Freaky Weather? Blame it on Climate Change

Storm clouds over the Big Hole River valley.

We had bright sunshine for a few moments, at least last week when I was trying to put together a column. I went to a window to get a closer look at the strange brightness. Raindrops falling in puddles at the edge of our street reassured me that our cool, wet spring was still in progress.

Here in Butte, Montana, we’re used to a lot of sunshine and you can almost feel the pent-up frustration by local residents when we look out and see that it’s raining, or even snowing at the end of May, the beginning of our short and fleeting season, summer.

We remind ourselves that May and June are usually among the wettest months of the year. Over the years, people have made money betting that it would rain on at least 25 days during the month of June.

If the last few weeks have seemed unusually cold and wet, we should keep in mind that in eastern states people have been sweltering through triple-digit heat waves. A Facebook acquaintance in eastern Pennsylvania posted a photo of cauliflower heads he’d harvested from his garden around the middle of May, the earliest he’d ever harvested cauliflower.

Also, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in northwest Russia, temperatures in Arkhangelsk soared to 84 degrees Fahrenheit on May 11.  The next day, temps hit 87º in an area east of Arkhangelsk. During March, many locations in northern Alaska had record-breaking high temperatures.

Eastern Oklahoma is having severe flooding. So is the Rocky Mountain Front area of northern Montana. Large areas of Nebraska and Iowa are still recovering from massive flooding back in March. Also, in the last two weeks of May there were some 500 reported tornadoes, nationwide, even in New Jersey, with parts of the Midwest having tornado warnings every day for 13 consecutive days.

It is in the nature of weather to be unusual. That’s why we track record-breaking temperatures, both hot and cold, and rainfall or lack of rainfall. Still, more and more people are aware that weather patterns are getting more and more bizarre.

Last month, The Guardian reported on effects of climate change, including destruction of coral reefs, loss of rainforest, and a million species of plants and animals at risk of extinction. The United Nations issued a report based on over 15,000 studies warning of the consequences of climate change.

While scientists around the world report findings about our changing climate, here in the United States, where we might hope that an educated citizenry might take notice of scientific alarm bells, it boils down to politics.

By and large, people of conservative political leanings have been skeptical of climate change and the Trump Administration has been systematically silencing climate scientists. The Administration also withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords. Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post columnist writes that the Administration’s efforts to stymie science “requires, as so much of the Trump agenda does, a war on reality, science and common sense.”

On the other hand, other politicians and groups are paying attention to climate change and proposing radical changes in environmental policies. Some are affiliating with a concept or group of concepts loosely defined as a Green New Deal, to make dramatic changes over the next two decades to address global warming.

So, as we approach another election year we choose sides and if we drink the Kool-Aid they sell us, we’ll either accept the warnings of scientists and start working to turn back from the brink, or we’ll ignore scientific findings, even deny the validity of scientific research and go blithely on our way, whistling in the dark, as our weather becomes more and more erratic.

I’m a church-going person and take in stride that some things we have to take on faith. Climate change, however, with turbulent weather, smoky summer skies, drought, floods, tornadoes; the whole schmear, is well-documented. It isn’t something that’s being imagined by wild-eyed dreamers.

Perhaps some politicians can skate along, pretending that science doesn’t exist, but that is not a viable long-term policy.

Fishing through the Elements

A nice North Dakota pike on the fly.

An icy east wind stirred up the lake with whitecaps as the surf rolled into the boat launch area. Kevin and I agreed that we didn’t want to put the boat in the water. We recalled a day last year when we launched the boat on a similar day and, while the fish were biting, getting back to the launching area turned out to be more adventure than we wanted.

We went to Minot, North Dakota a couple weeks ago to visit our son, Kevin and his family. As always, these trips involve some outdoors activities, depending on the season. In the fall it’s pheasants but in May it’s fishing.

Weather is one of those factors that decides whether outings will be successful, or even possible. The weather in central North Dakota was pretty much the same as home in western Montana: chilly, windy and wet.

On a first outing, our plan was to go to a lake known for smallmouth bass. We both recalled a day a few years back when we each caught around ten smallies, catching them with flyrods.

We drove through rain on our way to the lake, though the rain had stopped by the time we got there. The wind was blowing and the lake was more than a little choppy. We elected to go to a different part of the lake that was protected from the wind, though there wasn’t a handy boat launching area. We spent the morning wading the shallow shoreline, whipping flyrods, throwing out streamers, all to no avail.

Battling the wind with the help of our Labs.

Kevin recalled sitting in on a seminar on fly-fishing for smallmouth bass, with the expert saying that smallies bite best when water temperatures are warm, or warming. “If the water temps are dropping, you might as well stay home.” A couple days earlier highs were in the 80s. This day, with rain, wind and temperatures in the low 40s, that water was definitely cooling off, and as far as catching fish was concerned, we could have stayed home.

On that next outing, after passing up the windswept lake we moved to another lake where the public access was on a sheltered shoreline so that boating wouldn’t be an adventure.

We mainly cruised along shorelines, with Kevin trolling a lure. I was using a flyrod, casting streamers towards shoreline cover, such as weedbeds, fallen logs or rocks.

I had the first action when a nice northern pike hit my streamer. In the icy water it was a bit sluggish, but it still put up a good fight before we netted it.

Before leaving town, my wife said, “If you catch any pike, bring it home for dinner.” So, the fish went in the boat’s live well.

Kevin’s pike that didn’t get away.

A little while later, in almost the same place, Kevin hooked a pike that looked like a twin brother of the one I caught. This one managed to break off when we tried netting it.

Before we called it a day, Kevin caught another pike we deemed large enough for the frying pan.

Some people look down at pike for dining, thinking that walleyes are the only freshwater fish worth eating. Not us. We think pike are great eating. Pike do have a series of “Y” bones that are a nuisance, but they’re totally predictable and avoidable. A few years ago I watched a fishing guide fillet pike, getting rid of the Y-bones. When I cleaned my fish I tried to copy his technique. I don’t know, yet, whether I was successful or not. I’ll find out when we take a fillet out of the freezer.

Back home, I’m looking forward to getting back on the trout streams, especially when runoff has settled down and things warm up enough for some insect hatches.

In spite of the weather, we had fun fishing North Dakota lakes. As we approach Father’s Day, I reflect back on our many years of shared fishing experiences and I’ll share this bit of advice. Take your kids fishing. If things work out right, maybe they’ll take you fishing when you get old.

TU Chapter Proposes Madison Plan

A rare sight on the Madison River – No boats in sight!

The 50-Mile riffle.

That’s the upper Madison River, a rich part of Montana’s fly-fishing heritage. When people come from around the world to go fishing in Montana, chances are good that the Madison River will be part of the trip.

Taking it a step further, chances are that many of those visitors will be taking a guided float-fishing trip on the river. Guided fishing on the upper Madison River is a rapidly growing part of river use. The numbers of guided trips on the river doubled from 2010 (5,338 outfitted trips) to 2017 (11,224 outfitted trips).

Interestingly, the numbers of outfitted anglers is relatively small, accounting for just 9.5 percent of anglers on the river in 2017. The total numbers of anglers on the Madison in 2017 was about 207,000.

I’ll concede that wrapping our head around all these statistics is a challenge, but surveys indicate that there is a lot of dissatisfaction among both resident and non-resident anglers with the volume of float fishing on the Madison. We occasionally camp and fish on the upper Madison and you can rarely look across the river during daytime hours without seeing drift boats going by.

Studies show that the majority (about 62 percent) of floating traffic on the Madison is by outfitters and guides. The numbers of boats causes congestion on the river, plus congestion and waiting lines at launch sites. Wade anglers don’t seem to be a factor in crowding issues.

People who regularly recreate on the upper Madison are well aware of congestion problems and how guided float fishing seems to be taking over the river.

In the last few years, various study groups have been formulated to study the problems on the river and to come up with a recreation plan, possibly something similar to what we’ve had on the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers for the last 20 years. In 2004 I served on a committee to review and recommend changes to the first plan. By and large we left it alone. After some 20 years, most big Hole and Beaverhead anglers, outfitters and guides are, by and large, used to the plan and satisfied with the modest restrictions it places on commercialized recreation.

On the Madison, however, groups have met and thrown up their hands in frustration and given up, most recently a few weeks ago.

At the May 8 membership meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, president Mark Thompson announced that the TU Chapter submitted a proposal for a Madison River recreation plan to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. While a committee of TU leaders drafted most of the plan, leaders of the Skyline Sportsmen Association of Butte, Anaconda Sportsmen’s Association of Anaconda, and Public Lands/Waters Access Association also signed on to the plan.

In introducing the proposal, Thompson said the TU board agreed to develop a plan as the outfitters groups resisted any plan to limit their growth, and people in Ennis also opposed limits, and in general, don’t admit there’s a problem.

Essentially, the proposal would cap outfitted use at 2018 levels. Second, they recommend establishing six reaches on the river, from Quake Lake to Ennis Lake. Outfitters could use the entire river on Sundays and Mondays, but on Tuesdays through Saturdays, one of five stretches would be closed to commercial use, giving non-commercial users a day of respite on each stretch.

The proposal does not affect the lower Madison, downstream from Ennis Lake, as there doesn’t seem to be the pressure that the upper river gets though the proposal doesn’t object to a lower river plan.

The recommendation notes that while there is a lot of angling pressure, the river is still a healthy fishery. The quality of the experience, relaxation and absence of crowding, however, are factors that are less than satisfactory.

The proposal has been sent to Martha Williams, director of MTFWP and to each of the Fish & Wildlife Commissioners.

It remains to be seen what will happen to this proposal, but I think the leaders of the George Grant Chapter deserve a shout-out for a proactive approach to the problem.

Sentimental Journey for Flicka

Flicka in her prime, doing what she loved and excelled at: finding, pointing and retrieving pheasants (when I did my job).

We’ve been in our house enough years that we decided it was time to update the kitchen. After clearing accumulated stuff off a counter top, she pointed at this maroon drawstring bag inconspicuously tucked behind other stuff and asked, “What is that?”

I replied, “That’s Flicka.” When we got her cremated remains it came in a canister inside a bag with an embroidered saying about meeting again on the Rainbow Bridge.

To tell the truth, at the time we said goodbye to our beloved Labrador retriever, Flicka, four years and a month ago, my intention had always been to scatter her ashes. I just didn’t have the heart to do it. It was hard enough to say goodbye to her, and I wasn’t ready to dispose of her ashes.

A couple weeks ago, the day came.

Our Lab of the last four years, Kiri, and I loaded up, along with Flicka’s canister, and went towards Anaconda and then turned up the Mill Creek highway, the short cut to the Big Hole from Anaconda.

About three-quarters of the way up the mountain road I stopped at a pullout. There’s a little creek at the edge of the road and many times over the years I’ve stopped there with several different Labs to cross the creek and walk up the valley in search of ruffed grouse. It’s a special spot. On a hillside knoll a big spring puts out a constant flow of water, with abundant watercress growing in the shallow water. On an unseasonably mild Sunday in early December 2014, Flicka and I went on a grouse hunt up the valley. At the end of our 4-hour walk I managed to hit a grouse that Flicka put up and quickly retrieved. That turned out to be Flicka’s last grouse hunt.

The beginning of Flicka’s journey to the Pacific Ocean.

I opened the canister and found Flicka’s ashes. I put about a third of the contents in the stream. I’ll confess I also peed into the stream, so our combined essence could comingle on the trip downstream where the little creek would merge with Mill Creek on its way to its confluence with the Clark Fork River, on to the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean. Around 100 miles downstream, Flicka’s essence will join Rock Creek, where we had many outings in search of trout and grouse.

The next stop was on the other side of the Divide at a little creek, a tributary to the Big Hole River. It’s downstream from a secluded spot that was sluice-mined over a century ago, and as nature started healing the mining scars, it created grouse habitat. It’s another grouse covert at which four Labs have accompanied me in search of grouse.

Our final stop was the Big Hole River where Flicka was at my side hundreds of times during many fishing seasons. Flicka’s remaining ashes went in the river, on its way to the Missouri, Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico. Along the way a few of her molecules might go by some prairie hills in North Dakota where we had many fun pheasant hunts, including the first time I got a limit of three pheasants with just three shots fired.

The beginning of Flicka’s journey to the Missouri, Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico.

Kiri, of course, was running around, splashing in the river and having fun, pretty much oblivious to this final outing for Flicka. I could have told her about Flicka and the outings we had. Kiri wouldn’t much care. She has a secure place in our lives and that’s sufficient for her.

Back home, I found a little dust left, so I scattered it on the lawn, completing our bittersweet journey.

I don’t know that Christian theology says anything about reuniting with pets on some “Rainbow Bridge,” though many people are adamant that if we don’t, they aren’t going. If there is a Rainbow Bridge, there are now four Labrador retrievers waiting. It remains to be seen whether Kiri will join them or if I will be there to welcome her.

Our daughter suggests that in the Jewish tradition, we live on in the memories of those we leave behind. In that sense, our pets might have a better chance for an afterlife than we do.

Palace Intrigue at the NRA Convention

Oliver North, now the former president of the NRA. (AP photo)

Remember Maria Butina? She’s the young Russian woman who was arrested last July for being an unregistered Russian agent, while going to graduate school in Washington D.C. Posing as an advocate for gun owners rights, she made a wide swath through the National Rifle Association (NRA), with prominent members of the NRA seemingly falling over each other to pose for photos with her and to bring her into the innermost circles of the organization.

In December she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an agent for a Russian official, and on April 26, a federal judge sentenced her to 18 months in prison for her actions, giving credit for nine months already served since last July. When she completes her sentence she will be deported to Russia.

When I’ve written about Ms. Butina earlier, I’ve raised the question of why haven’t rank and file members of the NRA stormed the gates at the NRA’s Washington DC headquarters, demanding the heads of NRA’s leaders for being so eagerly gullible about Butina.

As far as I can tell, NRA members haven’t stormed the gates over the Butina scandal, though some leaders did their best to downplay their complicity in the affair. Nevertheless, when the NRA had their annual convention in Indianapolis two weeks ago, some big cracks appeared in the NRA’s wall of solidarity.

It turns out that there is plenty of discord among NRA members right now.

In April, New Yorker magazine ran a lengthy (it was the New Yorker, after all) story on the NRA. The story covers how the organization that used to promote gun education, safety and training has become a “media company,” and that its avowed mission now amounting to just 10 percent of the NRA budget.

Integral to all this is an Oklahoma-based public relations company, Ackerman McQueen, which all but merged with the NRA. In fact, a couple people who have been spokespersons for the NRA, Dana Loesch and Colion Noir, are actually employees of Ackerman McQueen.  The now former president of the NRA, Oliver North, who became a darling of some conservative circles for taking the rap for President Reagan’s Iran/Contra affair and parlayed that to a career on Fox broadcasting, was getting a million dollar salary from Ackerman McQueen. The New Yorker story also told of NRA leaders getting extravagant salaries and fringe benefits. That relationship was fracturing, with NRA filing a suit over the firm’s billings.

So when NRA faithful went to Indianapolis last month, if they got tired of the huge gun show they could follow a palace intrigue unfold. Ollie North made a move to depose NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre. As reported by the Washington Post, North warned LaPierre that unless LaPierre resigned, he would release a disclosure of the NRA’s financial status, wardrobe expenses and extravagant travel expenses. LaPierre is said to have purchased $200,000 worth of wardrobe, charging it to an NRA vendor.

LaPierre didn’t take the charges meekly. He accused North of extortion in trying to force him out. When the dust settled, North was informed that he would not be nominated for reelection as NRA president. North left the scene, leaving a farewell message that a board member read to the convention.

North obviously attempted to depose LaPierre from his job as NRA’s leader without first lining up support from NRA’s 76-member board of directors. Succeeding North as president is Carolyn Meadows, previously 2nd vice president of the NRA, and chairwoman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, an organization that maintains the country’s largest memorial to the Confederacy.

While LaPierre survived and continues as the NRA’s executive, there will be continuing legal issues with Ackerman McQueen, and some NRA members are grumbling that the organization should back away from politics and get back to being a firearms handling and safety organization.

While all that is going on, the State of New York is investigating the NRA’s continuing status as a tax-exempt organization (The NRA corporation is registered in New York).

Interesting times for the NRA, indeed.

Update – The NRA Board approved paying for LaPierre’s $200K wardrobe and trips to the Bahamas. Mighty generous employer.

It’s May Day! Let’s Go Outside!

Off in the outdoors, pokin’ around with a dog.

Today is May Day, meaning we’ve made it through another winter, not that we can’t have more snow, of course. Certainly, over the years, we’ve seen lots of snow in May and June—especially over the Memorial Day weekend. But it’s May, time to start scratching the dirt in our gardens and going fishing.

More important, now that cold and snow are less likely to excuse us from getting out, it’s important to get outside. It’s time to unplug the electronics and breathe some fresh air and listen to the birds sing.

Don’t take my word for it.  I ran across a Forbes article on the internet about the importance of getting outside. The author, Bruce Lee, wrote about health problems that can be improved simply by getting outside.

He says, “Unless someone is pushing you around in a wheelbarrow,” being outdoors forces you to move around. Just being outside and moving around can improve health problems such as diabetes, obesity, cancer and vascular diseases.

Being outside can help reduce high blood pressure. An Australian study indicates that just being outside can reduce high blood pressure by as much as 9 percent.

Getting outside and in the sunshine can improve mental health, relieve depression and seasonal affective disorder. Spending time outside also seems to help people with dementia issues.

Being out in the sunshine will help the body produce vitamin D, which can strengthen brittle bones.

This one came as a surprise, but spending time outside can improve vision. The author cited a study in China that indicated that school children who had an additional 40 minute period of outdoor activities had a lower incidences of near-sightedness.

Spending time outside can help asthma and lung problems. Certainly, there are times when our outside air can be pretty polluted, but overall, it’s usually better than our indoor air with house dust, molds, tobacco smoke, carbon dioxide, pet dander, asbestos, and more. Our houses, especially after a long winter of being closed up, are a sick mixture of pollutants. Again, get outside and breathe some fresh air and clear the lungs.

Spending time outside can help people with addictions, work stress, boredom and loneliness. Spending time outside, getting some exercise, can help us sleep at night. It can also be good therapy for aches and pains.

While we’re at it, we, as parents, need to take responsibility for getting our children unplugged from their electronics and outside.

A few years back, Richard Louv wrote a book, Last Child in the Woods, about the problem of children not getting outside. Children are suffering from “nature-deficit disorder.”

Last week I read an essay by a friend, Chris Madson, the retired editor of Wyoming Outdoors, and one of the more deep-thinking individuals among our strange tribe of outdoor writers. See for more information.

Chris writes of growing up next to a somewhat neglected piece of forest at the edge of a suburban development. Most every day, he and a few friends would pack a sandwich and disappear, coming home dirty and sunburned in the evening. They learned to identify trees, poison ivy, and the sensation of being on their own.

That brought back memories of my own, growing up on a small farm in Minnesota. We had a pond and a little creek meandering through a cow pasture. That was my little bit of wilderness, and the source of uncounted hours of exploring, fishing, poking hands into mud and catching crayfish. As I got a little older I might have carried a bow and arrow or a .22 rifle.

I might have been a cowboy or a Comanche warrior on my wanderings. In winter I strapped on skis and looked for jackrabbits.

My brother and I also built a treehouse of sorts in small wooded area. There we might have pretended to be Tarzan.

In any event, a standard conversation when I eventually came back to the house was my mother asking, “Where were you?”

“Out,” I’d reply.

“What were you doing?”

“Nothing.” That was sufficient.

Eating Crow? Some People Have Recipes

Nothing to do with crows, but here’s Kiri keeping watch on me on our last outing.

As we shift gears into spring and summer outdoor activities, many are anxious for September and opportunities for upland bird hunting. Personally, I’m happy with fly-fishing Montana’s rivers and streams for a few months.  Autumn will come on its own schedule and it’ll be soon enough.

Still I get regular reminders about upland hunting, thanks to the internet. For the last year or so I’ve been getting regular emails Project Upland, a new hunting magazine. I don’t, at least not yet, subscribe to the magazine, but I get regular emails with hints on dogs, guns, birds, hunting videos, and the like, all promoting upland hunting and, of course, their new magazine. If you want to check it out, go to

Last week, the Project Upland email suggested crow hunting as a way of maintaining shooting skills through the off-season, as well as having fun and, yes, putting food on the table.

Andrea Crider, the author of the crow-hunting article, boosts crow hunting from several viewpoints, such as controlling some damage that crows inflict by raiding nests of other birds, along with crop depredation. In addition, crows respond to decoys and calling and it’s a lot like calling in ducks and geese in fall.

As for eating crow, she points out that besides being a metaphor for being humbled, crow meat is quite similar to duck and you can use the same recipes for crow that you use for waterfowl.

Before you start organizing a crow hunt, don’t do it in Montana. According to a spokesperson for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, crows are protected in Montana and are not open to general hunting.

Still, thoughts of shooting crows jogged my memory and sent me to the bookcase for The Trickiest Thing in Feathers, a compilation of bird hunting stories by the late Corey Ford. Corey Ford had a long and productive career as a writer and humorist from the 1920s to his death in 1969.

From the outdoors perspective, he’s now probably best remembered for his series of columns, The Lower Forty, short for The Lower Forty Shooting, Angling, and Inside Straight Club, that ran in Field & Stream magazine for many years, telling stories of his cast of characters, many based on a real circle of friends, in his rural New England community.

While most of the book’s stories are about quail, turkeys, ruffed grouse, and English setters, there is a chapter, “Wingshooting in Your Own Backyard,” on hunting crows.

Ford wrote about hunting crows as a challenging though often-productive pastime. He tells of using a tame crow as a decoy, but also wrote of capturing a feral cat and tying it up in a clearing and shooting at crows that swarm around to attack the cat.

The author hated feral cats and a following chapter is titled “Tiger Hunting for the Man of Modest Means.”But he concluded his crow story, “Not only will you get good shooting…but you can top your sport at the day’s end by shooting the cat.”

Finally, during this Easter season of miracles, I had a modest miracle as well.

On one of the few nice days in early April I took another trip to the Madison River for some fly-fishing. Unlike the first outing, when I teased a whole bunch of little rainbows, this time I got skunked, and I called it a day when gusting winds almost blew me over.

I drove home and after letting my wife know I was back I went out to the garage to unpack my gear, with the unsettling thought, quickly confirmed, that I didn’t remember throwing my wading boots back in the truck after taking off my waders.

It was too late to go back to the river, but we were going to Bozeman the next day for a symphony concert, so we took the scenic route along the Madison and, happily, my boots were still where I left them.

The good lord blesses the pure in heart, but occasionally protects fools, as well.

Earth Day Celebration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of the Fishery – Big Hole & Rock Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Olsen, FWP biologist for the Big Hole River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next GGTU program meeting will be on May 8.

Flyfishing Season Begins!

Little rainbows – fun on a lightweight fly-rod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dog on the rock – Kiri enjoying the outing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radical Groups Affect Public Lands and Human Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a positive message in all this?

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

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

For more information, check

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.