Grizzly Bear Issues Keep Hunters Alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening Weekend for Pronghorn and Pheasants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montana Fall Colors Near Prime Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on the Autumnal Equinox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where the grouse should be!

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

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

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

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

First Hunt of the Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the many little creeks in western Montana.

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

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

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

Montana’s I-186: The Mining Industry Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information on the mining industry’s position on the initiative can be found online at

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

Again, for the positions of the organizations backing I-186, their website is

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

It’s Autumn and Hunting Seasons are Starting!

A flashback to the late, but never forgotten, hunting partner, Flicka, in pursuit of blue grouse.

You can mark on your calendars that a week ago, Monday, August 20, was the first day of autumn. Yes, I know that a lot of people keep their calendars on their smart phone or laptop. I still kind of like the one hanging on the side of the refrigerator.

Of course, you might ask, “Isn’t that supposed to be in September?”

Indeed, the autumnal equinox, the moment when the sun again crosses the equator, also called the astronomical beginning of autumn, will be at 7:45 p.m. (MDT), on Saturday, September 22.

But, as for the beginning of autumn, I usually look at when the weather changes, when you go outside in the morning and there’s a serious chill in the air. After a rainy few days, it’s chilly, and the lawn is starting to green up, again.

Of course, that mini cold snap doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be more warm weather (my tomatoes are counting on it), and we’ll continue to have smoke haze in the air until we get some mountain snows. Still, I figure that the cold, wet weather of last week broke the back of summer.

Those long summer evenings are almost a thing of the past. As of last Thursday, our daylight hours are a full two hours shorter than at the summer Solstice in June, and each day we lose another three minutes of daylight.

Another sure sign of autumn is the beginning of hunting season, just three days away, on September 1.

The upland bird seasons open on September 1 every year, and archery seasons for deer and elk begin on the first Saturday of September, and those days are the same in 2018.

I don’t do the archery-hunting thing. I’d probably like it and I know lots of people who love it. In fact, I spent a lot of time in my youth wandering around the farm with a bow and arrow. Still, I figure my autumn days are too full to take on another passion, and for those of us who count as priceless those days in the mountains and prairies, carrying a shotgun and walking behind a bird dog, there simply isn’t time for archery.

Besides upland bird hunting, September is a great time for fly-fishing, as well. A perfect fall day would start with walking with my dog in the mountain aspen thickets in search of ruffed or blue grouse, and then heading for the Big Hole River, or other trout stream, for some fly-fishing. A welcome addition to such perfect days would be finding some edible mushrooms in the process.

It’s a tall order, but I’ve done it successfully (and unsuccessfully) and hope to do it again many more times.

A role model for those of us who live all year for the upland bird season was the late George Bird Evans (1906 – 1998). In the 1930s and 1940s, except for a stint in the Navy, he worked as a freelance artist as a magazine illustrator, branching out, with his wife, Kay, as a mystery writer. He also was a dog breeder, developing a line of English setters he called Old Hemlock, after his West Virginia home, a Revolutionary-era farmhouse.

Evans built his life around ruffed grouse, his Old Hemlock setters, and writing about it. He continued to hunt and write to the end of his 91 years. One of my favorite books about hunting, which I’ve read many times, is The Upland Shooting Life, Evans’ first of some 20 books about dogs, hunting, and grouse.

So, this Saturday marks the first of the general hunting seasons, and we can mark the progression of late summer into winter by further season openers, with antelope and pheasants on October 6, and the general big game season on October 20, followed by the gradual closing of seasons until mid-January, when our late waterfowl seasons bring it all to an end.

Yes, it’s autumn. It’s a great time to be alive, and, even better, a great time to be living in Montana. It can’t get much better.

Paul Vang’s book, “Sweeter than Candy, A

Father and Son Flyfishing

Kevin Vang with a nice rainbow.

If you have a passion for fly-fishing for trout, life is better if you have the good fortune to live in an area with trout streams.

I’ve been fly-fishing for a long time, now, going back over 50 years, to the mid-1960s when I felt the urge to start fishing with a fly rod. The fact that we were living in Fargo, North Dakota at the time didn’t discourage me, and I caught some sunfish and crappies, my first fish with a fly rod, on a Minnesota lake relatively close to Fargo.

A job transfer later took us to Miles City, Montana, and I finally got to fish a mountain stream for trout. It was a hot four-hour drive to the West Rosebud River, south of Columbus, but it was well worth it.

A couple years later, another job transfer took us back to eastern North Dakota, and fly-fishing mountain streams became a two or three day drive on our summer vacations. Kevin, who was approaching adolescence, caught the fly-fishing fever bug almost more than I had.

Things change, of course. He went to college and then graduate school, and started a career as a math professor at Minot State University in Minot ND. For our part, my last job transfer with the Social Security Administration took us to Butte, a paradise when it comes to fly-fishing.

It’s not that Kevin doesn’t have good fishing in his backyard. There are lakes in the area, as well as the sprawling Lake Sakakawea, the impoundment created by the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. When we visit there, we go fishing, and often fly-fishing, for smallmouth bass, pike, and other fish.

Still, it doesn’t satisfy the need to come to Montana and fly-fish on trout streams, and his summer vacations usually involve camping and fly-fishing.

We were able to join Kevin and his wife, Jen, for several days on the upper Big Hole River, including one day of floating the river on our pontoon boats, though late summer low flows made floating challenging. While floating, fishing was slow, though I managed to catch a beautiful brown trout, most likely my best trout of the year.

Here I am with a beautiful brown trout. The year’s best trout!

The next day, I suggested we wade, saying, “I think I can guarantee more action that way than with floating.”

We hit it right, as the spruce moth “hatch” had started and trout were responding to the new bug on the water.

On the next day of fishing, the trico hatch was also getting serious, with clouds of little bugs hovering over the water before completing their life cycle of mating and scattering eggs on the water. As it happened, I mainly caught whitefish, while Kevin caught several decent rainbow trout.

After taking a break for a few days, Kevin and Jen, along with Jen’s sister, Beth, who drove over from her home in Idaho, went back to the river to get in some camping and fishing without our supervision.

Before they got back, I went fishing for a day, going to a spot on the upper Big Hole where, a year ago, I’d had a banner day during the trico hatch.

The tricos were thick and the fish were rising, but I had nothing but frustration. I’d get rises that didn’t connect, or if I did get a fish on my fly, it would dive down and catch a clump of floating moss, and with that bit of leverage was able to get off the hook. In early afternoon, the trico spinner fall was done and the fish quit rising.

I called it a day, without landing a single fish. I got skunked.

When I got home. Kevin and Jen were already there, showered and ready to head up the Hill to take in some of the An Ri Ra entertainment. I asked him how his fishing was, figuring that he’d have a good fish story or two after three days of fishing the Big Hole.

“I got skunked.”

Like father, like son, I guess.


The Strange Tale of Russia’s Mole in the NRA

Maria Butina (Russian photo)

Curiously, if you search the National Rifle Association’s website, even if you do a topic search, you won’t find mention of Maria Butina.

Maria Valeryevna Butina is a Russian national who has lived in the United States the last few years, and this spring earned a masters’ degree at American University in Washington D.C.

According to Wikipedia, Ms. Butina was born in Russia in 1988, and grew up in Siberia, where her father introduced her to firearms and hunting.

In 2011, she founded Right to Bear Arms, described as a Russian gun-rights organization that has lobbied to change Russia’s strict gun control laws. She began traveling to the U.S. with Aleksander Torshin, a banker and a leading member of United Russia, the majority political party of Russia.

In 2013, she met a Republican political operative, Paul Erickson, in Russia. The two became close, started dating and eventually moved in together. In 2015, she emailed him a description of her plan to help the Republicans win the 2016 elections through the National Rifle Association. In 2016, Butina and Erickson began a South Dakota business, Bridges LLC, described as a consulting company.

Butina with NRA’s Wayne LaPierre (screenshot from Butina’s social media)

Torshin and Butina established a relationship between her Russian organization, Right to Bear Arms, and the National Rifle Association (NRA) in 2011. Torshin has been attending NRA meetings since 2011. In 2013, David Keene, former NRA president, was a guest at the Right to Bear Arms annual meeting in Russia.

Butina attended the 2014 and 2015 NRA annual convention as a special guest of David Keene, and in 2016, Torshin announced on Twitter that both he and Butina were lifetime NRA members.

In 2015, a group of NRA leaders, including Keene, first vice president Pete Brownell, Butina’s boyfriend Paul Erickson, and Milwaukee County sheriff David Clark, attended Right to Bear Arms’ annual conference in Russia.

At the same time, Butina established relations with the Republican Party, and has posted photos of herself on social media with then Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and presidential candidate Rick Santorum at the 2014 NRA convention. At the 2015 NRA convention, she met Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and was present at the launch of Walker’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. She addressed a question to candidate Trump at a 2015 town hall, and briefly met Donald Jr.

The FBI began to monitor Butina in August 2016, when she moved to the U.S. on a student visa. The FBI opted to watch her movements and gather information on whom she was meeting, and what her goals might be.

On July 15, 2018, Butina was arrested and charged with conspiracy, alleging that she violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act and acted as an unregistered Russian agent within the U.S. According to a supporting affidavit, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government, widely believed to be her long-time associate, Senator Torshin. She is being held without bail. Erickson was not charged, and has not responded to requests for comment by the press.

That’s the basic outline of Maria Butina and her relations with the NRA and Republican politicians.

The amazing thing about this whole story is how easily this young Russian woman moved into the highest levels of the NRA and conservative political circles.

Monica Hesse of the Washington Post writes, “Maria Butina is an NRA Cool Girl, a unicorn dream of what a man who loved guns might be seeking in a woman to love him.” She concludes, “The men who championed her were so pleased to meet a woman who fit an ideal mold, they never stopped to think that maybe she was an ideal mole.”

What also amazes me is that rank and file members of the NRA haven’t stormed the gates at NRA’s Washington headquarters, demanding the resignations of Wayne LaPierre and other NRA leaders, people who hold themselves out as super patriots, who so easily fell for the charms of the lovely Maria, and eagerly collaborated with Russia.

One person’s Twitter comment summed it up. “Such a shame that good guys with a gun are powerless against bad guys with vaginas.”

Farewell to Chuck Robbins, a Consummate Outdoorsman

Chuck Robbins at work in his office. Gale Robbins photo.

There was a big gathering of people in Dillon, the last Saturday in July. We were gathered to say goodbye to a consummate outdoorsman, Chuck Robbins.

Chuck Robbins truly lived an outdoors life, as an angler, upland bird hunter, big game hunter, fishing guide and, to put it all together, a prolific outdoor writer, with several books to his credit along with (probably) countless newspaper and magazine stories.

Chuck was a Pennsylvania native, and he grew up in the outdoors, fishing and hunting, and then as a fly-fishing guide with a prestigious Pennsylvania lodge, with clients as varied as former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Dick Cheney, when Cheney was Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. While Chuck guided a number of well-known people, I also recall a conversation with Chuck talking fondly about a trip he’d just taken with a couple Wounded Warrior veterans.

Somewhere along the way, he took up the craft of writing about the outdoors, and had a prolific career as writer. In fact I met Chuck, and his wife Gale, at an outdoor writers conference.

While Chuck was well-established in Pennsylvania, the lure of Montana finally proved irresistible, and less than 20 years ago, Chuck and Gale pulled up stakes and moved to Dillon, Montana.

One might think it would take time to gain expertise about the Rocky Mountain West, but Chuck did it quickly, putting out a book on fishing the northern Rockies, and then a Flyfisher’s Guide to Montana. His outdoors expertise wasn’t just hunting and fishing, as he also put out Birding Trails Montana, a guide to birding. Just this spring, Chuck released a new edition of Flyfisher’s Guide to Montana, and in May had a successful autograph party at The Bookstore in Dillon, launching the new edition of his book.

Chuck and Gale were a team in the outdoors, with Gale an accomplished photographer and editor as well as life companion.

For several years, Chuck was the editor of a monthly newsletter for the membership of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association (NOWA), and in recognition for this and other journalistic achievements, the Association recognized Chuck with the organizations’ highest honor, the Enos Bradner Award, named after one of the Northwest’s greatest outdoor writers, and one of the founders of NOWA.

Sadly, Chuck died, suddenly and unexpectedly, doing what he loved, at the oars of his drift boat, going down the Big Hole River on June 12. His customers attempted to revive him with CPR, but without success. Chuck was 73.

At Chuck’s Celebration of Life, held appropriately at the Anderson & Platt Outfitters fly shop in Dillon, a number of friends and family spoke of their respect for Chuck. One person, a former client, said that Chuck knew every bird, every wildflower, and every animal along the river. His knowledge of nature was unsurpassed.

Another talked about Chuck and his love for his bird dogs, with his last dogs, Annie and Maggie, both German wirehair pointers, finding and retrieving his birds. Those dogs, incidentally, provided their own share of adventure to Chuck and Gale’s outings, with Annie surviving a rattlesnake bite while hunting, and Maggie falling into an abandoned mine shaft in the foothills near Dillon.

Chuck loved upland bird hunting and he had a special love for hunting, and eating, sage grouse. When winter came to Montana, Chuck and Gale often hooked up their trailer and headed for Arizona, where Chuck spent much of his time hunting quail in the Sonoran desert and mountains.

Chuck’s friends talked about Chuck’s love for our public lands and a recurring feature of Chuck’s Facebook and blog posts were about public lands and keeping those lands accessible and open to the public. He was a fierce advocate for public lands.

Through Chuck’s years of hunting and angling across much of the United States and several Canadian Provinces, and his skill as a writer, Chuck left his mark. Perhaps he wrote his own epitaph on his website, “Rantings and Ravings of an old man truly ruined by sport.”

R.I.P., Chuck.

Montana’s I-186 Not a Mine Killer

Tom Reed of Trout Unlimited, speaking to Silver Bow Kiwanis in Butte.

An issue that appears to be headed to the November ballot is I-186, a citizen initiative that has gotten a lot of widespread support across the state, along with some criticism from here in Butte.

Opponents of I-186 have called the proposal an anti-mining proposal that would kill new mining ventures in Montana.

Not so, says Tom Reed, a writer, fly angler, avid hunter, and the Northwest Director of the Sportsmen’s Conservation Project for the national organization of Trout Unlimited. Reed, and Colin Cooney, a fisheries biologist and TU staffer based in Bozeman, were speakers at last week’s meeting of Silverbow Kiwanis in Butte. I’ll note that Cooney has roots in Butte, and is the son of Montana Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. Trout Unlimited is backing the proposal because of the organization’s commitment to preserving and enhancing cold water resources and fisheries.

Reed asserted that I-186 is not an anti-mining measure and he especially points out that the measure, if passed, does not affect any currently operating mines, including expansions of those mines, specifically mentioning Montana Resources of Butte, as an operation that would not be affected by I-186.

What I-186 would do, he says, is “It would give DEQ (Montana Department of Environmental Quality) the tools they need to make good decisions for the environment.”

Essentially, the measure would require all new mines to prove they will remedy any water pollution problems as part of the normal mine reclamation process, without the need for perpetual treatment. Further, it places the burden of proof on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to find, in writing and based upon clear and convincing evidence, that new mines will not cause perpetual water pollution problems.

There’s kind of a fine line between existing law and the proposed initiative. Existing law requires DEQ to issue permits to new mines if the agency finds, after an evaluation of the permit materials, that the operating permit and reclamation plan will comply with the law, based upon a preponderance of evidence.

It’s not a revolutionary change, but it’s significant.

It isn’t difficult to find examples of modern mining operations that demonstrate the need for strengthening existing law, with the Beal Mountain mine, between Butte and Anaconda, a prime example. The Beal Mountain mine, operated by Pegasus Gold, closed up in 1998. Pegasus Gold was a subsidiary of a Canadian mining company, and when mining ended, the company assets disappeared and the corporation went bankrupt. Since then, taxpayers have spent $13.7 million for reclamation and water treatment, and according to I-186 backers, taxpayers will have to come up with another $39 million for full clean-up of the mine.

Possibly the worst example of a mining operation that left taxpayers holding the bag for remediation is the Zortman-Landusky mine, another Pegasus operation, in the Little Rocky Mountains that has cost taxpayers $27.5 million so far, and the forecast is that it will cost another $1 -2 million annually to treat acid mine waste—in perpetuity. Perpetuity, incidentally, is another word for forever.

Reed said, “We think DEQ should have the ability to say no to bad mining proposals.”

Colin Cooney, of Trout Unlmited, making a point of past mining problems.

Reed and Cooney cited some states that have enacted similar legislation in recent years, such as Michigan and New Mexico, and they point out that mining permits continue to be issued that meet the new requirements. Another state, Maine, just recently enacted stronger legislation, though it’s still too soon to determine how that state’s law is working.

Reed refutes claims that more stringent requirements contained in the initiative will make new mining operations impossible, and commented, “I think we’re training kids at Montana Tech that can work with it.”

There are some costs involved with implementing I-186, if Montana voters adopt it. A fiscal note to the proposal projects additional costs to DEQ of just over $115 thousand in the first year and increasing to just under $119 thousand by 2021. The costs involve more staff for environmental review of mining permit applications and anticipated litigation.

For more information on the proposal, go to

It’s Summer, Which Means Fall is Near

This year’s crop of Canada geese is almost full grown.

On a float trip down the Big Hole River, a week ago, the most common sight wasn’t rising trout. It was Canada geese; big families of geese, with this year’s goslings almost full-grown, just waiting to grow some more feathers so they could start taking flying lessons.

Their parents, seeming models for attentive parents, were likely telling them to be patient. After all, the adult geese were temporarily flightless, as well, in the middle of their summer molt.

Soon, all those geese, adults and goslings alike, will have their flight feathers and will be practicing flying skills, in preparation for heading south when winter weather comes back to Montana.

And, “Whoa!” I can just hear some readers muttering, “We’re barely into summer and you’re already talking about winter?”

Yes, in Montana’s mountain country, summer is that most fleeting of our seasons. Summer comes late to our high elevation valleys, and often, like last year, ends with September snowstorms.

So, just as Canada geese and other waterfowl have to grow up in a hurry, some wild fruits, such as gooseberries, are ripe right now. On a weekend of camping and fishing, it was easy to get a quick snack of some sweet and tart gooseberries. It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge, as wild rose bushes or stinging nettles guard some of the gooseberry bushes. Once you find a gooseberry bush that’s accessible, you have to contend with the sharp thorns of the gooseberry bush.

It’s a challenge, though I have experience of coping with thorns. On the large garden on the Minnesota farm where I grew up, we had a number of domesticated gooseberry bushes, and being a kid, it was my blood that was deemed worthy of sacrifice for the sake of gooseberry jam. Incidentally, with the abundant rain this spring, the fruit of the wild gooseberries, this year, is larger than usual, almost as big as domestic berries.

The fleeting aspect of summer applies to the fly-fishing as well. On a couple floats on the upper part of the river, the fishing was challenging. With the now shallow water and bright sunshine, it was rare to see any fish rising, either to insects or to my dry flies. The lower water is also beginning to make floating a bit of a challenge. Even on a small pontoon boat, I was getting hung up in the riffles.

A nice brown trout, the trophy of a weekend.

On the other hand, as evening approached, in the last couple hours of daylight, there was an abundance of aquatic insects in the air, including mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. It took me a little while, one evening, to figure out what worked, but in a short flurry of action, I caught four trout, including a 15-inch (or thereabouts) brown trout for my angling thrill of the week. All the trout came up to a #16 mayfly imitation.

It’s no secret that anglers are the eternal optimists of the outdoors world, and I plead guilty to being one of those optimists. I’m looking forward to the next couple weeks when, in addition to the usual aquatic insects, we’ll see trout rising to the annual flurry of spruce moths as they seemingly migrate to their deaths on the Big Hole and other western rivers. Catching trout feasting on spruce moths can lead to some of the best dry fly fishing of the season.

In the next week or so we should also be seeing the beginning of the trico hatch. Tricos, short for tricorythodes, are the tiny mayflies that emerge from the waters for a few hours as a flying, winged insect. After seeking out mates, the mayflies return to the river’s surface by the thousands and millions to lay their eggs to start the next generation of tricorythodes. Personally, I catch more trout, along with more Rocky Mountain whitefish than I can count, during the trico hatch than any other time of the year.

So, think evening, think terrestrials, and think tiny. There’s a lot of interesting fly-fishing that’s will be happening as we enter late summer.

Green Goop Threatens Florida Waters

A view of the green algae bloom that’s destroying some of Florida’s water resources. Photo from

A couple years ago, January 2016 to be exact, I took a trip to Florida for a winter board meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. The Lee County convention and visitor bureau (The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel) invited our group to have our meeting there. One of the added attractions, besides meeting space, was a day of fishing or other recreation on the watery paradise of southwest Florida. A Florida outing right after a snowy and subzero Christmas week also had some modest appeal!

On our play day, along with a writer friend from Texas, I went flyfishing with a local guide on the shallow, calm waters of the big bay that’s protected from the Gulf of Mexico by the barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva. I caught a couple fish that day, a snook and a snapper, fish I’ll never find in Montana.

A snapper I caught in Fort Myers’ Bay. In Montana you find them only in the frozen foods section.

Our friends at the Lee County CVB were happy to show off the aquatic resources of their area, and it was fun to take advantage of the opportunity. At the least, it was way more fun than shoveling snow.

While Florida has a lot of fishing and other water recreation, there are major problems, and these problems have grown to a crisis of major proportions, and it’s gaining a lot of national attention.

It’s a complex puzzle, and to be frank, I have trouble getting my head around it all, but central to the issue is the Everglades, the so-called river of grass and a complex of rivers and lakes that work their way from Orlando, south through the Florida peninsula to the Everglades in the south, eventually draining into Florida Bay in the south end of the state.

The Okeechobee River runs south, emptying into Lake Okeechobee, which then moves south to the Everglades. Over the past century, much of the Everglades have been drained for agriculture and urban development. Drainage canals, dikes, dams, and loss of wetlands have altered the natural systems of drainage and flow.

Going back to 1986, a recurring problem with south Florida’s waters has been algae bloom. A major cause for algal bloom is fertilizer runoff, particularly phosphorus, from the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). The major agricultural industry in the EAA is sugarcane. The sugarcane industry, also referred to as Big Sugar, is a powerful (with a capital P) political force in Florida.

The fertilizer runoff works its way into Lake Okeechobee and from there into waterways feeding to both the Atlantic and Gulf sides of Florida.

This past month, there has been a major outbreak of green algae that was dumped, following heavy rains, from Lake Okeechobee into waterways, primarily the Caloosahatchee, which goes to the Gulf, and the St. Lucie Canal, which heads to the Atlantic. The algae bloom is a thick, soupy mess of toxic green slop. It’s fouling beaches, killing fish and wildlife.  Local residents are complaining of headaches, respiratory issues and rashes. Florida’s governor has declared a state of emergency on four counties on the Atlantic coast.

On the Gulf side of Florida, there is a “red tide,” caused by another organism, Karenia brevis, which feeds on other organisms that explode on the enriched water from Okeechobee, as well as runoff from phosphate mining. Red tide is a phenomenon that goes back to Spanish times, but it now happens more frequently and is more intense and lasts longer. When red tide occurs, there are major fish kills, impacting sport fish such as redfish, snook, and tarpon.

To repeat, this whole south Florida water mess is a complex problem that is creating disaster. It’s killing fish and wildlife, and impacting the fishing and tourism industries. It’s not the only problem, either. Florida has major issues with mercury pollution from incinerators and fossil fuel power plants. Then, there are invasive species that are thriving in Florida’s semi-tropical climate, and Burmese pythons are just the tip of the iceberg.

In spite of all the problems, according to Wikipedia another thousand people still move to Florida every day.


Fishing the Fourth!

Southwest Montana’s always scenic Big Hole River.

It was kind of a magical morning, though most mornings on the Big Hole River are magical.

As I waded up a side channel in search of rising trout I spotted a deer in the distance. Taking a closer look, I could see a tiny fawn along with the deer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in camera range, at least not for the point and shoot camera I carry in my shirt pocket on these outings.

Kiri, my Labrador retriever and faithful fishing partner, at least until September, when she takes on additional duties as hunting partner, took on clown duties. She went on a merry chase, as a killdeer used its best efforts to lead Kiri away from her offspring. There were three killdeer chicks in the muddy grass along the water, making their own little “killdee” calls as they scurried around, including hopping into the water and taking a short float down the stream before jumping back on shore.

A killdeer chick in the river’s shallows – a rare sight.

This 4th of July morning was a bit unusual, however. Most people in southwestern Montana woke up to frosty temperatures on that clear and sunny morning. I don’t know what the low temperatures had been that morning on the upper Big Hole River, but the water, as felt through waders, was icy. The river was still running on the high side, for early July, though with care it was finally relatively feasible to wade the rapid waters.

The fish? I was hoping there would be some insect activity going on, getting the trout to look up for their mid-morning snacks. There were some caddisflies and a few pale morning dun mayflies flitting about the water’s surface, though not enough to cause a feeding frenzy, though I did catch my first trout of the morning on a dry fly.

After several more hours, I called it a day. I’d caught something like five trout, mostly on nymphs, ranging from a two-inch rainbow, a couple brook trout, and an acrobatic 12-inch rainbow, the trophy of the day.

The fishing access site was doing a brisk business in the early afternoon. The parking lot was full to overflowing with vehicles and trailers, and more people were coming in, primarily families out for a fun holiday afternoon voyage down the river.

Of course, what was truly unusual about the morning was the freezing temperatures of the morning. In western Montana, we were under the spell of unseasonably cold weather, while much of the nation was sweltering in record-breaking hot weather.

On June 28, Denver tied its all-time high temperature of 105 degrees. Montreal, Quebec, set a new record high temperature of 97.9 degrees on July 2. Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, a place best known for horrendous winter weather, tied its all-time warmest low temperature of 60 degrees on July 2.

The parched southwestern states are far into a fire season that started way too soon.

The extreme heat wasn’t just in the eastern parts of North America. The British Isles, and Eurasian countries, such as Georgia and Armenia, recently set new hot weather records. If we have occasionally sweltered through some hot nights, we have never seen the likes of the 109 degrees, the world’s hottest low temperature ever recorded, in Oman on June 28.

There is a long list of heat milestones set over the past year or so, all part and parcel of a planet that is continuing to get hotter as greenhouse gas concentrations increase because of human activity.

Of course, if weather predictions are right, by now we’re probably thinking we’d like to have some of that chilly weather of Independence Day back again. That was the abrupt end of a chilly spring and early summer.

The nasty reality is that if hot, dry weather persists we’ll be racing into fire season in the next few weeks, and those lush, green mountainsides of early July will have abundant fuels for wildfire.

Still, my garden, after hunkering down through the cold nights of June and early July, welcomes hot weather to finally put on some serious growth.

Revolutionary Thoughts for Independence Day

It’s a good idea to put your camera on a tripod when photographing fireworks. Even so, you can get some interesting effects.

Today, on this fourth day of July, we celebrate the 242nd anniversary of the founding of our Republic.

Historians will remind us that it’s July 2 that we should observe as Independence Day. It was on that day, in 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. Of course, the Declaration of Independence, primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, bears the date of July 4, and thus this is the day we observe as the founding of our nation.

John Adams famously wrote (keeping in mind he was referring to July 2), “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parades, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

Appropriately, right here in Butte, Montana, we have one of the best celebrations of Independence Day.

This, of course, is a highly subjective judgment and I’ll confess that I may not be qualified to make this assessment. On the other hand, in this nation, and at this time in our nation’s history, lack of knowledge or expertise doesn’t seem to disqualify anyone from making judgments and expressing opinions.

Another faulty image, but still interesting.

Nevertheless, we celebrate with parades and illuminations, and one way or another, Butte celebrates the day much as John Adams had in mind all those years ago in those heady days of 1776 when those upstarts in a rebellious Congress dared to thumb their noses at King George III.

The struggle for independence was a near thing, as the incompetence of volunteer militia again and again proved it was no match for the trained army of the world’s greatest power. On the other hand, the struggle also proved something even modern armies have learned, that rebellious forces can, eventually, wear down the will and resources of even a mighty power that has to maintain supply lines that cross great oceans.

So, what would presidents Adams and Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, and following a long period of estrangement, reconciled through a long series of letters, and dying on the same day, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, say about this Republic they launched?

Perhaps, if Jefferson were to take a long look at today’s divisive and impetuous leadership, he might refer back to a letter he wrote in 1797. “A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, return their government to its true principles.”

John Adams feared for those who would get too powerful. “Power,” he wrote, “must never be trusted without a check.” Another statement might resonate during our modern times, “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.” On another occasion he wrote, “There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”

On the subject of religious basis for what some might call evil acts, Jefferson wrote, “It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read.” Of course, he added, “By the same test the world must judge me.” Thomas Jefferson was that massive bundle of contradictions, a person who wrote eloquently on the evils of slavery, for example, yet remained a slave-owner to his last days.

Regarding a President’s continuing assault on news and journalists, and factions that advocate we should ignore scientific fact, Jefferson wrote, “We are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

We might also remember something that Jefferson wrote near the end of his life, “The equal rights of man and the happiness of every individual, are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government.”

Revolutionary words for modern times.

Butte, Montana has its fireworks display on the 3rd of July.