Earth Day Celebration

A busy honeybee hard at work in that clump of plum blossoms on the right side of the photo.

This coming Monday, April 22, is Earth Day. It’s special this year, as this will be the 50th Earth Day since the first Earth Day was observed in 1970.

Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and environmental activist John McConnell came up with the concept of that first Earth Day, though they disagreed on what date it should take place. McConnell thought it should be on the spring equinox, while Sen. Nelson advocated for April 22, which became the date we still observe.

In that first Earth Day, millions of people took to the streets to protest the negative impacts of industrial development. This was before creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and laws such as the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, to name just a few items that emerged from those first Earth Day observances.

Earth Day is now a global event and the Earth Day organization says that over a billion people in 192 countries now take part in what they describe as the largest civic-focused day of action in the world.

While people observe Earth Day in many ways, the lead organization, Earth Day Network (www.earthday.org) suggests international themes, and this year’s theme is Protect Our Species, highlighting threats to a variety of species in the natural world. Some species include bees, coral reefs, elephants, giraffes, whales, and even trees.

Recently, scientists predicted that Montana’s mountain foothills that have experienced wildfires would likely come back as grasslands, as a warming climate won’t support a new forest.

We’ve all heard about the issue of declines in bees and other insect pollinators. Over the last ten years, beekeepers in the U.S. and Europe have had annual losses of around 30 percent annually. Similarly, wild bees have also declined.

The ramifications of loss of bees are immense. Many crops depend on honeybees to pollinate flowers as the beginning point of nuts, berries, seeds and fruits. Bees contribute $24 billion to the U.S. agriculture industry, amounting to a third of the food that we Americans consume.

Bees are threatened by the pervasive use of insecticides, neonicotinoids, and GMOs, as well as climate change, habitat changes and loss of bio-diversity. It’s a complex issue.

Honeybees have long been close to my heart. Growing up on a farm, I would love to walk through a clover or alfalfa field and see thousands of honeybees hard at work on the millions of flowers. The husband of my country schoolteacher was a beekeeper and at least once a year he would come and speak to us about honey and beekeeping. Taking it a step further, I love honey and prefer it for pancakes and waffles.

Something we can do in our own backyards is to establish a bee-friendly garden, a space with a variety of flowers. Something we did, some years ago, was to dig up a chunk of lawn and plant it to wildflowers. We’ve enjoyed seeing a number of honeybees and butterflies rolling in ecstasy on blooms. We also have a couple patches of thyme, a fragrant herb that produces abundant flowers that bees love. Our only regret is that we don’t know where the bees are coming from, because we’d love to get some of that thyme honey.

This Earth Day 2019, there are many causes and ways to observe the day. We can point with alarm at the actions of the current Administration that seems intent on rolling back and even destroying environmental protections. Dump your chemicals and mine waste in streams and rivers. They don’t care. Fill the atmosphere with coal smoke. It’s okay.

This year, let’s send a message to those in power.

We do care about clean air and clean water. It’s not okay to pollute the air and cause acid rain. We value our bees and butterflies and other pollinators. We don’t want to see the earth’s glaciers fade away. We are frightened by the erratic weather changes that happen because of climate change.

Set aside time on Earth Day to learn what’s happening and take some action. It’s that important.

State of the Fishery – Big Hole & Rock Creek

Brad Liermann, FWP biologist for Rock Creek and Georgetown Lake.

After months of winter, local angling enthusiasts were eager to hear what might be in store for fishing this year, at last week’s annual State of the Fishery program presented by the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Leading off the program was David Brooks, Executive Director of Montana Trout Unlimited, announcing the hire of Chris Edgerton to be TU’s resident specialist on the Jefferson River and watershed.

Brad Liermann, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologist for Georgetown Lake and Rock Creek, presented information on a winter fish kill issue on Georgetown Lake.

Last year, as ice started melting, dead fish started turning up. Liermann estimated he saw as many as a thousand dead fish, mostly rainbow trout.

The culprit in the die-off was identified as low dissolved oxygen levels in the lake. A level of 5 milligrams per liter of water is considered a danger point for fish and at the end of winter, a year ago, there were levels of as low as 2.5 mg/liter. He has been monitoring oxygen levels this winter and it’s marginally better than a year ago.

Liermann said the main factor is snow depths covering the lake, which have been roughly double the long-term average these last two winters.

Fortunately, the lake remains a productive fishery and fall gill-netting surveys were in the normal range.

Liermann reported on some long-term trends on Rock Creek, Montana’s only blue ribbon trout stream west of the Continental Divide. Rock Creek, for years, was a renowned rainbow trout fishery until whirling disease came along in the mid-1990s. When rainbow trout numbers crashed, brown trout and westslope cutthroat trout numbers both increased to fill the ecological niche. In the last few years, rainbow trout have been making a comeback, though there is some concern that it might threaten the mostly pure westslope cutthroat trout population.

Jim Olsen, FWP biologist for the Big Hole River

Jim Olsen, FWP biologist for the Big Hole River, reported on a stable fishery on most stretches of southwest Montana’s premier trout stream.

He noted a temporary drop in brown trout numbers in the Melrose area following the 2015 outbreak of saprolegnia, an aquatic fungus that caused a significant die-off in the fall of that year. Numbers quickly bounced back to normal, likely from fish migrating in from other parts of the river.

Olsen highlighted a relatively lightly fished section, the area downstream from Pennington Bridge to the last takeout on the river at Twin Bridges. This stretch doesn’t have as many trout as other sections, something around 800 fish (browns and rainbows) per mile. “There are a lot of nice fish, well-fed and healthy.” He added that the trout density is low plus there is a lot of forage for larger fish, such as suckers, whitefish and dace.

This led to a discussion of some long-term impacts of the special regulations section of the Big Hole, from Divide to Melrose, originally, in 1981, and later extended to Jerry Creek.

Based on almost 40 years of data, a significant impact of the special regulations was an increase in fish numbers. Fish numbers almost doubled in the first five years. On the other hand, the numbers of fish over 20 inches dropped significantly. Higher densities of fish means less food for big fish to grow.

Olsen also reported on steady growth in fishing pressure on the Big Hole, with an estimated 80,285 angler days in 2017, almost double the numbers from around ten years earlier.

With a new fishing/floating season coming up, Olsen noted a change in river channels in the river about one mile upstream from the Glen Fishing Access Site. The river changed course so that almost the entire river is going down what was a smaller channel on river left. The river right channel is currently carrying a trickle of water. Floaters will find themselves dumped back in the main channel across the river and just downstream from the Glen FAS boat ramp.

The moral to the story is that rivers are a dynamic environment and hydraulics are powerful.

The next GGTU program meeting will be on May 8.

Flyfishing Season Begins!

Little rainbows – fun on a lightweight fly-rod.

I’d been anxious for this day. It was a long time since my last fly-fishing outing last September, and over two months since my last hunting outing. This gap between hunting and fishing seasons can be a long one, and this year seemed especially long.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t getting outside, of course. Through February and early March I got a lot of exercise shoveling and blowing snow and many weeks I made a trip to Discovery Basin ski area and enjoyed exceptionally good snow conditions.

Still, I was overdue for a day on a river. In most years I often have an outing in late February or early March, depending on the weather.

The day finally came. We’d had the Vernal Equinox, with longer days and enough energy behind the afternoon sun to warm things up. I’d finished my writing assignments for the week and, as a bonus, filed my taxes, so caught up on obligations and with a good weather forecast, my black Lab, Kiri, and I headed for the lower Madison River, one of my favorite early season destinations for fly-fishing.

I usually don’t have expectations of catching fish on these first outings. The water is, typically, super cold and there isn’t much insect activity, and the trout are sluggish.

Still, there is always the possibility of fishing action and that’s good enough.

In most years, the lower Madison River as it emerges from Beartrap Canyon, is a good place to find spring. Typically, in late March, the snow is gone and there are shoots of green here and there. This time, the biggest challenge was finding an access point that wasn’t blocked by snow.

Incidentally, I wasn’t the only person looking for fish. Fishing guides and clients were putting drift boats in and other anglers were wading the river. That comes as no surprise. I’ve never been to the lower Madison without seeing other anglers.

In my first walk in the river, I didn’t have any action, though a couple other guys caught a few fish that were feeding on midges.

I also discovered that my waders had some tiny leaks, so my feet got damp and chilled, and a lunch break and time to thaw toes seemed appropriate.

A dog on the rock – Kiri enjoying the outing.

After a lunch break Kiri and I worked our way upstream, still not having any fishing action. We came to a spot where a tributary stream empties into the Madison. I recalled from an outing some 20 years ago with the late Sylvester Nemes, his saying that this spot can be really productive.

I cast my fly, a small beadhead nymph, into the current and, surprise! I was hooked on to a small rainbow trout. I landed and released the fish and cast again. And I had another fish on the line, pretty much a carbon copy of the first one. Then a third and then a fourth fish. I had to change flies a couple times because of hooking a snag, and then pinching my tippet, not the hook, in releasing a fish.

I thought, Let’s go for ten. Then a dozen.

By the time the fish in the little run had caught on that something phony was going on with these free lunches, I’d caught and released some 19 rainbow trout, all running around 6 to 10 inches.

There was a grin on my face as I trudged back to the access point and stowed gear for the trip back home. As mentioned previously, I usually don’t have high expectations for my first outings of the year and certainly not for racking up a big catch.

While I had fun on this trip, there were other bonuses. For a few hours, there was respite from Congress, the Lege, the unending news cycle. The river and the fish that live there don’t know or care about politics, scandals and the like.

Standing in 37º water, there is just the river, a flyrod and a fly on the end of the line, with the success of the whole enterprise depending on the whim of a fish.

Radical Groups Affect Public Lands and Human Rights

Presenters (L to R), Dave Chadwick, Montana Wildlife Federation, Rachel Carroll Rivas & Travis McAdam, Montana Human Rights Network.

Militia, Sagebrush Rebellion, Cliven Bundy, Malheur Refuge, and other names, terms and places have been in the news over the last few decades, in one way or another, in many western states.

We were living in North Dakota, when Gordon Kahl, a North Dakota farmer and itinerant oilfield worker, got his 15 minutes of fame. In the 1960s, he declared that he would no longer pay income taxes to the “Synagogue of Satan under the 2nd plank of the Communist Manifesto.” He later served prison time for willful failure to file tax returns. After parole from prison he became active in other radical movements, similar to the Montana Freemen of the 1990s. In January 1983, U.S. Marshals attempted to arrest Kahl for parole violations. At a rural roadblock, Kahl and his son, Yorie, started a firefight in which two marshals were killed and several local police officers were wounded. Kahl’s story ended several months later in Arkansas, when he was killed in another firefight.

While the violent shootout in North Dakota was, seemingly, a long time ago, Gordon Kahl had a lot in common with Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who refused to pay grazing fees for running cattle on public lands.

These movements, whether called Militia, Freeemen, Oathkeepers, or other terms that emerge, have a lot of similarities and connections, and were the topic of a presentation on March 13 at a meeting presented by the Southwest Wildlands chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association, in cooperation with the Montana Wildlife Federation and Montana Human Rights Network.

Presenters at the meeting were Dave Chadwick, Executive Director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, and Rachel Carroll Rivas, and Travis McAdam, both representing the Montana Human Rights Network.

While it might, at first, seem a stretch, but the Montana Human Rights Network, first formed in reaction to the emergence of white supremacy groups such as Militia and Freemen, finds a lot of common interest with public lands advocates, with Carroll Rivas asserting, “Public lands connect to public rights.”

Conversely, common threads among the radical movements include things such as anti-Semitism, anti-American Indian, and anti-federal government. They often assert that county sheriffs are the ranking law enforcement officer, with powers that put them above federal law enforcement officers. Public lands are another common interest among these groups, whether they advocate for local management of federal public lands, or claim sovereignty, such as Cliven Bundy.

We definitely have people in Montana who affiliate with these groups. Carroll Rivas suggests, “They’re not all kooks, but they do have a different worldview that we need to understand in order to counter it.”

A leader in an organization that’s part of the movement to transfer public lands is Jennifer Fielder, CEO of the American Lands Council (ALC). She’s also a state senator (R-Thompson Falls), and as head of the ALC, succeeded Ken Ivory, a Utah legislator.

Another legislator involved with these groups is Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman), who is a vocal supporter of the Bundys.

An indication of activity among these groups is that on three occasions in 2018, members of the Bundy family, including Cliven, were in Montana to spread their anti-government message.

McAdam attended some events like those featuring the Bundys, describing them as resembling old-fashioned revival meetings, with one meeting going for a full 11 ½ hours. He had the impression that a lot of the followers come from a fundamentalist tradition and are used to lengthy events.

Is there a positive message in all this?

Chadwick of the Wildlife Federation says that public involvement in human rights and public lands issues is the key. “Radicals lose when they go into the public forum.” He notes that in previous legislative sessions there were up to 15 bills introduced to change management of public lands. “There are no bills in this year’s session. They know they can’t win in a democratic fight.”

He continued, “We’ve been in this for decades. We need to keep engaging people in legitimate debate, including at the local level. The democratic process works.”

For more information, check mhrn.org.

The Vernal Equinox and Why Easter is Late This Year

If Easter is late this year, it’s not as late as this Easter Lily that bloomed in my garden in mid-August last year.

The “early church” got it sort of wrong, and that’s why Easter is super late this year.

The Council of Nicaea, which met in modern day Turkey in the year 325, set the rules for observing Easter, along with adopting the Nicene Creed as the official statement of Christian belief. The basic rule is that Easter is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.

The catch is that the rule also decrees that the Vernal Equinox, for religious purposes, is deemed to be on March 21.

This year, and actually every year after 2007 in the 21st Century, the astronomical equinox falls on either March 19 or 20, and this year it takes place today, March 20, at 3:58 p.m. MDT. To be fair, in Sydney, Australia, the equinox does fall on March 21 this year.

The first full moon after the equinox will be tonight at 7:43 p.m.

Taking it a step further, an astronomical Easter would, therefore, fall this Sunday, March 24.

Because the Council of Nicaea decreed that the equinox falls on March 21, the next full moon will be April 19, and most churches will celebrate Easter on April 21. Eastern Orthodox churches, which follow the Julian calendar, observe Easter one week later, on April 28.

The earliest possible date for Easter is March 22, and it happens rarely; the last time in 1818. Don’t hold your breath, it won’t happen again until 2285. The latest possible date for Easter is April 25, which last took place in 1943 and will next occur in 2038.

Aside from the public lands rally in January, I’ll confess I haven’t been giving the Montana Legislature as much attention as I should. The Lege, as the late Molly Ivins referred to the Texas legislature, is now in the second half of the 90-day session. As always, some surviving bills have merit and some are stinkers.

A few bills that have merit include HB 517 that would mandate trapper education for all trappers. SB 24 increases funding for trails and outdoor recreation by increasing the voluntary motor vehicle registration fee from six to nine dollars and would generate an additional $1.8 million for trails, state parks and fishing access sites.

Then there are some stinkers.

HB 265, sponsored by Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman), would nullify a state Supreme Court decision, in which the court ruled that easements for fish and wildlife conservation, or public hunting access, approved by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, do not have to go through the Land Board. That ratified a decision by Gov. Bullock, who decided that the governor has the authority to approve such an easement, even if the Land Board had previously voted against it.

Another bill, HB 279, demonstrates how a whole can of worms can be made into law, without any clues as to what the bill is all about. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Brown (R-Thompson Falls) has a one-line provision that states, “Reimbursements for receipts of costs incurred related to the trapping of wolves may be given to ethical trappers licensed pursuant to title 87, chapter 2, part 6.”

It sounds innocuous and vague. The purpose of the bill, however, according to Montana Conservation Voters, is to allow an Idaho-based group to pay trappers for wolves killed. In short, it allows an out of state group to place a bounty on Montana’s wolves.

Another stinker threatens Montana’s waters, already threatened by the Trump Administration’s revision of rules defining “Waters of the United States.” SB 48, sponsored by Sen. Tom Richmond (R-Billings) would allow for water pollution dischargers to receive variances for two years before they are required to produce and implement a pollution reduction ban. In other words, it gives polluters permission to poison our streams and rivers two years before the state can do anything about it.

Molly Ivins said it best. “All anyone needs to enjoy the state legislature is a strong stomach and a complete insensitivity to the needs of the people.”

BLM Leasing Threatens Sage Grouse

The sage grouse, the iconic bird of the west. Photo by Rick McEwan, courtesy of Sage Grouse Initiative

Fans of sage grouse, that iconic bird of high desert and sagebrush steppe areas of the west, were dismayed earlier this month when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sold leasing rights to energy developers on some 57,000 acres, including over 23,000 acres of the country’s best sage grouse habitat in southwestern Wyoming, an area that conservationists call the “golden triangle” because of its importance to sage grouse survival.

As reported in the Washington Post, Tom Christianson, a recently retired Wyoming Game & Fish Department sage grouse biologist, described the area as a “Shangri-La for grouse…It’s just the best of the best in terms of bird density.”

A Wyoming online news source, WyoFile, quoted from a letter that Christianson sent to Wyoming governor Mark Gordon, on the critically important wildlife habitat of the Golden Triangle, especially for sage grouse.

The area includes a “super lek,” a grouse breeding territory that has had in excess of 300 male grouse during the spring mating rituals. There are several additional leks that routinely have over 100 male grouse in peak years. The average lek in Wyoming typically attracts 20 to 35 male grouse.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council and Audubon Rockies petitioned Governor Gordon, asking him to intervene, arguing that BLM failed to disclose critical information and that the habitat was too important to endanger.

The governor declined to intervene in the controversy. His office issued a statement in which the governor said he would not ask for any deferrals or postponement of lease sales.  He concluded, “I want to stay the course at this time and continue with the process and protections we have for core sage grouse areas.”

Pete Obermueller, president of the Wyoming Petroleum Association, said that conservation groups overreacted, and that leasing of lands doesn’t equate to development. He sent an email to WyoFile stating, “Wyoming’s conservation plan is laser-focused on ensuring that development doesn’t occur where the activity is known to harm the bird. If an oil and gas operator leases acres inside a core area, they know full well the restrictions they face and they are signing up to meet Wyoming’s very high standards.”

According to WyoFile, eight of the lease parcels in the Golden Triangle include a stipulation that development not take place within six-tenths of a mile of the perimeter of occupied grouse leks in core areas. All ten parcels carry restrictions that prohibit surface use in core areas between March 15 and June 30.

Wyoming’s sage grouse protections are based on an Executive Order that was first issued by former governor Dave Freudenthal in 2008 and updated by succeeding governor Matt Mead in 2015. Governor Gordon’s statement indicates that he is studying the previous executive orders and plans to issue one of his own to “continue the legacy that has helped protect sage grouse habitat in Wyoming since 2007…We want to make sure the bird stays protected.”

Kathy Love, author of the book, “Sage Grouse, Icon of the West,” commented in a December opinion piece in the Washington Post, that in 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided not to put sage grouse on the Endangered Species List, but stepped up measures to protect and improve grouse habitat.   In December 2018, the Trump Administration announced the elimination of Obama Administration regulations that conserve sage grouse habitat.

Ms. Love commented that while Trump Administration officials deny that the rollback would impact grouse, the policy document emphasized the intent to eliminate regulations that might “impede local economic opportunities.”

She concluded, “It is sad that fossil fuel extraction will contribute to climate change while simultaneously threatening an iconic bird tat has existed on the sagebrush steppe for millennia.”

There used to be millions of sage grouse on the western plains. Lewis and Clark encountered flocks of thousands. Current grouse numbers are estimated to be just 500,000, in 11 western states, half of the bird’s historic range.

Continued losses of sage grouse and their habitat is a sad commentary on government policies that emphasize energy development over survival of this great bird.

Where is Spring? Not in Montana!

The mailbox in front of our house is almost buried in white stuff.

After several days of shoveling and blowing snow, last week, I looked at fluffy white flakes of snow falling gently to the ground and wondered when it would end.

Then I checked the weather forecast and saw a forecast for sunny but continued cold weather for a few days and then a resumption of snow in mid-week, meaning right about now, as we’re reading this.

Last week, the Washington Post carried a report on the weather system dominating America’s Heartland during most of February and continuing well into March. It’s a big arctic cold weather system with wet storm systems moving in from the Pacific that have been dumping heavy snow across the coastal ranges and far inland.

Friends and relatives in Minnesota and Wisconsin have been struggling to keep up with the heavy snow. In Minnesota, heavy-duty trucks equipped with snowblowers have been working to clear paths through mile-long drifts blocking I-35 and I-90 in southern Minnesota.

I look at my own yard and wonder how much more snow is going to pile up. In late January, a few grass patches were emerging, but the banks along my front sidewalk, where I’ve been throwing snow since November, are now well over four feet high.

On the bright side, we’re still able to get around, even if our streets are a mess. We’re better off than some areas, such as south of Dillon where I-15 had been closed most of the week, and it’s nothing compared to the Sierras of California which was slammed with 25 feet of snow during February, closing most of I-80 between Reno NV and Sacramento CA.

While we grumble as we grab snow shovels for yet another round, ski area operators across the west, for whom fresh snow is life itself, are smiling as are powderhounds who brave bad roads to play in the snow.

This is shaping up to be a banner water year, when it comes to river levels and irrigation water, though we can likely expect that we’re going to have flooding in areas plus an extended period of heavy water flows.

Still, I’m getting sick and tired of snow and cold.

Every October I plant garlic in a garden bed next to our house and most years I start looking for garlic and tulips to start sending green shoots above the ground around the first week of March.

I look forward to the sound of the first robins as they come to stake out territories for raising families this spring.

A few years ago we had an early spring and both tulips and robins showed up in mid-February.

To be sure, that’s too early for both robins and tulips, and who knows when it’ll happen this year.

Actually, the worst snowstorm I’ve experienced was the first week of March in 1966. We were living in Fargo, North Dakota at the time. A few weeks earlier I had taken a bad fall while on my first try at downhill skiing and fractured my left ankle, so I was on crutches during the storm.

Heavy snow started falling on a Wednesday. I wasn’t able to drive, but a co-worker gave me a ride home so my wife wouldn’t have to drive downtown to get me. He said he’d pick me up the next morning. The next morning our street was totally blocked with 3-foot drifts and my colleague could get no closer than three blocks away.

For several days the snow fell and the winds blew. Much of the time we couldn’t see across the street. The storm finally blew itself out by Sunday, but most of North Dakota and northern Minnesota was socked in. Trains were buried in the drifts.

In the fall of 1965, many thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat came out of the old Soil Bank program in eastern North Dakota. Then we got that monster storm. The following autumn, pheasants were an endangered species.

As always, winter is that relentless force that determines whether there is adequate wildlife habitat.

Montana License Time!

My son, Kevin Vang, playing a fish on the Big Hole River, with the help of his yellow Lab and my black Lab. Good times like this begin with buying a license.

We’ve had a cold and snowy February, but changes are coming.

Our days are over two hours longer than at Christmastime and those hours of daylight will keep increasing over the next four months. All that solar energy is breaking the back of winter and spring will soon be here. Or at least what passes for spring here in the Rocky Mountains of Montana.

The annual fundraising banquet of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited will be happening on Friday night, March 1, and that’s a sure sign of spring. The big bash has been sold out for weeks.

Another sign of spring is that on that first day of March our 2018 fishing and hunting licenses will expire, and that means before we go out for a day on the ice, or some early river fishing, we need to go to a license provider or go online to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and buy that 2019 fishing license. While I’m at it, I always buy my upland and waterfowl hunting licenses at the same time. With one transaction I’m pretty well taken care of for the rest of the year.

I’ll probably buy a spring turkey license this spring and a deer license this fall, and a Federal Duck Stamp of course, but aside from those options, my basic license covers most of my fishing and hunting outings for the next 12 months. Considering that we live in Montana, it’s a great deal.

I’m not aware of any licensing changes coming up in the Legislature, though fees for Aquatic Invasive Species control may be subject to change. If so, that likely wouldn’t take effect until next year. Keep in mind, however, that two years ago, the $2 aquatic invasive species surcharge came late in the legislative session but was made retroactive for the whole license year.

I’ve occasionally mused about this springtime ritual of getting a new fishing and hunting license. It’s kind of like a New Year’s Day all over again, looking at a new year, full of possibilities, along with the reality that some possibilities are never realized, or end in disappointment.

Possession of fishing or hunting licenses doesn’t mean we’ll experience success. It doesn’t even mean we’ll find the time to get out to enjoy the outdoors. Life happens and, unfortunately, plans to go fishing fall by the wayside. Your hunting rig breaks down and you miss the opening of elk season. A member of the family somehow picks the opening of pheasant season to get married in a distant state.

Sometimes we have to make a special effort to get out for these outings. I often hear comments from people who talk about their love of the outdoors but seldom find the time to go fishing or hunting. “Don’t get out much anymore,” they’ll say sadly.

Yes, things such as family and career get in the way of enjoying the outdoors. The trouble is that we get used to not getting out and somehow mowing the lawn becomes more important than a day of fly-fishing the Big Hole River, and suddenly it’s winter and we missed a whole fishing season.

If our regular routine includes work schedules, evening meetings, community activities, transporting children to games, and all the other things that rob us of time, sometimes we need to schedule hunting and fishing outings just as we schedule our meetings. Whether you consider it mental health time, or getting out to get your head screwed back on, as I often look at it, you’ll rarely regret it.

Some people look forward to retirement with the hope that they’ll finally have time to go hunting and fishing. The reality, as I see it, is if you hope to be hunting and fishing when you’re 70, you’d better be doing it when you’re 40 or 50.

It has been said that nobody ever expressed regrets, on their death bed, that they spent too much time hunting and fishing, instead of working and chasing the almighty dollar.

Keep that in mind and go fish.

Senate Passes Public Lands Bill!

The Pintler Peaks of southwest Montana, as seen from Discovery Ski Area – our public lands.

For several years there didn’t seem to be many good things going on when it comes to public lands, but Senate action last week seems to be a game changer.

The U.S. Senate voted 92-8 to advance the biggest public lands bill in years, demonstrating that Republicans and Democrats can actually get together and pass some legislation for the good of the nation.

As the Washington Post reported, the Senate action was a case study in how lawmaking is supposed to work. There were compromises that delivered a little something for just about everybody even if no senators got everything they might have wanted. It “harked back to a time when Congress worked,” the Post concluded.

A significant part of the Senate’s bill is that it permanently re-authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which lapsed last year. The LWCF uses revenue from offshore drilling to fund projects on national parks, wildlife preserves, even baseball diamonds and basketball courts. I should note, however, that Congress still has to appropriate funds annually, even if the LWCF becomes a permanent program.

Additionally, the bill establishes five new national monuments, plus makes expansions to some existing national parks. One of those new national monuments is called Jurassic, and is in Utah. This indicates a split between Utah’s senators. Utah’s senior senator, Mike Lee, opposed the bill, saying, “This bill perpetuates a terrible standard for federal land in the West and particularly for Utah.” Newly elected senator Mitt Romney defended the bill, saying, “This is the future our public lands need and deserve.”

The bill would permanently withdraw mining claims near two national parks, including some 30,000 acres of Forest Service land near Yellowstone National Park.

Another part of the bill clarifies that all federal lands are open to hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting unless otherwise specified. Also, bow hunters would be allowed to bring their weapons through national parks when traveling to areas where it is legal to hunt.

The bill next goes to the House of Representatives for approval, and fast action is expected. With the wide bipartisan support for the bill, observers expect that the president will sign the bill into law.

Also, last week, the House Judiciary Committee reported out a bill that would mandate background checks for all firearms purchases, essentially closing the “gun show” loophole.

This action is historic, as it’s the first time in several decades that Congress has even considered any firearms legislation. It’s too early to celebrate, however. Assuming the House passes the bill, it would no doubt die a lingering death in the Senate where Majority Leader McConnell will likely bury it without ever allowing a vote on the issue. Still, it’s a shot across the bow of the gun lobby groups, an indication that times are changing. Elections do have consequences.

Changing topics, the cold, wintry weather we’ve had in recent weeks has gotten lots of discussion, in line with the old saying that “everybody likes to talk about the weather.”

Seattle got slammed with several snowstorms, creating a mess of epic proportions. In Minnesota, Senator Amy Klobuchar declared her presidential candidacy in a snowstorm prompting the President to tweet snide comments on climate change.

Of note, however, is that while we’re having a cold and snowy February, and much of the country shivered from the impacts of the recent Polar Vortex, arctic areas of northern Alaska have been having abnormally high temps this month. On February 7, temperature readings soared some 30 to 50 degrees above normal across Alaska’s North Slope.

Writing for the Washington Post, Ian Livingston, a Washington D.C. weather expert and researcher, reports that temperatures got above freezing in Utqiagvik (formerly called Barrow), a rarity for winter. There was even open water along the coastline.

In the arctic region, 2018 was the third warmest year on record, and was the second-warmest year for the state of Alaska. Meanwhile, southeast Alaska is having drought conditions in the area’s temperate rain forests.

Weather science involves a lot more than looking out the window.

Great Backyard Bird Count This Weekend!

Graphic promoting this years Great Backyard Bird Count

This coming Monday, February 18, is the official observance of George Washington’s birthday. It’s kind of a curious observance in that the Father of our Country was born on February 22, and the designation of the third Monday of February as the day to commemorate his birthday guarantees that the holiday will never fall on his actual birthday.

The holiday has unofficially come to be celebrated as Presidents Day, in honor of all past U.S. presidents.

If this coming weekend is Presidents Day weekend, it’s time for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

The 22nd annual Great Backyard Bird Count, or GBBC for short, will take place this weekend, from Friday, February 15 through Monday, February 18. Volunteers from around the world are invited to count the birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the weekend and then enter their checklists at birdcount.org.

Anyone with internet access can participate, no matter what their skill level might be. It’s a great opportunity for a family to take a walk around the neighborhood or a park to see what kinds of birds are in the area and to report their findings.

Dr. Gary Langham, vice president and chief scientist of the National Audubon Society says, “The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way for all bird watchers to contribute to a global database of bird populations. Participants in the GBBC help scientists understand how things like climate change are impacting bird populations so we can better inform our conservation efforts.”

I’m not a birder, meaning someone who maintains detailed checklists of bird sightings, though I do enjoy watching birds in our environment, not to mention hunting game birds. Casual studies of birds enrich the experience of our outings.

For example, one weekend last summer when we were camping on the upper Big Hole River, every morning a bunch of bluebirds would check out our campsite, probably looking for crumbs from a picnic dinner the night before. It made a good weekend on the river even more fun.

So, take an escape from winter boredom and get outside, look around and keep track of what birds you see. Then get on the internet and report your findings. It’s easy, it’s fun, and you can contribute to scientific knowledge in the process.

On the topic of presidents, our current president has nominated David Bernhardt to replace Montana’s Ryan Zinke as Secretary of Interior. Zinke, we’ll recall, was forced to resign in December because of all the scandals swirling around him.

David Bernhardt, nominee for SecInt. Sierra Club photo.

David Bernhardt is currently Deputy Secretary, the No . 2 job at Interior, and during his year and a half on the job has worked hard to roll back environmental regulations and accelerate oil and gas leasing on public lands.

Bernhardt is a long-time lobbyist who has worked to expand oil and gas drilling on Interior lands. He was previously an Interior lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, and as the Washington Post reported, “Bernhard has made it his mission to master legal and policy arcane to advance conservative policy goals.”

After returning to Interior, after being a partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Bernhardt had so many conflicts of interest that he carries a card with him listing his former clients so he would have a reminder on when he needs to recuse himself. Some 26 companies were listed initially, though a few companies have dropped off.

Bernhardt’s “cheat sheet” listing companies with a conflict of interest. Still, I’d give him credit for recognizing there are such things as conflicts of interest. Washington Post photo.

During the recent government shutdown, Bernhardt came up with special tactics to ensure oil and gas drillers could continue to get permits during the shutdown.

While many environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, oppose his nomination, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation announced that it would support confirmation. Safari Club International sent an email sounding almost rapturous about having him in Interior’s top job.

Republicans control the Senate, so Bernhardt is almost assured of confirmation, though it’s likely he’s going to face rigorous questioning in the process.

Meateater Cookbook and other Suggestions

Steve Rinella’s Meateater cookbook – a good start for wild game – from the field to the kitchen.

The autumn and early winter months are the time many of us put meat in the freezer. Now is the time to celebrate the bounty of those hunts on the dining room table.

I think we often have a tendency to cook game the same way every time someone takes one of those packages of venison, or birds, or fish out of the freezer.

A few years ago, our church used to hold an annual wild game dinner we’d refer to as the “Beast Feast.” We had some good dinners, though I’d occasionally come home thinking that a dozen variations of pot roast was a bit much, and I would have loved an elk roast, for example, grilled over charcoal to medium rare and served with horseradish sauce.

Similarly, many always cook pheasants in a slow cooker along with a can or two of cream of mushroom soup. The results may be delicious, but not particularly adventurous.

For this reason I like to keep my eyes open for new recipes, or new cookbooks that help us branch out a bit when we put wild game on the table. One prolific cookbook author is Hank Shaw, whose background is in food journalism and cooking. He has four cookbooks out, covering waterfowl, big game, and small game. Check his website at https://honest-food.net. I’ll also give a shout-out for Montana cookbook author Eileen Clarke. Check https://riflesandrecipes.com.

The latest game cookbook comes from Steven Rinella, who has had TV shows on cable networks, currently on Netflix, and his book is The Meateater Fish and Game Cookbook.

Rinella has several other books to his credit, but I liked this one, as it covers a variety of wild foods, from crayfish and bullfrogs, fresh and saltwater fish, upland birds, waterfowl, small game such as rabbits and squirrels, and big game. People who have watched his TV programs or YouTube videos are likely familiar with his themes of public land hunting followed by cooking the products of the hunt, often featuring how to utilize parts of critters that often get left in the field for the coyotes and magpies to clean up.

This cookbook has a lot of basics, such as step-by-step directions of field dressing fallen game, butchering—both at home or out in the field when necessary. Each section has similar themes, such as filleting fish, plucking ducks or skinning squirrels, along with recipes for fish and game.

One of the recipes I tried from the book was Osso Bucco, a traditional Italian dish usually made from veal shanks. This one was for deer shanks, with suggestions for modifying the recipe for larger animals, such as elk or moose, or smaller ones such as antelope. He comments that, “I haven’t yet met a shank I don’t like.” The Osso Bucco that I made from whitetail deer shanks turned out tender and delicious, with a marvelous pan sauce. He suggests serving it with polenta and a gremolata sauce as a condiment, and includes recipes for both polenta and gremolata sauce in a separate section.

I’d suggest that this isn’t a complete cookbook, in that there aren’t a lot of recipes in section, as much as guidelines for cooking. It strikes me that this would be a great cookbook for someone who does something of everything but is still learning. There are lots of cookbooks but not many have detailed directions for butchering a snapping turtle, for example. The next step might be to check some other of Rinella’s books, or many other books.

There are, as mentioned previously, other fish and game cookbooks on the market, not to mention books from years past that are probably out of print, but might be found at a used book bookstore or garage sale. In addition, you can likely find a recipe for cooking just about anything, or combination of things, by doing an online search on the internet.

Hunting, whether for upland birds or big game, can be an adventure. I like to celebrate success in the field with a little adventure in the kitchen.

Flyfishing Fantasies and Thinking of Summer

Logo of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited

The last couple weeks, in the depths of winter, I’ve been watching tennis from the Australian Open from Melbourne, Australia, where it’s mid-summer. Sorry to say, I couldn’t stay awake through the wee hours to catch some of the marquee matches that started around 1 a.m.

I’ve also spent a couple afternoons learning to tie some different trout flies. I remember reading about a professional flytyer who figured he really hadn’t learned a new fly pattern until he’d tied a hundred dozen of them. Sorry to say, as a hobby tyer, I won’t live long enough to tie a hundred dozen flies, much less have patience to crank out a hundred dozen of anything.

Still, that doesn’t stop me from trying to imitate other peoples’ imitations of nature or whimsy as to what might trick a trout into biting a bit of fakery.

While watching tennis from the other end of the world or tying flies won’t make it summer, and to be clear, we need cold, snowy weather now, there are events coming up that help us cope with winter.

First is the annual Fly Fishing Film Tour of 2019, or F3T, the annual celebration of fly-fishing filmmaking. It’s a sad fact of life, but most of us will likely never go to dream destinations around the world in search of fishing adventure. But, it’s easy to go to a theater and enjoy an evening of vicarious adventure.

This year, the F3T show will be on the evening of Saturday, February 9, at the Mother Lode Theater in Butte. The local showing is sponsored by The Stone Fly fly shop here in Butte, and you can stop in at the store for more information or advance tickets. For information on other showings in Montana and around the country, go to https://flyfilmtour.com.

The other big event is the annual fundraising banquet of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, scheduled for Friday, March 1, 2019, at the Copper King Hotel and Convention Center.

The TU dinner is like most conservation group fundraisers, with a great dinner, with raffles, games, drawings, silent and live auctions, all with the goal of having a fun evening while you spend money relatively painlessly.

I’ve been to a lot of these dinners over the years, for various organizations, but the TU dinner is always one of my favorites, as so much of the fly-fishing merchandise is stuff that I like and use. More importantly, the funds raised by TU are used to fund conservation projects right here in southwest Montana.

While the banquet committee sent out a mailing to alert people about the upcoming event, all the advance ticket sales are done online, and as of a week ago, the event sold out. If you want to get on a waiting list in case of cancellations, go to www.georgegranttu.org. Mark Thompson, the current president of GGTU says, “It’s going to be huge!”

While we might daydream of fun on tennis courts or trout streams, we keep returning to reality, and a reality that keeps getting bigger and more ominous is the government shutdown, which has now gone over a month.

As a retired federal employee, I’m concerned for my brothers and sisters in the federal service who are either at home, or on the job and working without pay. Unlike the president or most of the people in Congress, these are people who work for a living and need a regular paycheck to pay for food, housing, childcare, college tuition, student loans and all the various demands that working people face.

Some readers may choose to disagree, but I put the blame on the shutdown on the chief resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.

Regardless of who gets the blame, the work of the people is not getting done, and even with agencies that are open, things are grinding to a halt as agencies run out of resources. Even when the shutdown finally ends, there will be huge backlogs of work. It could take years to fully recover.

Note: the above commentary on the government shutdown were written and submitted to the newspaper I write for prior to the shutdown. I’m hoping Congress can come to some agreement and convince the president to accept it. This nation cannot afford another shutdown such as we just had.

Montanans Rally for Public Lands

Statues of Mike and Maureen Mansfield at Montana State Capitol

Mike and Maureen Mansfield had lots of company when supporters of Montana’s public lands visited Montana’s state capitol on January 11.

Of course, it was the bronze statues of Montana’s former senator, ambassador to Japan, and revered elder statesman, and his beloved wife, whom Mike Mansfield always credited for whatever success he had in public life.

The Mansfield statues are on a third floor gallery overlooking the main floor of the capitol rotunda where advocates for public lands crowded in to hear from Governor Steve Bullock, Senator Jon Tester and others proclaim their support for Montana’s Federal public lands.

News reports estimated that about 2,000 people came to the rally. I can’t verify that count, but I can say that the capitol, from the ground floor entrances to the top galleries near the capitol’s dome were jam-packed with people from all over the state, who came by bus or car pool to show their support for public lands, and to send a message to the Legislature that they’d better not take up any legislation that would tamper with those lands.

Part of the crowd at the capitol, and the many signs.

Many of the people in the crowd came with signs, some supplied by organizations, plus many that were probably created on kitchen tables the night before the rally. The signs bore various messages, such as “I (heart) Public Land,” “Montana is for Public Land Owners,” or “Keep Public Lands in Public Hands.” One sign bore a photo of President Theodore Roosevelt, saying, “What Would T.R. Think?” Another asserted, “Cliven Bundy owes you and me a lot of money.”

People came to whoop it up a bit, with lots of cheering and yelling when speakers put out applause lines. There were also some varying agendas, as occasionally a voice would ring out, “Let the buffalo roam free!”

Senator Tester was a surprise speaker, who was able to be on hand because Congress, in deadlock on funding the federal government, took a recess for the weekend.

While there were great messages from many speakers, Governor Bullock sent the audience members home cheering. Here are a few of his applause lines.

“We’re here to celebrate our public lands, and we have something to celebrate. There are over 3,000 bills in the legislative hopper and not a one would take away our public lands.”

“Make your voices known. Our public lands are our heritage and birthright!”

“We estimate that our public lands generate some $7.1 billion dollars for our economy.” Noting numbers of people who visit Montana, he added, “They ain’t coming here for our Walmarts!”

The governor, who will be term-limited in 2020, is considered a dark horse candidate for the 2020 presidential race though he hasn’t made any formal announcements, addressed some actions by the president, including the downsizing of some National Monuments, “We have a president who consistently attacks our public lands. An attack on public lands anywhere is an attack on public lands everywhere.”

Bullock ended with a pledge of opposition to any actions that could transfer ownership of Montana public lands, “It ain’t gonna happen on my watch,” adding, “It’s not just on my watch, it’s on OUR watch.”

Governor Steve Bullock greeting well-wishers following his speech to the crowd.

While some legislators made a point of circulating through the crowds, State Senator Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls), vice chair of the Montana Republican Party and an activist for transferring Federal public lands, was likely not one of them.

As reported by Don Pogreba of the online politics junkie site, The Montana Post, Fielder asked for and received a security detail from the legislature’s Sergeant at Arms to protect her from what she described on Facebook as “possible hostilities at a large protest at the State Capitol.” She had edited out a previous post referring to the crowd as “rabble.”

That makes me wonder what’s going to happen when Steve Bullock leaves the governor’s office in 2021. Regardless of which political party the next governor comes from, will he or she have the same commitment and passion for Montana’s public lands?

That’s something we need to keep in mind as gubernatorial candidates start popping up in coming months.

Winter Fun and Thoughts of Spring

Typical scenery on Montana’s beautiful Smith River.

We’re in the heart of winter, when days are still short, most days are cold, and hunting seasons are over.

Take heart! Spring is coming. Every day, sunset comes a couple minutes later. The ultimate proof is that I just got my first gardening catalog of the season.

Another sign of spring is that this is the period for applying for a Smith River Private Float Permit.

A float trip on the Smith River is one of the ultimate Montana outdoor experiences; a chance to truly get away from it all.

For the benefit of the few people not familiar with the Smith River, it’s a tributary of the Missouri River, merging with the big river near Ulm, south of Great Falls. The heart of the Smith River, a 59-mile stretch from near White Sulphur Springs, to Eden Bridge, upstream from the confluence, is basically accessible only by floating the river, and to float the river you have to enter a lottery.

It’s not exactly a wilderness trip, as much of the route is in ranching country, with some occasional trophy homes along the river, and even a small golf course midway through the trip.

The scenery is stunning, with high cliffs that tower over the river, including areas with ancient petroglyphs. There’s abundant wildlife along the river, including black bears, which means you need to protect your food supply when you set up camp for the night.

It’s a camping trip, with river campsites along the route, which means you can’t dawdle along, because you have to cover around 15 to 20 miles daily. But, not to worry, there’s plenty of time for fishing and the fishing can be great.

The deadline for entering the lottery is midnight on February 14. Applications can be submitted on-line or by mail.

A small number of outfitters are licensed to provide guided trips on the river, as well. Going with an outfitter is a good way to simplify the logistics of the trip, as they’ll take care of all the food and such complexities. All it takes is money.

For more information and details, go online to stateparks.mt.gov.

While we dream of spring and warm days, a better option might be to take advantage of winter recreation, and there are abundant opportunities for outings in our part of Montana, and this weekend’s Snöflinga festival is a good start.

Lots of people love ice fishing, and believe nothing’s better than to spend a day on a frozen lake angling for trout, or whatever the lake might provide. Popular ice fishing destinations in this area include Georgetown Lake, Canyon Ferry Lake, Lewis & Clark Canyon, Ruby Reservoir, and others.

Standing out on a frozen lake can be a cold and windy proposition, though a portable shelter and propane heater can take the misery out of the outing.

Surrounded as we are by snowy mountains, we have lots of options for skiing, both cross-country and downhill.

Within an hour or so, we have Discovery Basin ski area between Anaconda and Philipsburg, or Maverick ski area west of Dillon. There’s Bridger just out of Bozeman, or for the big ski resort experience, there’s Big Sky an hour south of Bozeman.

For cross-country skiing, it can be as simple as a local golf course, or following groomed trails at the Moulton x-c area north of Walkerville, or the Mt. Haggin cross country area, probably the only such developed recreation area wholly within a Wildlife Management Area.

Of course, there are the die-hards who scorn cold weather and put on waders and head for open river water for fly-fishing. I don’t county myself in that group, though in mild winters, and this is shaping up to be a classical El Niño winter, we can get mild days, even in January, when fly-fishing can be an enjoyable outing.

Even if the regular hunting seasons are over, there are hunting opportunities for non-game animals such as rabbits. Cottontail rabbits are relatively plentiful—and delicious.

In short, don’t get the cabin fever blues. Go out and have fun.

Last Call for Birds!

Kiri working some heavy cover for pheasants.

The clock is ticking, and it’s not just for the brand new baby we call 2019.

The upland bird season ended a week ago, on New Year’s Day. I stayed home and tried to stay warm on that subzero day. I did get out for one last pheasant outing a few days earlier, however.

I guess if I had someone filming my life, as it seems all klutzy people do, posting the results on Facebook, the day might end up in some series of outtakes from the life of an unlucky pheasant hunter.

I’d object, as the day was more about how smart and wary pheasants are in the middle of winter. These are birds that have honed their senses and survival skills to a fine edge.

A few glimpses into the outing might indicate how my day went.

Just before I turned off the gravel road to drive into the ranch I was hunting, I spotted a rooster pheasant in the middle of the road about 20 yards ahead of my truck. While I was watching this pheasant, another rooster flushed from a Russian olive tree on the side of the road and flew into a sagebrush patch in the field I was going to hunt.

I parked the truck and quietly got out and then let Kiri, my Labrador retriever out and we approached the brush patch. There were pheasant tracks everywhere. We got perhaps 20 yards into the brush when cock pheasants began flushing out of range.

It occurred to me that these pheasants must have watched some old W. C. Fields movies on some hidden TV set back in the brush jungles. “Never give a sucker an even break, “ was one of Fields’ favorite lines, using it in several movies, including his last starring movie in 1941, when that line was the movie title.

During the course of our walk through brush patches, cattails, sagebrush and willows, we put up more pheasants, again all out of range. We finally got to a grassy swale where half a dozen pheasants got up in good shooting range one at a time. The only problem was that they were all hens.

The sun was beginning to slip behind the mountains to the west when four rooster pheasants flushed from around 100 yards ahead of us, flying to a cattail patch another 100 or so yards ahead. When Kiri and I got there, the birds were gone, having slipped off to parts unknown.

I saw a pheasant fly into tall grass not too far away, but when we got there it was gone—not even a hint of scent that might have gotten Kiri excited. Yes, never give a sucker an even break.

We were in the shadow of the mountains, with temperatures dropping, when we completed our walk, and, for all intents and purposes, the 2018 upland bird season.

As I noted in last week’s column, this hadn’t been a particularly productive season in terms of potential dinners in the freezer. Still, as I look back to the annual trek through the seasons from late summer to autumn and, finally, winter, I feel good about it.

My birthday falls in October, usually in the first week or so of pheasant season, so I have annual reminders that I’d better enjoy this hunting season, because it’s a good question how many seasons I have left.

So, I feel good that I’m still hiking the aspen thickets in the mountains, and the prairies of Montana and North Dakota. I’m still thrilled and startled by the flush of a grouse or pheasant. I enjoy the sight of a Labrador retriever working out the scent of a game bird.

When you read this I will be looking at one more, final, outing for some mallards, though there are never guarantees for success. Nevertheless it’s personally important to be out there, trudging across that frozen tundra before the seasons are all done.

It’s a long time until September.