Elk Regs Highlight Meetings

FWP wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori ponders audience comments.

Heavy snow falling in the early evening, a week ago, didn’t discourage attendance at a public meeting to discuss changes in hunting season regulations for the next two hunting seasons. It was standing room only at the Butte Brewing Company conference rooms as Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks people outlined plans for the coming seasons. 

Butte-based wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori and Dean Waltee, a Sheridan-based biologist, were the main presenters. Craig Fager, a Dillon-based biologist, was noticeably absent for this round of meetings, as he retired in 2019 after a long career with the department.

Not surprisingly, elk regulations draw the most discussion, and the most passionate discussion among most of the attendees, many of whom were Skyline Sportsmen leaders and members.

Also, not surprisingly, elk shoulder seasons drew extensive discussion. 

Shoulder seasons, meaning early and late seasons for cow elk on private lands have been tried, now, for several years, following a legislative mandate to reduce elk populations in hunting districts that had large numbers of elk exceeding department management goals. 

The big conundrum in elk management is that elk learn where hunters are and aren’t, and head for private land where hunter access is limited. This is further complicated by many large ranches getting leased by outfitters, or ranchers, themselves, operating fee hunting operations. Audience members piped in with dollar figures for trophy bull elk ranging from $5,000 to $15,000. 

While it isn’t clear whether shoulder seasons have been successful in reducing elk numbers, it was abundantly clear, from a show of hands, that people attending the meeting oppose shoulder seasons.

The 2019 Montana Legislature passed a bill that would allow some hunters to purchase a 3rd elk license to be used in districts with an excess elk population. By another show of hands, attendees expressed disapproval of any hunter being able to harvest three elk in a season.

Another strategy to reduce elk numbers could be to offer more Elk B (antlerless) licenses. Dean Waltee was recommending the creation of 500 B licenses for District 333, for hunts on private land. An audience member asked if the district could afford a harvest of 500 cow elk. Waltee responded that he’d best his last dollar that it wouldn’t happen. A more likely estimate is that 500 B tag holders would harvest around 60 to 65 elk. 

Boccadori mentioned that the Region 3 elk plan is now 15 years old, and it is now under study and a new plan will be drawn up in the next two years.

There was also extended discussion about mule deer management, and a long decline in mule deer numbers since a high point in the 1960s. Some people were suggesting 4-point or better restrictions on mule deer bucks. The biologists responded that these restrictions have been tried in some areas but found unsatisfactory. There was wastage of deer that some hunters shot and left because they had gotten an undersized deer. At the other end of the spectrum, some bucks were dying of old age.

There were small changes proposed for other game species such as moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. In response to a question as to a reduction in goat licenses affecting license revenues, Boccadori icily responded, “We do not manage wildlife to maximize license dollars.”

FWP biologist, Dean Waltee, Sheridan MT.

After the meeting I talked with biologist Dean Waltee about the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease among whitetail deer in the Sheridan area. He said there is a lot of concern around the community and he has had many discussions with area landowners who are anxious to work with FWP to reduce deer numbers. An underlying problem is figuring how many hunters can be on the land without safety issues. One possibility is to lengthen the hunting season to increase harvest.

The full listing of statewide Department proposals is available at the FWP website, and the comment period is now extended to 5 p.m. on January 27.

The Montana hunting seasons are now mostly over, but the seasons for planning, discussion and arguing about wildlife management never end.

Winter Activities While Waiting for Spring!

Setting up camp on the Smith River – on of Montana’s premier trips.

We’re coming into the longest part of the year: the interim between regular hunting seasons and the beginning of serious fishing. 

That interim gets blurred, of course, what with elk shoulder seasons, ice fishing and even fly-fishing on mild winter days. There are some hardy souls that go fly-fishing when it’s 20º below zero. I’m afraid I’m not that dedicated. I can take standing in cold water for a while, but I like to have some warmer air and sunshine when I come out of the river.

The waterfowl season, here in the Pacific Flyway areas of Montana, ends at sundown today, the last of the general hunting seasons. But, for our wildlife agencies, things are just warming up. 

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is currently holding public meetings across the state to outline the agency’s proposals for the next two years’ hunting seasons. The meeting for Butte was held last night and I plan to have a report on that meeting in next week’s column. If you weren’t able to attend a meeting, there are summaries of agency proposals at the FWP website, and you can make written comments through January 22.

There are many fun things to do in Montana and one of the top items is a float trip on the Smith River. It’s a 59-mile trip through mountain canyons from near White Sulfur Springs to Eden Bridge near Ulm. It’s a paddling and camping trip that takes about four days. It’s a unique trip in that floating on the river is mostly through applying for a permit, or booking a trip through an outfitter. You could be really lucky and get invited to join on a float trip by someone who has drawn one of the precious permits. In any event, now is the time to apply for permits for the 2020 season. The deadline for applying for a Smith River permit is February 13. You can do it online.

Late winter and early spring months are usually the period for conservation groups to hold fundraising banquets. The George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited will have their annual banquet on Friday, March 13. I invite representatives from other groups to fill me in on your group’s banquet dates, and I’ll help you spread the word. 

Along that line, I look at these cold winter months as the season for fly-tying. I enjoy quiet winter afternoons in the basement room of our house that we jokingly call my fly-tying room. It’s also the dog’s bedroom, reloading room, and a catch-all for skis, hunting equipment, and odds and ends. I’m going to learn some new fly patterns, as well as refresh my stock of flies for the coming fishing season. I often think I should just dump all my old flies and start from scratch. Back in September I actually got a start on that, when I couldn’t find a fly box full of little nymphs and soft-hackle wet flies. It turned out I’d just put it in a different pocket of my vest. I was a lot happier about that than thinking of many hours worth of fly-tying floating down the Big Hole River.

I’ve actually been the lucky finder of several fly boxes that other people have dropped and lost on river banks over the years so I’d have no reason to complain if I lost a fly box, but I’d rather not.

Finally, if you’re in need of a hunting outing, this is a good time for a different kind of hunting trip. Winter is a good time to take some quiet strolls through sagebrush patches in search of cottontail rabbits. You don’t need fancy equipment. A .22 rifle is all you need for harvesting bunnies, and cottontail rabbits are great eating. There are no closed seasons for bunnies and you’ll probably be the only hunter within 20 miles—maybe 200.

This is also a good time for winter sports, such as skiing and skating. We live in a region with long winters. We might as well enjoy it. 

Hunting Seasons Winding Down

Kiri hard at work in pheasant cover.

Last Wednesday was significant for two reasons: it was the first day of 2020, but also the last day of the upland bird hunting season. 

As is usually the case, my upland bird season kind of limped to an end, marked with frustration and failure. 

On the bright side, I saw a bunch of pheasants on my last outing, though, as is often the case, these late-season pheasants were survivors, with nerves and reflexes honed to a razor’s edge. They were getting up 50 to 100 yards out, and weren’t about to wait around to hold in heavy cover where they could be sniffed out and flushed by my dog in convenient shooting range.

I fired my gun once at a quickly disappearing rooster, more out of desperation to shoot my gun one last time in 2019 than any realistic hope of dropping that bird. 

Actually, that’s kind of how the whole season went, including my last outing for ruffed grouse in early November, before my mountain spots were buried in heavy snow. My Lab, Kiri, and I had just about completed a big circle of a grouse covert that has long been a favorite, if a frustrating favorite.

I was kind of expecting to see some birds in this part of the covert, and sure enough they were there. A ruffed grouse flushed from about 30 yards away, on a gentle hillside above the trail I was following. I made a hurried shot at it and missed. I opened my over and under shotgun to reload, and while my gun was open another grouse flushed within a few feet from where the first grouse flushed.

A moment later, Kiri was running at full speed along a little creek bottom below me, in mad pursuit of a grouse that was half running and half flying through the heavy brush. I couldn’t shoot because I might hit Kiri. Then the grouse broke out into the open and I finally got a shot at it, and, you guessed it, missed.

These birds are now safe from hunters, or at least the two-legged kind. If you’re a pheasant or a grouse, you’re always at the relatively low end of the food chain and there are always predators on the lookout for a chicken dinner. That’s a basic fact of life in the wild.

While the upland bird hunting season is over, there are still a few days left in the waterfowl season. 

Here in the Pacific Flyway portions of Montana, roughly west of a line from Havre to Livingston, the waterfowl season closed, temporarily, on January 5. It reopens on Saturday, January 11 and will run through Wednesday, January 15, before closing for good. The season ending dates in the Central Flyway areas of eastern Montana are somewhat different, and there are two zones. If you’re planning on a last-ditch goose or duck hunting trip to eastern Montana be sure to check the regulations.

If I seem to be griping about a general lack of success in this year’s hunting seasons, you can take my gripes with a grain of salt. There are more measures to success in hunting outings than meat in the freezer. 

I take a lot of pleasure in being in the mountains and prairies during the long season starting in late summer and ending in mid-winter. I enjoy the changing of colors as the aspen thickets turn to gold at the end of September. This season was a bit different, as early cold weather put a premature end to fall colors. 

It’s always fun to see wildlife, even if it’s not what I’m hunting at the time, such as a number of whitetail deer on my last pheasant outing, or moose on an October grouse hunt.

I celebrated a milestone birthday during the hunting season and I feel fortunate that I’m still wandering with my Labrador retriever in search of pheasants and ducks. I’m looking forward to one more duck hunt this coming week, and, good lord willing, the opening of grouse season in September.

2019’s Top Outdoor Stories

2019 snow at its best, at Discovery Basin Ski Area

We’re at the cusp of the changing of the year, as we take the 2019 calendars down and put up new 2020 calendars, full of days without appointments, trips, or deadlines cluttering up the spaces. That changes in a hurry, of course. 

I won’t say that we begin a new decade. I’m one of those curmudgeons that insist that we start new decades with the year ending with a one, not a zero. 2020 is the tenth year of the decade, not the first year of the new decade. Of course, other curmudgeons could claim, with equal accuracy, you can begin a decade on any darned year you choose—to which I say, “Bah, humbug!”

Journalists often use these last, or first, columns of the year to sum up the year just completed, and that’s this week’s theme, with emphasis on Montana’s great outdoors.

As always, weather has the first and last word on our outdoor experiences here in Montana. From that standpoint, 2019 was a nasty year. We started the year with a lot of snow and cold. It was a winter that tested the quality of wildlife habitat, as four-legged and winged critters struggled to survive in the deep snows. Of course, from the standpoint of winter sports, it was great. I enjoyed some great skiing days in February and March.

Winter gradually gave way to spring and summer, though it was hard to tell at times, especially on June 21, the Sumer Solstice, when Kiri, my black Labrador retriever, and I huddled under a tree on the edge of the Big Hole River waiting for a snow squall to subside, happy that I wasn’t on one of the drift boats sailing by.

2019 snow at its most unwelcome time – on ripening apples in late September

Winter returned early, with major snowstorms in late September, early October, and, again, in late October, with subzero temps making life miserable for a lot of people in elk camps across western Montana. 

The other side of the coin was that late winter storms and a relatively chilly summer helped area rivers maintain healthy flows through the summer months and there were relatively few fishing closures.

If Old Man Winter went a little crazy in Montana in 2019, one of the year’s biggest stories wasn’t the weather. It wasn’t a bacteria or a virus. It’s something that a non-scientist, not to mention lots of scientists, would have trouble wrapping their heads around. It’s a misfolded protein, of all things, called a prion. But that misfolded protein is the culprit in the growing threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

CWD was first found in wild cervids (deer, elk, and moose) in 2017 in south central and north central areas of Montana. That term, wild, is significant. Over 20 years ago, a captive elk herd in the Phlipsburg area was found to be infected with CWD, and was destroyed. The 2017 discovery of CWD among wild deer was a serious wake-up call to wildlife managers, hunters, and anyone concerned with wildlife.

Since then, another CWD hotbed was found in the Libby area in northwest Montana. This year, CWD-infected elk and moose have also been found. If we felt some sense of security here in southwest Montana, the recent discovery of an infected white-tailed deer in the Sheridan area destroyed that notion. 

The grim reality is that CWD is now well established in Montana and it is spreading. Mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, and moose are all at risk for exposure and infection. Can CWD in wild cervids spread to domestic livestock? Or bighorn sheep, mountain goats, or pronghorn? That’s what some might call known unknowns. 

In any event, don’t be surprised if, regardless of where we hunt in Montana, that mandatory testing of all hunter-harvested cervids will become a new reality in the next few years. 

Despite bad weather and chronic wasting disease, I’m grateful for another year of being able to fish and hunt in Montana. 

Good lord willing, I’m looking forward to many more days afield in 2020, though I still reserve the right to grumble about the weather.

A Christmas Eve Walk

A Christmas Eve stroll with Kiri.

It’s Christmas Eve and mentally I usually go for a walk back in time.

Many years have come and gone since those pre-adolescent years when, after I’d completed my farm chores, I’d whistle up Buddy, our Great Pyrenees farm dog to go for a walk away from the farm buildings.

Rural areas were a lot darker back then, before every farm would have a mercury vapor light blazing away through the night. On a dark, moonless night, such as this year’s Christmas Eve, we might see a glow of light from the windows of neighboring farmhouses; perhaps some colored lights from a Christmas tree. If skies were clear, however, the snowy landscape would be plainly visible by starlight.

On those clear evenings, I’d be looking to find that big star in the sky that guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem. I’m afraid I never found that star, though I’d easily find my talisman, the constellation of Orion the Hunter.

The walk doesn’t last long, as I have to get to the house and get ready for dinner. Our Christmas Eve gatherings usually included my maternal grandmother and my bachelor uncle Harold, and my other uncle, Reuben, and his wife and son. These Christmas Eve gatherings rotated among the three homes. As these things sometimes work, these Christmas Eve gatherings never included my dad’s sister and brother and their families, who had also immigrated from Norway and lived relatively nearby.

Our Christmas Eve dinners always included lutefisk, that Scandinavian delicacy, the aroma of which filled the house, competing with the equally pungent aroma of manure-splattered overalls hanging on a hook in a corner of the kitchen. Fortunately, there were always other dishes, such as meatballs or roast beef, to go with the lutefisk. I always declined the lutefisk course, agreeing with my uncle Harold, who always proclaimed, “Anything that turns silverware green cannot possibly be fit to eat.” 

Before the dishes were passed, however, my grandmother would read the Christmas gospel from Luke. In her Norwegian accent, the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus were “clotes.”

With the advent of home freezers, some exotic items occasionally made their way into the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, such as corn on the cob, or strawberries for dessert, both from the bounty of the summer garden.

Eventually, with dinner dishes done and put away, everybody ended up in the living room where gifts were piled under the Christmas tree. I recall some gifts being somewhat utilitarian, such as the year my dad gave uncle Harold a small sack of alfalfa seed that he’d harvested from our farm. 

Later, gifts unwrapped, the company would go home, and after the wreckage of gift wrap and boxes was cleared away we’d be ready to for that “long winter’s nap” as Clement Moore’s poem called it. Dad liked to have a snack before bedtime, his favorite being leftover cold lutefisk, which he’d wrap in a piece of lefse. With fish juices from his lutefisk burrito dripping down on his pajama shirt, he was a happy man.

Returning to the present, I remind myself that aside, from my brother and a cousin, everybody that gathered for those family Christmas Eve dinners is long gone. 

I’ll still take a Christmas walk, though it’s in an urban neighborhood. My companion is a Labrador retriever, the fifth in a line of Labs going back almost 50 years. Our Christmas Eve dinners definitely don’t include lutefisk. My wife recalls her childhood Christmas Eve dinners also featured lutefisk until, one year, her father suggested that maybe they didn’t need lutefisk this time. My wife adds that oyster stew was also a tradition in her family until the Christmas when an oyster went rolling down his tie.

Some things stay the same. If Christmas falls near a full moon, Clement Moore’s poem still rings true, “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, Gave a luster of midday to objects below.”

After all these years, I still love the beauty of a winter night, with a full moon giving that “luster of midday to objects below,” and on dark nights, I still get my bearings from Orion the Hunter.

Winter Solstice and Climate Change

Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

These are the dark days of December, as we approach Chanukah, Christmas and the Winter Solstice. 

Most of the time, the daylight/nighttime hours change at the rate of around three minutes daily, but as we approach the Solstice, we inch forward and we measure the daily time difference in seconds. For example, on today, December 18, here in Butte, we have 8 hours, 38 minutes and 54 seconds from sunrise to sunset. Tomorrow we have 14 seconds less, and 9 seconds less on Friday. 

The Winter Solstice happens at 9:19 p.m. on Saturday, December 21, and we’ll have 8 hours, 38 minutes and 26 seconds on both Saturday and Sunday. Over the following week, days will start growing longer, though at first the difference will still be measured in seconds.

The interesting part of the end of December is that while there is little difference in daylight hours, with the daylight on New Year’s Eve Day just four minutes more than on the Solstice, sunrise will be four minutes later on December 31 than on the 21st, but sunset will be 7 minutes later, and that later sunset seems significant.

Many calendars mark the date of the Solstice as the first day of winter. Scientists refer to that as the astronomical beginning of winter, with the Summer Solstice the beginning of summer, and the equinoxes marking the beginning of spring and autumn.

In reality, another standard, Northern Meteorological Seasons, makes more sense, as in that measurement, winter begins on December 1, spring begins March 1, summer begins June 1, and autumn begins on September 1. 

When you consider a year such as 2019, when our first snowstorm of the season hit in late September, with almost unbelievable snowfall amounts on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, and Zero degree temps in early October, it seems kind of ridiculous to say that winter begins on December 21.

While the closing months of 2019 have seemed cold, we’d be mistaken to think that we’ve stopped climate change in its tracks. Consider the following information, as reported last week in the Washington Post.

In the arctic regions, climate change is truly alarming. In Greenland, home to a permanent ice sheet the size of Alaska, the ice is melting at an amazing rate. In the 1990s, Greenland lost around 33 billion tons of ice per year. Currently, the ice is melting at the rate of 254 billions of tons per year. Since 1992, Greenland has lost an estimated 4 trillion tons of ice. That volume of water is roughly equivalent to a global sea level rise of one centimeter. A centimeter is just less than half an inch, which may not sound like much, but a centimeter of sea level rise puts another 6 million people at risk for annual seasonal flooding.

At the current rate of melting, Greenland alone could contribute about 16 centimeters, about 6 inches, of sea level rise by the end of the century.

Another indicator is the melting of permafrost in the arctic regions of the world, including Alaska, Canada, Siberia and Greenland. Permafrost holds large amounts of carbon in the frozen soil, and as it melts, the soil releases large amounts of greenhouse house gases in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. This, of course, complicates human efforts to reduce greenhouse gases to combat climate change.

In fact, 2019 is shaping up to be the hottest year ever in Alaska. If you were standing on the shoreline of the Arctic Ocean at Nome, Alaska, last week, you would not be able to see any sea ice, which is highly unusual.

I’ll note that these reports don’t even mention ice pack losses in Antarctica. 

Continuing on this note, last week, Time magazine named Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg as 2019’s Person of the Year. I suspect that some will disagree and even be angered by the selection, but I look at it as a sign of hope that more people will take the issue of climate change more seriously in coming years.

Slobs Ruin Hunting!

Red wine venison stew, from the December 2019 issue of Food & Wine magazine. It’s a winner!

Now that the hunting season is winding down, we have to deal with some issues that come up during hunting season.

If we had a successful season, from the standpoint of having venison in the freezer, that’s a happy issue. I look at having birds and venison in the freezer as a wonderful opportunity to try new recipes, as well as old, reliable ways to convert those packages of frozen meat to dinners that make our mouths water. Every time I put wild game on the dining room table, it’s an occasion to celebrate those days in the field. 

Alas, there are other leftover issues and slobs are at the top of that list.

An egregious example is Earl Benes of Roundup, who dealt with a perceived annoyance at having to stop for a herd of elk crossing a road by pulling out a handgun and shooting a couple bull elk. A couple days later, he took issue with something a companion said, and shot another bull elk.

All three bull elk were left to rot. At least one of them was mortally wounded but still wandered off to die a long, miserable death.

This man wasn’t a hunter. He’s a slob and a criminal. In point of fact, he had previously lost hunting privileges because of a previous act of slobbery, in which he ran antelope down with his vehicle.

According to news reports, he may have to pay the state some $24,000 in restitution for the value of the bull elk. That’s just the beginning; Benes is facing 24 criminal counts, including eight felonies, with potential penalties of $278,000 in fines, and 83 years in jail or prison

This is an extreme case, of course. Not all slobs cause this much damage, and sometimes damage might have been just carelessness.

My daughter brought to my attention a Facebook posting from a farmer in the Shields River valley. After the hunting season he discovered four bullet holes in a grain bin. He complains, in his post, “Another hunting season come and gone and 4 bullet holes in a very expensive grain bin. Guess where they came from? Not from my side where the hunting pressure is managed but from g-d block management!”

In a long thread of comments, he explains that his farm borders another property that’s in the Block Management program, and that the stray bullets would have come from someone on that property. 

He mentions that he and some other landowners were going to have a meeting with a local game warden to discuss the problems, and concludes that he’s working hard get ready for winter, and is preparing to deliver his barley crop so it can be made into beer. “All my buildings and equipment are valuable to what I do and this kind of thing just costs me money and time.”

Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, conceded that, “Every hunting season we get some complaints. No landowner is immune from someone acting carelessly.” He agreed with the landowner bringing his complaints to the attention of a local game warden, “That’s the right thing to do, is talk to the local game wardens first.”

He added, “Until the dust settles after the end of the season, we don’t know if we have any more problems than usual. At this point we’ve had no indication of any uptick in problems.”

He also asserted that Montana’s Block Management program is successful. “It’s a flagship for wildlife agencies around the country. It provides hunter access to lands  (8 million acres and hundreds of landowners) that might not otherwise be open. The reason it’s successful is that it works.”

As a lifelong hunter, I’m all too aware that sometimes, in the excitement of the moment, we might do stupid things, such as, in this case, shooting without paying attention to distant farm buildings.

Don’t be a slob. Always be aware of where you are and don’t pull the trigger until you’re sure it’s legal and safe.

Successful Deer Season

A beautiful, big-bodied whitetail deer. The hunt is over and the work is just beginning.

Something not included in last week’s thoughts for Thanksgiving was gratitude for a successful conclusion to this year’s deer season. 

I’m usually not in any hurry to get out for big game hunting. As regular readers have probably observed, to my point of view, hunting outings that don’t involve carrying a shotgun and following a bird dog seem kind of pointless. Still, I like having venison in the freezer and on the dining room table, so most years a day or two of carrying a rifle is part of the season.

That day came a couple weeks ago, when my good friend, retired physician John Jacobson, and I took a drive to a southwestern Montana ranch for a hunting outing, getting there before sunrise.

It didn’t take long to see deer, as we watched some young, antlerless deer scamper about. My deer hunts are more about venison than antlers, so I have no qualms about taking an antlerless whitetail. But, if a deer looks small, it most likely is small and that doesn’t put much meat in the freezer.

We saw more deer as the morning progressed. I had hopes that a couple small bucks might offer me a shot, but they spooked off, probably because I did something that alerted them.

Most of the ranch is in a river bottom, with brush patches, cattail sloughs and tall grass, but there are rugged hills where we often see deer hiding away in secluded spots. The hills are barren, with not much growing there but scrubby grass and prickly pear cactus, not exactly classic whitetail deer country.

We stopped on top of a high hill to glass the countryside while we had some lunch. Lunch was forgotten when I put my binoculars on a suspicious-looking spot in a distant fence corner. “What’s in that fence corner?” I asked John. “Is it a llama?” That seemed ridiculous. The next thought was, “Is that a cow elk?” “No,” John concluded, “I think that’s a whitetail deer.”

We drove to the next hilltop, relieved to see that the deer was still there. While it was still out of shooting range, this time we could also determine there were antlers. I got out of the truck and started hoofing it in the direction of the deer, trying to stay out of view from that corner. I finally got to a little ridge on the hillside where I could get into a prone position; ignoring the prickly pear cactus I was laying on. To my surprise, two deer jumped up, a buck and a doe. I put the crosshairs on the buck and pulled the trigger. The deer went about 15 feet and collapsed. 

“Wow!” That was my main thought as I approached the deer. It might not rate in any kind of record book, but it had a good set of antlers, five on each side. Taking a closer look, a lot of the antler points were broken off, indicating the deer had a busy autumn defending his ranking in the local pecking order. Judging from the size of the deer’s body, I’d bet that he didn’t lose many fights.

After the shot, of course, is when the real work begins. I may not be a speed demon when it comes to field dressing a deer, but it still took two and a half hours from the time I shot to when we had the deer dressed out, dragged to the truck and loaded up. By that time I had worked up a pretty good appetite for that long-delayed sandwich.

Our daughter, Erin, came down from Helena the next day to help with the next phase of work, reducing a big deer carcass to packages ready for the freezer. The Thanksgiving turkey made an early exit from the freezer to make way for prime venison.

On Thanksgiving Day I gave thanks for the deer and meat in the freezer, though I fear that it’ll be Christmas before the last of the cactus spines work their way out of my legs.

An Outdoors Thanksgiving

Distant mountain peaks, seen from a ruffed grouse covert.

Tomorrow, our nation will again observe Thanksgiving Day; a holiday with roots going back to the 1600s, though not without some second thoughts about those fabled first Thanksgiving events that depict Pilgrims sitting down at the table with their Native American neighbors. 

The other side of the coin is that many thousands of Native Americans died from diseases brought by early European visitors, and in later years, as colonists increased in number, they made war on Native people, stole their lands and did all they could to wipe out Native people and culture.  In fact, descendants of Native American survivors, the United American Indians of New England, have, for many years, pushed for designation of Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning among Native Americans.

So, while the holiday is not necessarily festive for all Americans, for many, friends and families will be gathering tomorrow for a day of feasting, most likely on turkey, along with an array of traditional side dishes, such as sweet potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie, with occasional breaks for football, board games, or groaning from overeating.

While we might go overboard on consumption, at some point in many households, someone might suggest that everybody gathered around the festive table briefly say what they’re thankful for, generally causing an awkward pause as people search their minds for something to share, perhaps sending telepathic messages of annoyance at the instigator.

I’ve given the topic some advance thought, and am sharing some ideas that readers may feel free to adopt as their own, if necessary.

 First, I’m thankful for another year in the great outdoors. From January treks across frozen fields in search of ducks, to mountain ski slopes, fly-fishing on Montana trout streams, and autumn hikes across mountains and prairies. I’ll confess that not all of those outings were particularly successful as far as catching fish or harvesting game. Still, each day in the outdoors was memorable and worthwhile.

I’m thankful for the wild turkey I got in the spring of 2018 and which subsequently graced last year’s Thanksgiving table. I say this in apology to guests who might be looking for more of the same. I’ll confess that I was so happy to finally check that bird off my bucket list that I never really thought about looking for another one in 2019.

I’m thankful for the gift of aging. Both my wife and I hit significant birthdays this year and we are thankful for good health that enables us to continue living fully. I am acutely aware that this is not something to take for granted. 

While many people in Christian churches observe All Saints Day for this reason, I’ll still express thanks this week for friends and loved ones who left us this past year. While their absence may cause sadness or heartbreak in many homes tomorrow, we can be grateful for happy memories that will continue to comfort us in coming years.

A Big Hole River arctic grayling – a precious jewel of a fish.

I’m thankful for the wonders of Nature. There are too many to list here, but I’ll suggest, for starters, a rainbow after a rainstorm, or a spectacular sunset. The delicate shades of green on an early summer prairie, or the gold and orange foliage of a grove of aspens and the delicate colors and sparkles of a Big Hole River arctic grayling. Whether we’re looking at the grandeur of a snowcapped mountain, or the delicacy of a honeybee gathering nectar from an apple blossom, there is beauty and mystery everywhere.

A honeybee enjoying our apple blossoms.
A rather ill-tempered rattlesnake telling me, “It’s MY path! Go somewhere else!”

I’m even thankful for the rattlesnake that barred my path, one summer day, on a Big Hole riverbank. It’s good to be reminded that Nature isn’t always rainbows and apple blossoms. Much of the natural world comes with claws, fangs and thorns. The Revolutionary War flag that proclaimed, “Don’t Tread on Me,” still has meaning.

Finally, I’m thankful for the gathering of family and friends at tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast, while we also keep in mind that festive holidays such as Thanksgiving are a day of hurt and loneliness for some. May they find comfort and conciliation.

Russell Chatham – An Original

San Francisco Chronicle photo.

Where has the time gone?

It seems like it was just last weekend when Montana’s general season for deer and elk started, the beginning of the five-week season.

Don’t look now but time is running out. Next week we’ll observe the Thanksgiving holiday and at the end of the holiday weekend, at sundown on Sunday, December 1, the season will be over.

If you’re serious about having venison in the freezer, here’s a reminder that you’ve got just a week and a half to go.

Changing topics, I’ll note the death of Russell Chatham, one of those larger than life people who, much his friend, author Jim Harrison, went roaring through life, taking it all in like a grizzly bear before hibernation.

Russell Chatham had many facets. He was a renowned artist, acclaimed writer, skilled fly-fisher, restaurateur, publisher, and gourmand. That’s just for starters. In a foreword to Chatham’s book, Dark Waters, Nick Lyons described Chatham as “a voluptuous pilgrim, reveling in his senses.”

Chatham, age 80, died on November 10 in California in a memory care facility where he had, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, been dealing with dementia and other age-related illnesses. 

Chatham was the grandson of an artist, Gottardo Piazzoni, and grew up in Marin County, California. He was a skilled fly-fisherman and an expert on fly-fishing for salmon and steelhead in the rivers of northern California, while also building a career as an artist. In the 1970s, he moved to Livingston, Montana, and that’s where he hit his stride as a landscape artist, with his large, often huge, paintings that expressed moods as much as scenery. 

He also became part of what the Chronicle called “the Hollywood glamour of Bozeman and Livingston.” His circle of friends and patrons would include people such as Robert Redford, Tom McGuane, Ted Turner, Margot Kidder, and Jim Harrison. 

Chatham was a businessman, with an art gallery, Clark City Press, a small publishing business, and took over a defunct restaurant, the Livingston Bar and Grille. While he was an entrepreneur, he wasn’t a good money manager. Writer Rick Bass commented in a profile of Chatham, “No one I know is more of a financial wreck than Russell Chatham.”  In the 2008 recession he went broke, deep in tax debt, and in 2011 moved back to Marin, with, according to the Chronicle, “10 old T-shirts and a pair of overalls to paint in, and he was at peace.”

When I’ve brought home a duck or two from a hunt, and contemplate a duck dinner, I think of Chatham and a story he wrote about duck dinners, which he included in Dark Waters

Dark Waters, demonstrating both Chatham’s art and his writing.

Chatham liked to eat wild duck and he had strong opinions on how duck should be cooked. Duck should be roasted in a hot (500 degree) oven for no more than 20 minutes, then carved and served with a sauce made from duck stock, herbs and spices, and currants. He opens wine bottles, toasts French bread and rubs it with garlic cloves and butters it. “We are ready to eat. Before long, rice and sauce cover the table. French bread is torn loose. Each bite of rare, juicy meat is a new thrill…”

Dinner complete, he assesses the damage.

“Our wine glasses become increasingly grease-smeared as we pick up each carcass and suck it down to bare bone and gristle. We carelessly gulp the fancy vintages. Our shirt fronts are ruined. Juice and blood run from elbows onto knees and the floor. The room is blurred. We belch, fart, laugh and groan.” 

He muses on a date he missed because of the duck dinner. “As the carnage winds down I think about my date and wonder if it’s too late, but the face of the clock refuses to come into focus. I find a mirror and what I see reflected there can only be described as soiled.”

A memorable dinner, memorably described, along with some salacious thoughts about the woman he stood up (not included here). 

Russell Chatham, artist on canvas and the written word. Rest in peace.

Struggling Against the Hex!

A public land limit of rooster pheasants.

Beware the hex!

A week ago my wife and I were in Minot, North Dakota for a long weekend with our son, Kevin, and his family. Pheasant hunting was on the agenda, of course.

I knew the hex was coming, but I was a bit slow. As Kevin and I were ready to hit the road for a pheasant hunt, his wife, Jen, smiled sweetly and said, “Have fun. Don’t kill anything.”

I knew the curse was coming and as soon as I heard the words coming out of her mouth I raised my hands and made the sign of the cross with my index fingers and held it up to ward off the curse, the same as if Dracula was giving me the eye.

Nevertheless we hit the road for a wildlife management area on the shores of Lake Sakakawea, the big impoundment on the Missouri River. Much of the lake’s shoreline is managed by North Dakota Game & Fish as wildlife management areas. I’ve been hunting on that area for around 40 years, going back to when we lived in North Dakota.

It was a relatively mild and sunny day, perfect for a walk through pheasant cover. The only thing missing were pheasants. We’d made a long walk in one direction and now we were circling back for a lunch break.

Our son, Kevin, on the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea.

Finally, one of Kevin’s dogs flushed a rooster pheasant. Kevin swung on the bird, shot and missed. He kept swinging on the bird but I didn’t hear a second shot. A couple minutes later he showed me a shotgun shell. The primer had a dimple on it, but it didn’t fire. The firing pin made a soft hit on the primer, but didn’t hit it hard enough to fire the shell. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen often enough that it’s not rare.

We resumed our walk and my Lab, Kiri, put up a pheasant from a clump of trees and brush. I raised my gun and started swinging on the bird’s flight path. Then a tree branch caught my cap and the bill was suddenly in my eyes as the pheasant made a successful escape flight. 

I might have thought a nasty thought or two, but I couldn’t help but hoot with laughter. I’ve often missed shots at pheasants but this was the first time I couldn’t shoot because of sudden blindness.

We ended the hunt a little later when a pheasant flushed, just out of range, about 20 feet from where we’d started our walk a few hours earlier.

Kiri and I had hunted the same area a couple days earlier while Kevin was at work. On that day we ended the day with a limit of three nice rooster pheasants. The next day I got just one bird, in brutally cold and windy conditions. It was the only bird we put up on that walk and I felt lucky to have gotten that one.

Kevin and I went out again the next day, driving through rain and snow to get to the hunting area. In a three-hour walk we saw just one bird that flew away while still out of shooting range.

Back at the truck, we had a sandwich and discussed whether we were up to more walking. We finally decided, with soaking wet, cold feet, that we’d just as soon hit the road and go home and watch football.

We listened to the Minnesota Vikings/Kansas City Chiefs game on the radio on the way back, and we got into the house just in time to see the Chiefs score a last second field goal to defeat the Vikes. 

The hex had its last victim.

Pheasants and teasing aside, snow geese were the big show. The sky was frequently filled with waves of geese, or wheat fields turned white with thousands of geese feeding on spilled grain. The huge numbers of geese are an environmental problem in the Hudson’s Bay region in Canada, but it’s hard to watch those geese without a feeling of awe. 

Letters from Doughboys

Part of a treasure trove of letters home from American Doughboys.

“I think it looks terrible to see the guns and bayonets and to think that we are going to use them on other people but I hope we won’t get that far.” Alfred, August 11, 1918.

Sometime last year, Diane, my niece in Minnesota, sent me a box of stuff that somehow ended up with her. She and her husband were downsizing so she asked if she could send it to me. That box sat unopened for several months, waiting for a quiet winter afternoon.

Inside was a cornucopia of old family photos, yellowing newspapers, and other miscellany. Then there was a little packet of letters, and I was stunned at what I held in my hands. These were letters from George and Alfred Froyum, great-uncles I’d never known, brothers of my maternal grandmother. When the United States entered World War One, or the Great War, as it was called, they answered the call to service, and these were letters sent to my grandmother. To someone who majored in history, this was pure gold.

 The Great War started in 1914, though the U.S. didn’t enter the war until April 6, 1917. It takes a long time, however, to build an army. The Selective Service Act was passed and 2.8 million men were drafted and by the summer of 1918, we were sending 10,000 men to France daily.

Most of the letters were sent from training camps in the U.S., including the letter cited above. Here are some more quotes from the family Doughboys. I’ve tried to avoid editing of spelling and punctuation.

“As far as I have gone yet I don’t complain on anything. I have never been so healthy as I am at present.” George, Camp Lewis, Washington, June 5, 1918.

“The worst thing here is clothes washing you have to change underwear 2 times a week. When you are exercising in the field you get to take the outer shirt of sometimes and you will get all covered with Dust.” George, Camp Kearny, California, July 1, 1918.

“We don’t know when we go yet but it may not be so very long either…I s’pose it isn’t much worse to go across [on troop ship] than to stay any other place. And God is on the ocean just the same as on the land and if it’s his will that we should get through it all it’s nothing that will hurt us so I’m going to try and remember him at all times so that if I shouldn’t come back I pray that he will take me to him and hope to meet you all there.” Alfred, Camp Stuart, Virginia, August 21, 1918.

“There are a few cases of Spanish flu in Zumbrota…but not any around here…” Letter from my grandmother to George, October 27, 1918. The so-called Spanish flu was a world-wide pandemic that killed an estimated 40 to 50 million people. The close quarters and international travel of soldiers was considered a major factor in the spread of influenza.

“Well it is Sunday again today…so I will write a few lines to you. I just finished a letter to George too. I hear from him quite often now and hear he likes it good and is feeling well all the time.” Alfred, “Somewhere in France,” November 10, 1918. 54th Pioneer Infantry.

The 54th Infantry saw service in the Meuse-Argonne and Alsace campaigns in 1918.  Alfred’s letter was written the day before an Armistice went into effect, ending hostilities.

“Here are big steamers going up and down the river all day long so it’s fun to look at them. We always get good buildings to sleep in wherever we come, and at the present I’m in a school house…” Alfred, Koblenz Germany, December 30, 1918. Koblenz is a city on the Rhine River, where the 54th Infantry had occupation duty. Another letter was sent from Dormitz, Germany on March 19th, which, surprisingly, he wrote in Norwegian.

The letters don’t describe any combat, and both George and Alfred returned home in 1919, evidently without a scratch. In the 1920s, both men married and started families. In Alfred’s case, he married a 30-something widow, Ragnhild, my father ‘s sister. Their three children were what I’ve always thought of as my “double cousins.”

Both brothers, in family tradition, became farmers, and members of the American Legion post in Wanamingo, Minnesota. Tragically, according to brittle, yellowed newspaper obituaries, both brothers died relatively young. In 1937, George, age 42, suffered a fatal skull fracture in a fall. Alfred, age 51, died in 1941 from a cerebral hemorrhage. American Legion Posts provided military honors at their funerals.

Next Monday we observe Veterans Day, the 101st anniversary of that Armistice on November 11, 1918. Some people consider history a dry subject, but holding and reading these century-old letters brings an unexpectedly personal connection to that long-ago war.

Pheasants and Habitat

The Rocky Mountain Front from a Montana pheasant field.

“Kiri! Get back in the truck!”

My Lab, Kiri, and I had just gotten to a farm to chase pheasants. I was gearing up, putting on a windbreaker, vest, and getting my gun. I was watching this black cloud move across the river valley. Then the wind, already brisk, started roaring, blasting us with wind-driven rain and snow.

Within seconds of getting into the shelter of the truck the storm squall drenched the landscape with what the weather people call a wintry mix. It didn’t last long, however. Within 15 minutes the storm blew past, the sun came out, and Kiri and I got on with a pheasant walk.

If you’re visiting the Rocky Mountain Front you need to be prepared for a little wind—maybe a lot of wind, along with rapid changes in weather.

An October ritual is a trip to the Rocky Mountain Front to hunt pheasants, so we were well prepared for weather changes. I was also prepared to shoot at lots of pheasants, but sorry to say, that part of the trip didn’t work too well.

A lesson I’ve learned over the years is that cows and upland bird habitat just don’t mix well. Pheasants and other upland birds have pretty much the same basic needs as we do: food, water, and shelter. Take away any one of these elements and the chances are pheasants will go someplace else where their needs will be better met.

The first farm I hunted on our trip has been a long-time favorite. Over the years I’ve shot a lot of pheasants there. When I first drove in to my usual parking spot to start a pheasant walk, two long-tailed pheasant roosters trotted away from the grain bins, where they had been feeding. A hundred yards from the house they were pretty safe.

When I got out into the fields, I felt disappointment. The landowners don’t do the actual farming, but rent the fields to a neighboring farmer. The renter had harvested the barley crop and then turned some cattle out to graze on what was left after the crop had been harvested. By mid-October, the cows could put up their “Mission Accomplished” banner. The grassy and weedy edges at the ends of the fields were grazed down. Even worse, a corner of the farm that has a cattail slough and an adjacent area with tall grass and weeds, and patches of willows and other trees, was totally beaten down by the cattle. 

After a couple long walks through the few weed patches that could still shelter a pheasant we’d put up just one lone pheasant and that old rooster got up well out of shooting range. A third, and last, day was much like the first. Livestock had trampled the wildlife habitat and the pheasants were mostly gone. 

The prairie at sunset.

On the middle day I hunted a farm where the habitat was better, though that doesn’t guarantee anything. In our first walk, Kiri put up five pheasants, all in decent shooting range. Unfortunately, they were all protected hen pheasants. Hindsight being 20/20, however, that fifth bird might have been a rooster, I mused, as the bird flew out of sight. All I knew for sure is that I couldn’t pick out any colors when the bird flushed.

After a lunch break we tramped over another part of the farm, a hillside subdivided by a long coulee, with springs that create a marshy, brushy habitat. As we approached the first brush patch, Kiri caught a scent and went charging into the willows, and a couple seconds later half a dozen pheasants, both hens and roosters, burst out of the end of the patch, well out of shooting range, then flying over the fence line that marks the end of the property. Adding insult to injury, several more pheasants flushed from just over the fence and went over the hill. Later, I had shots at a couple roosters, but missed.

There are never guarantees, but if there is wildlife habitat on the land, there’s a good chance there will be wildife. 

Habitat is everything.

Montana’s Deer & Elk Seasons Begin – CWD is a threat.

A flashback to a successful deer hunt in 2017.

These next few days there will be an exodus from Montana’s cities and towns, as a variety of SUVs, pickup trucks, ATVs, camping trailers and utility trailers loaded with camping supplies head for the hills.

This Saturday is circled on thousands of calendars; the opening day of the Montana general deer and elk season. For many, it’s simply hunting season.

It’s a great time to be in Montana and an even better time to be living in Montana. With our five-week general season, not to mention other seasons that began in September and run into January, we’re fortunate to have over four months to wander around Montana in search of game to put in the freezer and on dining room tables for the coming months. There are, of course, the bonus seasons such as spring turkeys and black bears and the somewhat controversial shoulder seasons for elk.

Unfortunately, there’s a giant shadow that’s spreading across Montana’s hunting fields, the spreading threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD) among our deer, elk and moose.

A couple years ago, Montana’s hunting community was shaken by the discovery of CWD in areas of south central and north central Montana. Last year, we got another big shock at the discovery of CWD among whitetail deer in the area in and around Libby, in northwest Montana.

I’m not a scientist, but you don’t have to be one to be seriously concerned about the CWD outbreak in the Libby area. It’s that bad.

According to a recent (October 9) report posted on the Montana FWP website, samples were taken from 166 white-tailed deer, of which 18 tested positive for CWD. The deer came from a variety of sources, including sickly-looking deer that were removed and tested, road kill, game damage hunts, trapping of urban deer in Libby, hunter harvest, and other, including deer found dead or injured and then euthanized. Five mule deer, three elk and one moose were also sampled and found free of CWD.

Nevertheless, the study indicates that around 10 percent of the Libby area whitetail deer are infected with CWD. 

I occasionally compare notes on CWD with Keith McCaffery, an old friend and college classmate, and a retired Wisconsin deer biologist. While he’s retired, he tries to keep up with what’s happening with deer issues.

He comments that the initial finding of CWD “was a shock to the deer world. We’ve celebrated Montana because…they were one of a couple states to prohibit or greatly limit the captive cervid industry.” A hunter-supported initiative, I-143, overwhelmingly passed in 2000, put a big damper on the then growing elk farm business, by banning new elk farm enterprises as well as selling canned hunts.

He shared a U.S. map that Wisconsin DNR prepared that showed where licensed hunters were from who had harvested some 32,000 deer in four southwestern Wisconsin counties that have a high prevalence of CWD. Hunters from every state in the Union, except Delaware, had harvested a deer in that infection area and presumably brought deer tissue back home. 

Wisconsin regulations are basically the same as Montana’s regarding taking anything other than boned, cut and wrapped meat out of CWD areas. The big problem is that these rules rely on voluntary compliance. Enforcement is darned difficult and there are virtually no realistic limits on where or how far infected tissue could end up. 

As far as long-term management strategy in CWD areas, one goal is to reduce deer population numbers, by increasing deer harvest, especially mature bucks, which are the most susceptible to infection. That might be a hard sell. Telling the public to kill lots more deer to save the deer bears too strong a resemblance to “We had to destroy the village to save the village” from the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, the reality of CWD is that, once established, it’s almost impossible to eradicate, and it will spread to other areas of Montana.

 While CWD is a black cloud on our hunting horizon, let’s celebrate our hunting traditions and, if the hunt is successful, celebrate again every time you put venison on the table.

Summer’s Last Gasps!

A handsome ruffed grouse, first grouse of the season.

It just doesn’t seem fair. We were barely into the second week of October and we had our second major winter storm of the season. 

I won’t complain too much, however, as we haven’t gotten a four-foot snowfall, such as what slammed Browning in the September storm, though single digit low temps in early October does seem kind of unreasonable.

It’s not that snow in October is particularly unusual, or any other month, for that matter. In the 31 years we’ve lived in Butte, Montana, July is the only month in which we haven’t had a significant snowfall. It comes with the territory, when we consider that we live in a mountain valley, well above a mile above sea level.

Fortunately, we had lots of warnings from weather forecasters for both of those storms and we had time to prepare for dealing with the inconveniences of snow and cold.

At times, my wife and I both felt a bit like the 7th grader who suddenly realizes that school starts on Monday and there’s just one weekend left in the summer vacation. 

The first item on my agenda was to get in another hunt for ruffed grouse before the mountainsides got slammed with a foot or two of new snow.

It wasn’t one of those crisp, sunny days for my walk in the aspens. In fact, it was one of those chilly, gray days, with light snow falling. There were still patches of snow from the September storm, and the mountaintops were still white from that storm.

A highlight of the walk was spotting a couple moose ghosting through the trees along the top of a high ridge. 

A funny thing happened on our walk, however. This time I came home with a ruffed grouse, for a change. This was a handsome full-grown grouse with an intact set of tail feathers. Ruffed grouse are about the finest-eating upland birds on the planet, so we’re looking forward to a future dinner. This was the only grouse we put up on our walk, but it made the trip worthwhile.

The next few days were much nicer and I took advantage of them. I harvested the last of the garden, pulling carrots and potatoes. Then I dug up the garden, harvesting a bumper crop of aspen roots. I had already harvested tomatoes and chile peppers before the first snow event.

All that work meant I needed some rewards, so the next day started with a couple hours of tennis at the wonderful new tennis courts at Stodden Park. It was chilly when we started but by noon it was warm enough for most of us to shed a couple layers.

Early fall colors on the Big Hole River.

An hour later I was off to the Big Hole River for one last bit of fly-fishing. I’ll confess that I didn’t catch anything or even have any hint that any fish were there to disturb my enjoyment of the afternoon. My Lab, Kiri, enjoyed swimming in the icy water and then found a perch on a rock where she could watch the river flow by. 

The last “dog on a rock” photo for 2019.

We spent the next day getting ready for another snowstorm. With the prediction of seriously cold weather, my wife and I decided we needed to harvest our apple tree. Our apples really could have used some more warm weather to sweeten up some more, but the predicted cold would ruin the fruit. We had a bumper crop of apples this year and it was fun to harvest the bounty and be able to share some with neighbors.

Both of us recalled, with a smile, a former next-door neighbor who leaned against the fence ridiculing us, years ago, as we worked at planting our tree. “Haw, haw, haw,” he chortled, “I just love to see people move to Butte and then plant fruit trees.”

Maybe Butte, Montana isn’t the best place in the world to plant an orchard, but we still enjoyed apple pies and apple crisp as we watched Arctic winds whip up our October snow.