates, and note that the Central Flyway dates are slightly different.

Of course, we do have these shoulder seasons for elk, if you’re still looking for one of those big deer to fill the freezer. I think the jury is still out as to whether extended seasons for elk is the way to manage them but we don’t have the space for that discussion right now.

In any event, here in Montana, we are blessed with long hunting seasons and that translates to lots of opportunities to stretch our legs and horizons.

Sentimental Journey to an Old Dog’s Last Hunt

Sam, age 13, and the opening day of the 1983 North Dakota waterfowl season.

I’m not ready to get in the Christmas rush. This past week I’ve been reminiscing, especially after reading the most recent issue of Gun Dog magazine, with sentimental features on hunts with old dogs. That got me thinking of our first Labrador retriever, Sam (for Samantha).

In 1970 we moved to Miles City, Montana in a job transfer and after a decade of renting we bought a house, and after some negotiations my wife and I agreed that now that we had our own home we needed a dog, and that dog would be a Labrador retriever. We answered an ad in the Billings Gazette for Lab puppies, but the owners wanted, as I recall, $100 for a pup. That seemed a little much, we thought, so we declined. Several weeks later the breeder called us back and said they’d let us have their last one for $60, and so a black puppy became part of our family.

Sam turned out to be a great first dog for our family. She was good with our kids, was easy to train, and a good citizen in the house. She readily took to hunting and I learned the pleasure of hunting with a bird dog that could sniff out hiding pheasants and then bring them back if I held up my part of the deal.

If she had a shortcoming it was that she didn’t like retrieving ducks, though after a move to North Dakota several years later she figured out it was part of the job and she did it well.

Together, we learned about ruffed grouse and she had a talent for finding grouse and retrieving them, and even when I thought I’d missed my shot she often ran off in the direction of the bird’s flight and came back with a grouse.

Sam somehow developed a taste for sweet corn and would occasionally go down the alley and raid a neighbor’s garden, and come home dragging a cornstalk behind her. Fortunately, the neighbor, a co-worker, had a sense of humor about this quirk.

Sam helped raise our children and send them off to college, and we kept hunting every chance we had, though she was clearly aging, as her muzzle turned gray and her tolerance for long days in the field diminished.

In the fall of 1984, Sam was 14 years old, but she wasn’t about to let me go off on an outing without her.  On Monday, October 8, I had the day off for Columbus Day, so Sam and I went off in search of ruffed grouse in a wooded creek bottom, the remains of a long-abandoned farmstead, with an old barn slowly collapsing on itself and a couple rusting car bodies.

It was one of those stunningly beautiful days of early autumn, with blue skies and warm sunshine, and with trees at their October best, in my memory a golden day.

Sam mostly trudged at my heels that day, though she surprised me at the beginning of our walk by trotting ahead and flushing a covey of Hungarian partridge. I think I was too surprised to shoot. In fact, I don’t recall shooting my gun at all that day. A highlight of the day was seeing wild turkeys scamper off into the trees.

That turned out to be Sam’s last hunt. I wanted to go out on the following Saturday, but I had an appointment to take in our International Scout for brake work on Monday and Kay wouldn’t let me go anywhere until that was completed. On Saturday afternoon we watched Sam romping in the back yard and Kay remarked, “She still thinks she’s a puppy.”

The next morning I went downstairs to the laundry room where Sam slept and found she had died during the night, her body already cold and stiff. I was an emotional wreck that day, though a light rain helped wash away tears as I dug a grave and laid her to rest with some pheasant and grouse feathers next to her nose to help her find her way.

Thanksgiving Reflections from Montana

A turkey on the grill – basis for a feast.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day and I ask, “Where did the rest of the year go?“

People across the country will be sitting down tomorrow at a table and sharing a festive meal. In fact, people who track these kinds of statistics tell us that 88 percent of our fellow Americans will be eating turkey this Thanksgiving, amounting to an estimated 736 million pounds of turkey meat.

My home state of Minnesota is the country’s leading turkey producer, sending some 46 million turkeys to market each year. My family never got involved with raising turkeys, thankfully. There are a lot of frustrations and risks involved in the process, primarily due to the fact that domestic turkeys are, unlike their wild ancestors, among the dumbest animals in God’s creation. A clap of thunder can send a whole flock of young turkeys stampeding into a corner, suffocating the farmer’s profits. Or, during a rain shower, adolescent turkeys are known to look up to see what that wet stuff is and drown themselves looking up at the sky.

A former co-worker grew up on a farm that did produce turkeys and at Thanksgiving time she’d often say she looked forward to that turkey dinner as an occasion to again get even with those stupid birds that afflicted her childhood.

When we sit down for dinner tomorrow with friends and family we’ll have a rare treat, as my contribution to the groaning table will be the wild turkey that blundered into shotgun range last May. That broke a 30-year drought marked by blunder and failure.

I’m thankful for many things and another year in the outdoors is at the top of the list.

I’m thankful for that turkey, just as I was thankful for the opportunity to catch a muskie a couple weeks later. There are still firsts, even as I approach the evening of a long, happy life.

I’m thankful for good health, not just for myself but our whole family. None of us have had any medical adventures this year, outside of the occasional sniffle or backache. That’s not something we take for granted.

That good health also means I’m thankful for days afield, whether Montana and North Dakota prairies, mountainside aspen thickets, or the trout streams of western Montana. I’ll include the ski slopes at Discovery and public tennis courts in those days afield.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to participate, in a small way, in the political process. I spent many hours this year as a volunteer in some political campaigns, one of many people who donated time and energy in the name of good government. As usual, not all of the candidates or issues I supported won at the polls. Still, it’s a privilege to be a small cog in our great democratic form of government. During my previous career as a federal employee, participation in politics was basically limited to the voting booth.

Outings with a good dog on Montana’s Federal public lands; something I’m thankful for.

I’m thankful, as a lover of the outdoors, for leaders who did, and do, so much to preserve our American traditions of public lands and public wildlife. All of us who hunt, fish, hike, camp, or just watch scenery, owe a debt of gratitude to giants such as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and others who led the way to preserve our public lands, national parks, wildlife and fisheries. In much of the world, opportunities to recreate in a forest or wade a river are limited to the wealthy and privileged.

I’m thankful to the Founding Fathers of our nation who enshrined basic rights into the framework of our Constitution. For us journalists, Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of our existence, whether our beat is the White House or outdoor recreation in western Montana. Those guarantees are particularly important now, as they have been during other critical periods in our nation’s history.

So, tomorrow, as we gather with family and friends for a festive Thanksgiving dinner, we will be thankful—but resolute in protecting what is right and good in these United States.

North Dakota: Wind and Pheasants!

A lucky hunter with his unlucky pheasant.

“I’m really a lucky hunter, or that’s a really unlucky pheasant,” I told Kevin, as we admired the long-tailed pheasant.

We were in North Dakota last week to visit our son, Kevin, and his family, and to spend a few days chasing pheasants, and renewing our father/son hunting traditions.

Kevin started tagging along on pheasant hunts when he was around six years old, and after he was 12 years old and passed hunter safety, he started carrying his own shotgun as we pursued pheasants and other upland birds together.

We had just started our pheasant walk on a wildlife management area, and I was walking along the edge of a shelterbelt that marked the edge of the public hunting area. A pheasant flushed just a couple feet from me and turned on the afterburners to get out of range. I barely had time for a shot and I thought I’d missed.

Kevin watched the action from about 20 yards away and came over and said, “I ‘m pretty sure you hit the pheasant. I could see it flinch and it looked like it was having trouble staying up.”

It’s a sick feeling when you know you’ve wounded a pheasant, or any other game animal, for that matter, and the top priority is to track it down and end its suffering, but it’s a fact of life that a wounded pheasant can go a long way and never be found.

We walked into the shelterbelt and started searching the weed and brush patches. At the outer edge of the tree line, Kevin looked out at the wheat stubble field that borders the wildlife management area and said, “That looks like tail feathers out there.” Sure enough, a set of pheasant tail feathers was sticking above the tall stubble. We walked over and picked up a dead pheasant. There was bleeding from its beak. We surmised it had taken a single pellet in the head and went so far and then dropped dead, pitching headfirst into the wheat stubble.

A post-mortem examination that afternoon seemed to confirm that. The body was unmarked; one lucky pellet did the job on a pheasant that had survived its first year, passed its genes on to another generation, and suddenly ran out of luck.

I hunted by myself the previous day, and in fairly pleasant weather I ran into a bunch of younger pheasants. I connected with a young rooster that fell in open cover. I had barely resumed the walk and flushed another one, and dropped it.

The results of a pleasant morning walk on public lands.

I completed a loop back to where I’d started mywalk a couple hours earlier and Kiri, my black Labrador retriever, and I stopped for a sandwich break. After that pleasant rest we started a new walk and we hadn’t gone for more than 50 yards when Kiri flushed a rooster pheasant. I barely had time to shoot, but could see it go down. It took a while, but Kiri eventually caught up with it, and we’d completed our limit for the day.

Kevin and I took a day off from hunting because of a wet snowy day that would have made long hikes an exercise in misery. It’s also a concession to age. Misery isn’t as much fun as it might have been 40 years ago.

Wind was the main story of the next outing. The temperature was a moderate 40 degrees and the wind was out of the south, but it wasn’t a warm wind. The wind was roaring, and the surf was rolling on Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River impoundment.

We weren’t seeing many pheasants, and most were flushing far ahead. Finally, we flushed a rooster pheasant and both of us shot and we saw it go down. Still it didn’t look like a solid hit, and there was no bird in the spot where we saw it drop. This is where Kiri took over. She found the scent and followed it through heavy cover, finally cornering it for Kevin to pick up.

I figure Kiri earned a years-worth of kibble with that bird.

Kevin and a really unhappy pheasant.

Armistice Day – A Centenary Observance

The World War I memorial in Butte MT. In the background is a new aquatic complex and carousel in Stodden Park. According to a plaque, the memorial was dedicated in 1940, just a year before we were engulfed in another world war.

Today we may be celebrating or mourning, following the counting of ballots last night. Whether favorite candidates or issues won or lost, the sun came up this morning, if a bit later than yesterday. The hunting season is still on and we’re a step or two closer to winter.

This weekend we observe Veterans Day—twice. The official day will be on Sunday, which means the Veterans Day holiday will be on Monday.

This year, we might want to refer to Sunday as Armistice Day, as we observe the centenary of the end of the Great War, or World War I, after the horrors of the second world war eclipsed the carnage of the previous war.

While the war came to a close 100 years ago, on November 18, 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th Day of the 11th month, we can look back at some of the mind-boggling statistics of the war.

From its start in August 1914, some 70 million people were mobilized into military service, 60 million of those from Europe.

An estimated 9 million combatants and 7 million non-combatants died as a direct result of the war. Near the end of the conflict the great flu epidemic swept around the world, in part because of large numbers of people crowded together in military facilities, troop ships and the like, leading to the death of between 50 and 100 million people.

The United States tried to stay out of the war, with President Woodrow Wilson saying that America was “too proud to fight.” Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916, with a campaign slogan of “He kept us out of the war.”

In 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, following a suspension of attacks on passenger ships after the sinking of the British liner Lusitania in 1915. In addition, news came out of the Zimmerman telegram, in which the German foreign minister invited Mexico to attack the U.S. and recover the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Wilson called for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917, and Congress passed the declaration four days later.

It takes a long period to mobilize an army. Congress passed a Selective Service Act, drafting 2.8 million men, but it wasn’t until summer 1918 when U.S. troops began to arrive in force in Europe.

While American forces came late to the war, the infusion of fresh troops, backed by fresh money, turned the tide of war and in October many of Germany’s allies signed separate armistice agreements. Finally, at 5 a.m. on November 11, an armistice agreement was signed in a railroad carriage at Compiegne, France, with a cease-fire to take effect six hours later.

In the aftermath of the war, empires disappeared, including German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. Royal dynasties, such as the Romanovs, Hohenzollenrns, Habsburgs and Ottomans, collapsed. The Communist Revolution displaced the Russian monarchy.

Poland and Finland emerged as independent countries. The Balkan countries of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia became Yugoslavia. Parts of the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary became Czechoslovakia.

Sadly, the “War to end all wars” laid the basis for unrest and grudges that led, inevitably, to World War II, in 1939.

The fallout still continues, with the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequent ethnic warfare, in the 1990s, and the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. Iraq, assembled from tribal kingdoms of the old Ottoman Empire, became a battleground.

While Armistice Day was 100 years ago, there are reasons to keep memories alive. For example, in the spring of 1917, my father was a passenger on a ship from Norway to New York City. I’m here today because it wasn’t torpedoed. One of my first bosses, when I entered the work force in the 1950s, was a veteran of the Great War, as were family friends and community leaders of my youth. The last surviving veteran of the Great War, Florence Green, who served in the British Women’s RAF, died just six years ago at age 110.

The trumpets of distant wars are faint but still echo.

Pheasants and Sunsets in Montana

Kiri and one of our pheasants.

Tonight is Halloween, a big holiday in this Celtic outpost in western Montana. Many of our Halloween traditions began with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts.

In the 8th Century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a day to honor all saints, and traditions of Samhain melded into All Saints Day, and the evening before became All Hallows Eve, and thus Halloween.

Halloween is the basis for some of our family traditions, going back to the mid-1960s, when we were living in Fargo, North Dakota. Our son Kevin, then about age 3, was still too young to go out trick-or treating, but he was all excited when the sidewalk in front of our house filled with costumed kids going door to door, interrupting our dinner of a takeout pizza I’d picked up on the way home from work.

A year later, he was a precocious 4-year old and on Halloween day, my wife told him, “Now you’re big enough to go trick or treating tonight.” Kevin responded, “No, it has to snow first.” Evidently he remembered there were some snow flurries in the air that previous Halloween night. Miraculously, that afternoon some snow flakes drifted down from the cloudy skies and he triumphantly came running to Mom, proclaiming, “It’s snowing! I can go trick-or-treating.” Then he added, “But we have to have pizza first.”

And that’s how family traditions start.

A year later, a job transfer took us to the Quad Cities of southeastern Iowa, and late October was generally much warmer than it was in Fargo. We cautioned Kevin that it wasn’t likely to snow before Halloween. He didn’t like that idea, but sure enough, a few days before the big day, a cold, wet front came through with a dusting of snow, and Halloween was saved again!

That’s a lot of years, but we still usually have pizza on the Eve of All Hallows, and with us in Butte, Montana and Kevin and his family in North Dakota we’re confident we’ll have snow in October.

Whatever the weather is, there’s a good chance I’ll be looking back a couple weeks at our annual trip to the Rocky Mountain Front for pheasants. We usually camp at Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area, where there’s free camping, and it’s central to several farms where I’ve been chasing pheasants for almost 30 years.

In planning our trip, we were worried about weather, and in fact, a week before we went, the Choteau area had 6 inches of snow. We also routinely expect gale force winds at some point, along with cold and rainy weather.

We lucked out. We hit a week of Indian Summer, with clear skies, warm sunshine and little wind. We had perfect camping weather.

The pheasant situation wasn’t quite as good. Last winter on the Front was brutal, with heavy snow, fierce winds and drifting, and no Chinooks that usually come through to give people and wildlife a break from winter. Pheasants no doubt suffered, along with other wildlife.

On the farms I hunted there were still pheasants, but not in the numbers I usually see. As it worked out I still brought a couple pheasants home for future festive dinners, but I didn’t bring home any limits of birds.

On the other had, a meager bag wasn’t all the pheasants’ fault, as I missed some shots that I should have made. If I had connected on all those misses, our freezer would be a bit fuller.

But that’s hunting. When we go out in search of game, whether feathered or furred, about the only guarantee we have is that we’ll get some exercise and fresh air. On those counts the trip was a major success.

A highlight for the week was an evening with a spectacular sunset. I spent most of the evening running out from the trailer with my camera to catch the latest change.

Sunset at Freezeout Lake, Fairfield MT.

We can’t eat a sunset like we can a pheasant, but the memories and images live on.

An Outdoorsman’s Perspective on Montana Issues and Races

A Montana ballot – full of choices (or confusion).

We’re now under two weeks from Election Day. I look forward to the end of this political cycle. We’ve been inundated with almost non-stop negative advertising, smears and half-truths, and no party or side has a monopoly in that regard.

Still, the campaign is nearly over and, in fact, many people have voted or have ballots in hand, ready to vote.

I recognize that our readers will have varying ideas about the worth of my opinions. I’m still going to share some thoughts on some issues and races from this outdoorsman/conservationist’s perspective.

The major issue is I-186, the issue that would add an additional step to the mining permitting process, requiring the Department of Environmental Quality to deny mining permits if the mining plan can’t establish that it won’t end up with future water pollution problems.

I’ve read a lot of stuff about it, and sat through presentations from both sides of the question. The mining companies have spent a lot of money trying to scare voters into voting against it, claiming the measure would mean the end of hard rock mining in Montana. Proponents of the measure deny that it’s anti-mining and, in fact, claim several other states have enacted similar laws and that mining permits continue to be issued.

Here in Butte, we’ve mostly heard from the mining industry. We have a long history of mining here. I get that. But here are some other perspectives.

The mayors of Great Falls, Helena, Missoula, Whitefish, and the mayor-elect of Bozeman issued a joint statement in support of I-186, starting with the reality that “Montana communities run on clean, natural water…and want to ensure this resource continues to run for generations to come.”

“The toxic legacy of irresponsible hard-rock mining continues to plague Montana’s landscape, rivers and streams. It continues to cost our state millions of dollars a year in continued cleanup…”

John Lund, a Lutheran clergyman with Emmaus Campus Ministry at the University of Montana, issued an opinion piece, co-signed by many clergy and faith leaders, saying, in part, “As members of multiple spiritual and faith perspectives, we all have a call and responsibility to be caretakers and stewards of the earth, the landscape we inhabit, and all of the living plants and creatures that are part of it.” Lund urges Montanans to vote yes in I-186, “as an expression of faith and to be responsible stewards of the land we live in and of the clean water that gives life to all things.”

Personally, the thing that really decided my vote was a flyer from the mining industry smearing backers of the measure, saying, “I-186 is led by activists tied to the most radical environmental organizations in America…” Trout Unlimited is one of the lead organizations backing the measure. TU may be a national organization, but it’s also a Montana organization that has worked hard for protection of cold-water resources. It’s a grass-roots (or wet-feet) organization with rank and file members all across Montana.

I’m voting in favor of I-186.

I-185 doesn’t really have anything to do with outdoors, though I’ll still express an opinion. I-185 would increase taxes on tobacco products to help fund Medicaid expansion. To quote State Senator Jon Sesso, “Everything you’ve heard from opponents of I-185 is a lie.” And if you don’t like the stinkin’ tax on tobacco, don’t buy big tobacco’s stinkin’ products.

In the Senate race, I think the overwhelming question for outdoors oriented voters is who will better look out for our public lands. There’s no question in my mind that Senator Jon Tester is more attuned to our public lands than his challenger, Matt Rosendale, a real estate developer and rank newcomer when it comes to public lands values.

In the House race, incumbent Greg Gianforte brags about his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and his NRA endorsement. In my opinion, candidates with that rating and endorsement have sold their soul to the devil. I’m voting for challenger Kathleen Williams.

For better or worse, that’s how I look at it. Readers may agree or disagree, and that’s fine. We each get one vote, and now I’m going hunting.

Big Game Season Begins!

A flashback to last year’s big game season and a most unlucky (but tasty) whitetail buck that came home with me.

The wait is just about over. At least it is for those Montanans who look at you cross-eyed when you talk about hunting and ramble on about walking through the woods in search of a one-pound ruffed grouse, and snort, “I mean real huntin.’ Elk and deer, with my good ol’ ought-six.”

The general big game season for deer and elk begins bright and early on Saturday morning and goes to sunset on November 25, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This is the season when there’s the possibility of filling the freezer after a successful hunt with wholesome, nutritious, organically grown venison.

One of the best times of the year to be in Montana is during those five weeks in late October through most of November when going hunting has so many possibilities. If you pack along a shotgun as well as a rifle when you head to the great outdoors, it’s entirely possible to bring home a deer or elk or antelope, along with ducks or pheasants, or mountain grouse. I fondly remember a day ending with a brief stop at the old Deluxe bar and being able to modestly brag about coming home with “a buck and a duck.”

If your hunting plans are for whitetail deer or elk, these are the good old days. I recall a season-setting meeting last winter with Butte-based wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori reviewing the many Region 3 hunting districts and commenting that elk populations are above management goals in most of them. As for those whitetails, they weren’t even worth mentioning, as whitetails seem to be thriving just about everywhere.

We do have problems with that iconic deer of the west, the mule deer. At last spring’s season setting meeting, mule deer were a frequent topic of concern. Recently I sat in on an early meeting of leaders of the local chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation, and a conversation topic was the need for better habitat in mule deer areas.

Chad Klinkenborg, the Montana Regional Director of the Mule Deer Foundation, supplied me with information on work his organization has been doing on some of Montana’s Wildlife Management Areas.

A big issue with mule deer is that they’re being squeezed by changes in habitat that are good for elk and whitetails, but not for mulies. While mule deer are a big deer, they don’t compete well against the bigger elk or the more adaptable white-tailed deer.

A common issue is conifers spreading out in the open sagebrush/grassland habitat that mule deer need. Some solutions include controlled burns, or simply cutting down conifers. Much of their work, in coordination with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, or Federal agencies such as BLM, has been on areas such as the Robb-Ledford and Blacktail WMAs. This also benefits sage grouse and pronghorns.

Still, there is no doubt that Montana is a great place to be during our long and varied hunting seasons.

As always, there are some reminders about the big game season.

Respect private land. Montana law requires hunters to have permission to hunt private land. That might include appropriate sign-in procedures on Block Management Areas, knocking on a door and getting verbal permission, or finding a designated walk-in hunting area.

Wear hunter orange. Montana law requires hunters and anyone accompanying a hunter as an outfitter or guide to wear 400 square inches of hunter orange above the waist. It’s a requirement, even for archery hunters, unless they’re hunting in a designated archery-only area. I advocate that anyone out in the countryside this time of year should be wearing orange for safety’s sake.

If you have a successful hunt, take good care of your game, especially if the weather is unseasonably warm. Do whatever it takes to get that carcass cooled off.

Exercise caution with firearms. Don’t let a fun outing turn into a tragedy.

Above all, enjoy this wonderful time of the year. Montana is a great place to be, out among wildlife and wild places. Remember to take a camera along to record those special memories.

Grizzly Bear Issues Keep Hunters Alert

A mama grizzly bear and triplets. Photo taken at a research facility at Washington State University – from behind a stout chainlink fence!

Next week I plan to be up north, in the Rocky Mountain Front country pursing my passion for chasing pheasants across that scenic, windy landscape. Besides a pocketful of shotgun shells, bear spray will be in my vest, along with an apple and some chocolate bars, in case I need an energy boost on one of my walks.

As has been widely reported, grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) are spreading out from the mountains across the prairies, re-colonizing some of their historic range. The landowners who have been kind enough to let me hunt on their property have, for the last several years, cautioned me to be on the lookout for grizzly bears.

In fact, one farm, which I’ve hunted on for many years, has a pond about 100 yards from the house. A couple years ago a mama griz and two cubs spent the better part of the summer hanging around the pond. It was one of those “you don’t bother me, we won’t bother you” situations. The bear family didn’t cause any problems and the landowner family stayed out of their way.

Still, it’s one of those situations that we can’t ignore, and lots of us probably had some sort of emotional reaction a couple weeks ago when a U.S. District Court judge in Missoula, Dana L. Christenson, ruled that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had erred when it took grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem off the endangered species list, opening the doors for states to set seasons for hunting grizzly bears.

Montana elected to not rush into a hunting season. Idaho set a season allowing the harvest of one male grizzly bear. Wyoming, however, set a season to allow the killing of up to 22 grizzly bears, including several female bears.

Judge Christenson’s decision drew cheers from many environmental organizations that objected to the initial de-listing of grizzly bears. On the other hand, the decision drew a lot of criticism from organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Safari Club International. Some individuals on social media were bitter in their denunciation of some idiot of a federal judge making such a ruling on some issue about which they figured the judge knew nothing. That, incidentally, might be a rather tamed down summary of their objections.

I think that they should have considered that the groups that sued to stop the hunting season probably had a better legal case for restoring legal protection for grizzlies. In fact, the judge’s ruling said that the Fish & Wildlife Service had failed to consider how delisting the Yellowstone area bears could affect other grizzly populations and that the FWS decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Of course, the unfortunate fact that, at about the same time, a mama grizzly with a cub had just mauled and killed a Wyoming hunting guide points to how complex our relations with the big bears can get. In this case the guide and a client went to recover an elk that had been killed the previous day. The bear, which had decided she needed the elk more than the hunters, asserted superior ownership rights and defended her claim.

Some critics maintain that grizzly bears should be hunted to make them more fearful of humans and to stay away from conflicts. Still, it’s questionable whether a limited bear hunt would teach any lessons to the general bear population. The mama bear and cub, in this case, were hunted down and killed by game wardens.

It’s a complex problem with lots of moving parts. With Endangered Species Act protections, grizzly bears are doing well. They will do better when there are more areas with grizzly bears and bears are able to migrate and connect with other populations and maintain genetic diversity.

Still, we who venture into the great outdoors have to exercise caution and pack bear spray. Some people advocate carrying a heavy-duty handgun. Unless you’re an expert (I’m not) most people are better off with bear spray.

Opening Weekend for Pronghorn and Pheasants

A flashback to 2017. A happy Kiri and a limit of pheasants.

Frosty nights and mornings are an urgent reminder to us that the seasons are changing. We haven’t yet had a major snowstorm, unlike last year when we had heavy snow in mid-September. Still, the days are getting shorter and winter is coming.

Another reminder is that the pheasant and general pronghorn antelope seasons will open this Saturday, October 6.

This weekend’s opener will send many hunters across Montana’s prairies and uplands in search of North America’s fastest quadruped, a truly unique native of the west. It’s an animal with a confusing set of names, as well as a complex set of genetics.

Montana’s hunting regulations refer to the critter as antelope. Most biologists would prefer to simply call it a pronghorn. Captain William Clark of the Lewis & Clark expedition was one of the first Europeans to describe the pronghorn when he shot one in what became Nebraska, describing it in his journal as a “Buck Goat,” going on to say that, “he is more like the Antillope or Gazelle of Africa than any other species of Goat.”

The pronghorn is the last of the Antilocapridae, a group of 12 species that existed in prehistoric times. Scientists believe there were still three other species that existed when humans first came to North America, but the pronghorn is the only one that survived to modern times. Curiously, the pronghorn’s closest living relatives, the giraffe and okapi, are in Africa.

Pronghorns are a success story of modern wildlife management. At the close of the Frontier, pronghorn numbers were down to around 13,000, and many observers feared that pronghorn were destined for extinction, though members of the Boone and Crockett Club advocated for measures to save the pronghorn. Key to the survival of the pronghorn was designation of large tracts of public lands with good habitat for pronghorn. Current numbers of pronghorn are estimated at between 500,000 and a million.

Montana’s pronghorns are widespread much of Montana, ranging from the wide-open prairies of eastern Montana to the foothills of the Rockies. The pronghorn season runs through November 11.

If pronghorns are an ancient native of North America, the pheasant is a relatively recent immigrant. Pheasants are native to China, though they have been brought to many parts of the world. There are many varieties of pheasants, and even the modern chicken is descended from ancient pheasants.

There were early attempts to bring pheasants to the U.S., going as far back as 1733. Our first president, George Washington, had some golden pheasants on his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

The most significant introduction of pheasants was in 1881, when Owen Dickerson Denny, the U.S. Consul General to Shanghai, China, shipped 60 Chinese pheasants to Port Townsend, Washington. That first attempt mostly failed, but Denny sent more birds in 1882 and 1884, and pheasants took hold in the Willamette valley of Oregon. Since then, pheasants have been introduced to 40 states, though the nation’s heartland states, including Montana, are where pheasants seem to do best.

While pheasants are a relatively recent immigrant, they found a niche in many states at a time when the vast native prairies of the heartland were converted to agriculture. Pheasants readily adapted to farm country and thrived, filling a void when those same changes sent prairie chickens into a downward spiral in most of their range.

Pheasants were my introduction to the world of hunting and after over 60 years of chasing them, from the family farm in southern Minnesota, to Iowa, North and South Dakota and Montana, they’re still one of my favorites.

While some people like to hunt in a group of hunters marching down a field, I prefer a smaller team, usually just my dog and myself, wandering across the landscape in search of pheasant scent and the thrilling sound and sight of a rooster pheasant taking to the air with a rush of wings, often cackling and scolding us for our intrusion.

If everything works, we’re rewarded with a beautiful, gaudy bird and a delicious dinner. Life is good.

Montana Fall Colors Near Prime Time

Golden cottonwoods along the Big Hole River. The black specks against the sky are falling leaves – not a dirty lens.

When fall colors come, they often come in a hurry. A week ago we made an overnight jaunt to Helena, and coming back, after a little more than 24 hours, my wife and I were struck by how the aspens along the mountainsides had changed colors virtually overnight.

In Montana, we don’t have a lot of variety in deciduous trees, compared to the Midwest or Eastern parts of the country. Consequently, we don’t have such rich variety in fall colors that are found to the east. Still, what we have is spectacular, so we might as well enjoy the beauty of our area.

In southwest Montana, our predominant fall colors come from quaking aspen. Here in Butte, we can look at the panorama of changing colors on the East Ridge or on Timber Butte for examples of fall aspen colors.

As ruffed grouse are almost synonymous with aspen forests, I search out aspens for many of my hunting outings, and I get great enjoyment from looking around at fall colors around me. Aspens are kind of unique, in that they primarily spread by sending out roots, and new aspen growth is, essentially, a clone of other trees. You can see the different clumps of aspens by color changes. Some thickets change color early, and shed leaves early, while others hang on long after other thickets have lost their leaves. You might also see other aspen stands with fall foliage that appears more orange than the usual golden yellow.

Cottonwoods are another source of fall colors, especially along rivers, such as the Big Hole, Jefferson or Yellowstone Rivers. Cottonwoods also hold on to their leaves later than other trees, so that a river bottom in late October will be a brilliant yellow in contrast to the brownish drab of the rest of the landscape.

If you want to take a trip to look at fall foliage, an easy afternoon outing could be to go west to Anaconda and take the Mill Creek highway over the mountains to the Big Hole River and returning to Butte. Aspens dominate the mountainsides on the north side of the Divide, and typically the week around the end of September is when aspen colors are at their best.

If you want a longer drive, or a weekend getaway, a special place, to my mind, is Loma, the little town in the Marias River valley about 20 miles north of Fort Benton. Both the Marias and Teton rivers converge at Loma, about a mile upstream from the Missouri River, so there are actually two long wooded river valleys that are a blaze of color in autumn. The Missouri River riparian area is dominated by cottonwoods, so the river bottoms will be in their glory in early October.

It might be a bit late to plan a long trip right now to New England for the annual fall color tour. Leaf peepers, as they’re called, are a big chunk of New England’s tourist economy, worth billions of dollars every year.

Looking back to past years, we lived in eastern Iowa for a few years and the Mississippi River bluffs were spectacular in autumn. A drive along the river, and a picnic in some scenic spot was a great afternoon jaunt.

Looking at autumn colors from the air can be fun. I can recall several instances of flying into Minneapolis/St. Paul during the peak of fall colors. Another memorable trip was to Washington D.C. in late October and fall colors in the Appalachians were a riot of yellow, orange and red splotches of colors.

All these fall colors are because our days are getting shorter every day, and with less sunshine, the trees slow down and finally stop producing chlorophyll, the substance that makes leaves green. This allows the underlying pigment in the leaves to come through. Alas, Jack Frost has nothing to do with fall colors.

Enjoy these fall colors while they last. All too soon the leaves will fall and we’ll be looking at bare trees until next spring, when we again start the process.

Thoughts on the Autumnal Equinox

My Lab, Kiri, checking a mountain meadow for grouse scent.

In a few days, on Saturday, the 22nd day of September, at 7:54 p.m. (MDT), we’ll observe the Autumnal Equinox, when the sun crosses the Equator and the length of days in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres will be approximately equal. That doesn’t mean we’ll have exactly 12 hours of daylight on Saturday; we’ll actually have a few more minutes of daylight, though in a few more days we’ll be past that point, and our hours of daylight will continue to shrink until we reach the Winter Solstice in December.

While I don’t suffer from seasonal affective disorder, the malady that strikes some people with symptoms of depression during the dark months of the year, I hate to see our hours of daylight keep shrinking. My wife, on the other hand, always says, “I think it’s cozy,” referring to closing the drapes against the night and turning on the lights, and maybe lighting a fire in the fireplace on chilly nights. I don’t look at it as cozy; it’s just dark.

The Equinox really isn’t the beginning of autumn. This year, as I’ve noted in earlier columns, we started having fall weather in late August, when we had cold rains and even some light frosts. Of course, as a hunter I look at September 1, the beginning of the upland bird hunting season, as the beginning of autumn.

As I reported last week, I was out in the mountains on that first day of September and several more times since then, though as of last week I had yet to bring home any game.

We spent much of that first week of September camping on a western Montana trout stream, where I could fish in the afternoon and evening and spend the mornings walking mountainsides and sagebrush ridges in search of blue grouse, or dusky grouse, if you prefer the scientifically correct name.

It was frustrating from the standpoint of actually finding the big grouse, especially when I recall some past years when grouse walks often resulted in putting up flocks of grouse from various areas of the mountain. We might blame cold, rainy weather in June, when grouse chicks are hatching, leaving a warm egg only to emerge to a cold rain. It’s a tough way to start life if you’re a grouse chick, and many don’t survive.

If the grouse were scarce, it was a good time for fly-fishing, with trout rising to abundant insects, and I caught and released a number of westslope cutthroat trout, the native trout of western Montana, along with a smattering of brown and rainbow trout..

While the grouse hunting was challenging, Kiri, my Labrador retriever and faithful hunting partner, did put up a few grouse and I had a few unsuccessful shots at them.

I really wanted to bring some of those large, delicious birds home for dinner, but I won’t complain. I still have a couple pheasants in the freezer from last year, so I can have a wild bird dinner at my leisure.

This is where the grouse should be!

Putting a positive spin on things, I’m grateful that my aging legs seem up to another season of sauntering around mountainsides in search of grouse. I give credit to my love of tennis for that. Through the summer, I’ve played tennis two to three times a week with our group of tennis enthusiasts. We have a lot of fun, even if we’ll have to buy tickets if we ever want to go to the U.S. Open. Still, regular exercise at our Mile High elevation goes a long way in being ready for hunting season.

Kiri and I at the top of the mountain (sorry, not all mountaintops are rock and ice).

I’ll note, once again, that those strolls across the mountainsides were on Federal public lands. The trout stream with native trout is bordered by Federal public land. The campground where we parked our trailer, and have many times over many years, is on public land and managed by a Federal agency.

Here in Montana, our lives, even our identity, are related to the outdoors, and that means public lands and public waters. Protect it, love it, and celebrate it.

First Hunt of the Season

Kiri exploring the early autumn foliage for signs of grouse scent.

The opening day of the 2018 Montana hunting season started on an early autumn morning. As I noted a couple weeks ago, our calendars might say it’s still summer, but the frosty morning temperatures on September 1 and the clear, blue skies, along with some brisk winds, made it feel like autumn.

With both upland birds and big game archery seasons starting the same weekend day, a lot of people were out celebrating the beginning of the season. When I was organizing my gear my wife asked where I was going, and I said I hadn’t decided yet. Actually, I kind of knew where I wanted to go, but I also know that some of my favorite grouse spots also attract archers.

That was, in fact, the case, so I drove on into the mountains, following a Forest Service road into the Pintlers. I had an idea of going to an aspen creek bottom where once, just once, I stumbled into a big bunch of young ruffed grouse. That one time was a wild hour or so, as Flicka, our late Labrador retriever, then in the prime of life, kept putting up grouse—and I kept missing them, though we ended the session with two grouse in the bag, along with a dozen shotshell hulls.

I took a diversion on the way, turning off on a narrow, rutted two-track road that went up the mountain, leading to a sagebrush ridge. Kiri, my current Lab, and I took a walk around the ridge in hopes of finding some blue (dusky) grouse, but we finished our walk without seeing any birds. Still, the panoramic view from the top of the ridge made it all worth it.

I drove back down to the main road and a few miles later arrived at that creek bottom I had in mind.

Kiri and I had a pleasant walk in the aspens, even though the ground is full of hazards, with rocks, hidden holes, fallen branches, and the like.  It’s a reminder that walking in the mountains is full of hazards that could easily lead to a fracture if not careful. Obviously, something like that could ruin the day—or the season. I also noted lots of small slash piles everywhere, where forest crews have been cutting down small conifers, presumably to maintain the aspen environment.

After our walk, which didn’t include shooting grouse this time, Kiri happily splashed while taking a good drink of water in the sparkling little creek that runs down the mountain. I could have tried casting a fly into the creek, though all the brush and trees along the stream would make it a challenge.

One of the many little creeks in western Montana.

While Kiri and I took a lunch break before heading back home, I reflected on the morning. We didn’t put up any grouse, though I did spot a little Franklin (spruce) grouse on the road earlier. I passed on the bird because they’re not particularly good eating, as their main food source is pine needles. Still, we had a couple pleasant walks in the mountains. It’s still early in the season and grouse hunting tends to improve as early frosts thin the ground cover, and shrubberies start losing their leaves. The goal for the outing was to get out and take our first hunt and we succeeded.

Also, the whole outing took place on Federal public lands. I didn’t have to ask permission or pay somebody a fee for the opportunity to walk on the land I own with my fellow citizens. I met others out on the access road doing the same thing and they, too, were enjoying the opportunity to enjoy themselves on a beautiful early fall day. September is Public Lands Month, and to quote Chris Wood, the head of Trout Unlimited, “Public lands are the best idea America ever had.”

I should mention that my jaunt into the public lands wasn’t for naught. In that creek bottom I found a little patch of wild raspberries, including one plant that still had one berry. It was delicious, bursting with flavor.

Montana’s I-186: The Mining Industry Perspective

Mike McGivern, of Montana Resources, presenting the mining perspective on I-186

“I-186 is bad law-making,” is how Mike McGivern, vice-president of human resources at Montana Resources of Butte, describes the ballot initiative that voters will be asked to decide this November.

McGivern was speaking at last week’s meeting of the Silverbow Kiwanis Club of Butte. Previously, Tom Reed, a spokesman for Trout Unlimited, one of the organizations backing the measure, addressed the club (see Butte Weekly of August 1, 2018).

McGivern presented positions of the Montana Mining Association and a coalition of groups opposed to I-186, a measure that would require that the Montana Department of Environmental Equality must require clear and convincing evidence that new mines would not cause perpetual water pollution problems before issuing a mining permit. Mark Thompson, president of Montana Resources, is the current president of the Montana Mining Association, and Montana Resources has taken a leading role in leading opposition to the initiative.

McGivern asserted, “We see I-186 as the death knell for the mining industry,” citing potential stumbling blocks in the mine permitting process.

McGivern acknowledged that past mining processes caused problems, especially the “disaster” caused by Pegasus Gold, the subsidiary of a foreign mining company that had operations at Beal Mountain, between Butte and Anaconda, and the Zortman-Landusky mine in northern Montana. When mining operations ceased, Pegasus declared bankruptcy and left Montana and Federal taxpayers stuck with the bill for remediation.

He points out, “Thirty laws have been passed since 1997 to remedy the situation, and our current water standards are better than Federal standards. The laws we have now are very stringent and the state has enforcement powers to back it up.”

He underlined the news release that came out last week about Montana Resources getting close to pumping water from the Berkeley Pit and extracting minerals and going through a cleaning process. “The water that finally gets discharged from the process will be better than our drinking water.”

He also said that the wording of I-186 has a lot of problems that would create  further litigation. The “clear and convincing evidence” standard in the initiative wording creates a requirement that is difficult to prove. “It’s trying to prove a negative,” he says, adding that cautious engineers seldom go out on a limb to say that nothing can ever happen, even if the possibility is remote.

McGivern pointed out the importance of the mining industry to Montana’s economy, that the mining industry provides 12,305 jobs in Montana, good-paying jobs with benefits, with an annual payroll of $1.154 billion, and annual tax revenues of $42 million.

There are currently three mining projects that are working their way through the permitting process, including the controversial copper mining project near White Sulfur Springs and the Smith River, and McGivern said that I-186 threatens all of them.

While proponents of I-186 say that current mining operations are not affected by the proposal, McGivern foresees that future permit applications would be threatened.

McGivern also said that financial support for I-186 has been mostly coming from out-of-state, especially eastern states. On the other hand, opposition to I-186 comes from not just mining companies, by 54 of Montana’s 56 counties, the AFL-CIO, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, and Montana Motor Carriers, among others.

More information on the mining industry’s position on the initiative can be found online at http://stopi186.com.

Obviously, if you compare positions and claims by the mining industry with those of the backers of the initiative, there’s a lot of disagreement. I’ll confess that my general inclination tends toward environmental positions, though in reporting on this presentation I hope I was successful in accurately reporting the mining association perspective.

Again, for the positions of the organizations backing I-186, their website is www.yeson186.org.

There are lots of opinions and positions to consider, as well as the many political races that will be decided, but if you want to be heard when it counts, make sure you’re registered to vote and then vote on November 6, whether at the polls or voting early with an absentee ballot. Your vote makes a difference.