The Vernal Equinox and Why Easter is Late This Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there are some stinkers.

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

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

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

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

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

BLM Leasing Threatens Sage Grouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Spring? Not in Montana!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montana License Time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep that in mind and go fish.

Senate Passes Public Lands Bill!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Backyard Bird Count This Weekend!

Graphic promoting this years Great Backyard Bird Count

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Bernhardt, nominee for SecInt. Sierra Club photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meateater Cookbook and other Suggestions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flyfishing Fantasies and Thinking of Summer

Logo of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montanans Rally for Public Lands

Statues of Mike and Maureen Mansfield at Montana State Capitol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Fun and Thoughts of Spring

Typical scenery on Montana’s beautiful Smith River.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Call for Birds!

Kiri working some heavy cover for pheasants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a long time until September.

Late Season Bird Blues (not to be confused with bluebirds)

My Lab, Kiri, in her preferred habitat.

Heavy snow was falling outside my office window, and on the afternoon of Christmas Eve day, Christmas music kept things cheerful.

I was scheming for one more outing for pheasants or other upland birds before the season closed on New Year’s Day. I have to confess this hasn’t been a particularly successful hunting season from the standpoint of bringing home game to put in the freezer. I’ve had lots of outings, with good exercise and fresh air, so those outings weren’t a waste of time.

I follow a Facebook group that’s devoted to upland bird hunting and someone posed the question as whether they’re disappointed if they don’t come home with game. There was a big response with people saying that for them it’s more about dog work than anything else, so they’re perfectly happy if they get to see their dogs working, perhaps liking it even better if someone else is along to do the shotgunning.

I totally understand that sentiment, and I guess that’s what keeps me getting up early on cold, dark mornings for outings in which I’ve been unsuccessful. Still, I confess that I also get a lot of satisfaction when I swing my shotgun at a departing bird and see it fold and drop to the ground.

Nevertheless, I don’t regret any of those outings for fresh air and exercise, as I’ve always seen some game and interesting sights, and moments of frustration, too.

On a recent trip I was up early and on the road on a sub-zero morning, hoping I’d get shooting at ducks on a warm water spring creek I’ve been privileged to hunt.

Kiri, my Labrador retriever and hunting partner, and I made a wide swing across a field to approach a favorite spot on the creek where I almost always see mallards. We got to the spot and birds start flushing, but I’m momentarily confused as the birds aren’t ducks. They were pheasants, probably half a dozen—all roosters—hunkered down in the tall grasses on the creek bank where temperatures, moderated by the warm water, were probably 30 degrees warmer than the ambient temps. I finally collected my wits long enough to get a shot off at a rocketing cock pheasant, and missed. Then the other barrel misfired, probably because of the frigid morning.

That’s kind of how my hunting season has been going.

The upland bird season is now over. The waterfowl season for ducks and geese is still on, closing temporarily at sunset this Sunday, January 6, then reopening on January 12, before closing for good at sunset on January 16. That juggling of closing dates is done to have the season’s end coincide with another weekend.

Considering the daily avalanche of news out of our nation’s capitol, with the chaos and upheavals, those hunting outings are a good way to not only get good exercise, but a day in the outdoors helps us keep some balance in our lives, or keep our heads screwed on right, as I often think of it. It’s too bad the general hunting seasons don’t run longer, now that I think of it, as we not only have the news from Washington D.C., but the Montana Legislature is back in session.

Issues that will come up, both in the Lege, but in the new Congress as well, will be familiar, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, that funnels off-shore oil tax revenues to states for public land projects, such as fishing access, land acquisitions, etc. Montana’s delegation were working as a team to get LWCF re-enacted, and there was overwhelming Congressional support for it—except for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) who held it up because he wanted language added to forbid further National Monument designations in Utah.

Sen. Lee also held up legislation that would have given federal recognition to Montana’s Little Shell Indian tribe. I guess I can hope that Sen. Lee got a Christmas stocking with lumps of coal, though more likely he already had big campaign contributions from energy companies.

Happy New Year, I guess.

Zinke & Russian Spy in End of Year Outdoor News

Then-congressional candidate Ryan Zinke in 2014.

In more normal times, the last couple weeks of the year have a slow news cycle. It’s convenient. We can do a re-hash of old stories, get done ahead of schedule and then concentrate on holiday parties and bowl games.

Not this year, especially regarding environment and firearms.

First, is the departure of former Montana congressman Ryan Zinke from his post as Secretary of the Department of Interior. The Trump Administration forced Zinke to resign by year’s end or be fired.

Almost from the beginning of his tenure, he has been plagued by repeated scandals, ranging from ordering a set of $139,000 doors for his office, to shuttling his wife, Lola, around D.C. in government vehicles, commandeering a Park Service helicopter to deliver him to a horseback ride with V.P. Mike Pence, and that’s just a start. He even had a flag created to fly over the department’s headquarters building so passersby would know whether or not he was in.

Then there were shady real estate dealings with the chairman of oil company Halliburton, which was formally referred to the Justice Department in October.

Zinke took a wrecking bar approach to the nation’s public lands, downsizing national monuments, particularly in Utah. Climate scientists were ordered to shut up about climate change, or face reassignment to meaningless jobs or reassignments. He also made it clear to mining and energy companies that the public lands were open for development, including public lands in our backyard of the Big Hole River.

All this from a person who claimed to be a public lands advocate in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt.

It’s hard telling what might be in Zinke’s future, as he carries the curse of being a Trump appointee, someone so corrupt that even Trump couldn’t stand the stink. Some observers speculate he’ll get a gig at Fox News. If he had thoughts of coming back home to run for governor in Montana, he’d likely be considered a gift to whomever Democrats nominate to succeed Steve Bullock.

Unfortunately, don’t look for any positive changes at Interior. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt will be in charge at Interior until a new appointment is made. Bernhardt is an industry insider and politician who has been a power behind the scenes all along.

Zinke is leaving in style, however. Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post notes that he didn’t leave the job until he hosted a big holiday party for lobbyists, where they could have photographs taken with Zinke in front of a stuffed polar bear.

Maria Butina (Russian photo)

And, remember Maria Butina? She’s the pretty redhead from Russia who was arrested last July for being an unregistered agent of the Russian government, ending a high-flying ride in which she consorted with all manner of conservative politicians, especially bigwigs at the National Rifle Association.

She pleaded guilty in Federal court, admitting to seeking to establish and use “unofficial lines of communication with Americans having influence over U.S. politics” for the benefit of the Russian government.

While she was not part of the Mueller investigation, her activities seemed to coincide with other Russian efforts to bring “synergy” to the Trump campaign.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., speculates that NRA leaders are facing a lot of questions regarding Ms. Butina’s courting of the NRA, and whether the NRA’s surge in political spending in the 2016 election was tied to Russia.

Dionne also suggests that the NRA’s influence might now, finally, be waning. NRA’s political spending dropped during the 2018 election, along with the “blue wave” of Democrats elected to the House of Representatives. Dionne also reports that some suburban Republican candidates were even fearful of cashing checks from the NRA.

Still, I’ll pose the same question I asked months ago. Why aren’t NRA rank and file members storming the doors of the NRA headquarters building in Washington D.C., demanding the heads of NRA leaders who so eagerly and naively admitted a Russian spy to their innermost circles?

On a more positive note, there’s still time some last pheasant hunts before the season closes on January 1. Happy New Year!

 

Winter Solstice – a Precursor to Christmas

A natural Christmas/Yule tree, after heavy snows on Christmas Day a year ago.

At 3:23 p.m. on Friday, we have an event worth celebrating. No, it’s not likely that the president will be resigning, or I’ve won the lottery. Actually, the event won’t be noticeable, but at that precise time we will reach the Winter Solstice, that moment in Earth’s rotation around the sun when the northern hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun, making Friday the shortest day of the year, in term of daylight hours.

That means of course that it’s also when the southern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, and our friends in Australia and other countries south of the Equator will have their longest day of the year.

By some people’s definition, Friday is the beginning of winter, though in reality, in northern latitudes, such as Montana, it’s more realistic to think in terms of winter starting in November. In many cultures, the day of the Winter Solstice is considered midwinter.

Here in Butte, on Friday we’ll have 8 hours, 38 minutes and 26 seconds of daylight. It’s hardly worth celebrating, but on Saturday we’ll have approximately one more second of daylight, according to www.timeanddate.com. What will be noticeable in a few days is a later sunset, though sunrises will also be a bit later each day for the rest of the month. Still, by New Year’s Eve day, we will have gained about four minutes of daylight. I’m grateful to my father for immigrating to America. In the countryside around Trondheim, Norway, where he grew up, there are just four hours and 30 minutes of daylight on the Solstice.

The Winter Solstice is a special day in many cultures, as the dark, cold months of winter are often associated with hardship and starvation, and the gradual lengthening of days is a promise that spring will be coming in a few months. The rocks at Stonehenge in England are lined up for sunrise on the Solstice.

Of course at the same time, according to Wikipedia, the Solstice is a time for feasting, as livestock would be slaughtered around this time, to avoid having to feed them through the winter. Wine and beer made during the year would also be fully fermented and ready for drinking.

Northern European people celebrated the Solstice with a 12-day midwinter holiday season called Yule and similar terms. Many Christian traditions, such as Christmas trees and wreaths, or the Yule log, have their start in those pagan cultures. Even the beer brewing continues as part of Scandinavian Christian customs with the making of the Yule ale, just as many craft beer brewers come up with a winter or Christmas seasonal beer.

In this coming week we also celebrate Christmas, and I’ll note that December 25 was also the date that the Roman Empire celebrated Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The days leading up to the celebration, Saturnalia, were also a time for feasting and drinking.

In researching this article I learned that some Christian churches also commemorate the Solstice as Blue Christmas. It’s the feast day for St. Thomas the Apostle, linking “Doubting Thomas” and his struggle to understand the story of the resurrection with our seeming struggle with darkness.

I grew up in a heavily Scandinavian area, or “Lutefisk Ghetto,” in southern Minnesota, with rafts of uncles, aunts, cousins and other extended family within relatively close distances, and while they likely didn’t consider themselves pagans, they certainly observed the 12 days of Yule, and the days between Christmas and New Year were a time for having a houseful of company for dinner, or going to someone else’s house for dinner.

Scientists tell us that some of our strongest memories are associated with our olfactory senses, and just thinking of the Yule season, I occasionally take a quick mental trip back to years past, entering farm houses redolent of aromas of manure-splattered overalls and boots by back doors, combining with the scent of lutefisk, rutabaga, and roast beef in the kitchen—a heady combination.

It’s the smell of Christmas, and so I wish our readers a Merry Christmas.

Another Miracle for the Holiday Season

Organized chaos – sorting truckloads of food into boxes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An elementary school child working diligently.

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

High school students taking a quick break to smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The holiday season is truly a time for miracles.