Pittman-Robertson Celebrating 75 Years of Success

Some years ago, when every hunting outing was a learning experience, a sign posted at the fenceline at a state-owned wildlife management area confused me. The sign designated the land on the other side of the fence as open to public hunting, which was good, but the last line on the sign said, “A P-R Project.“

My first thought was to wonder why the state created Public Relations projects.

Years later, some things remain the same. Every outing is still a learning experience. The more time we spend in the great outdoors, the more we come to realize how much more there is to learn.

On the other hand, I did learn that “P-R Project” wasn’t a public relations gimmick.

No, that P-R Project sign was a reminder that most of our publicly owned wildlife management areas aren’t just a happy accident. Instead, it’s a reminder of the bond among generations of hunters who have cheerfully paid Federal excise taxes on every purchase of firearms and ammunition, with the proceeds going to states to help manage wildlife and wildlife habitat.

The P-R stands for Pittman-Robertson, and the law that provides for the tax is generally called the Pittman-Robertson Act, though its official name is the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which was sponsored by Senator Key Pittman of Nevada, and Congressman Absalom W. Robertson of Virginia.

The Pittman-Robertson Act became law 75 years ago this year, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the bill into law on September 2, 1937. Over the years, the bill has been amended many times, with a significant expansion in 1970 to include handguns and handgun ammunition and archery equipment in items subject to the excise tax.

In 1950, a similar law, the Federal Aid in Fish Restoration Act, also commonly called the Dingell-Johnson Act, after its legislative sponsors, put an excise tax on fishing tackle to generate money for sport fishing restoration. That law was expanded in 1984 with the Wallop-Breaux Amendment, which added an excise tax to motorboat fuel and import duties on fishing tackle and boats.

All in all, the money raised through these taxes have generated billions of dollars that are passed on to states for wildlife management, including acquiring land, habitat, fisheries management, plus funding of public access facilities, such as docks, education, and so on. The money passed along to states is matched, in part, by money we spend on hunting and fishing licenses.

While we’re talking about Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson programs, we might also consider the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamps, or Duck Stamp, for short. Duck Stamps have been around since 1934 and are required for hunting migratory waterfowl. Since the beginning of the program, revenues from hunters’ purchase of Duck Stamps have been used to help purchase or lease over 5.3million acres of waterfowl habitat in the U.S.

I suppose I could go on some rant about how us hunters and anglers raise all this money for fish and wildlife habitat that benefits all us, while others do nothing. I might do that one of these days, but for now I think it’s more important to celebrate 75 years of Pittman-Robertson and related programs and how much we hunters and anglers have done over the decades, simply by indulging our inclination to buy more stuff.

A couple weeks ago, Land Tawney, a Missoula friend and conservationist, did a commentary on Montana Public Radio on Pittman-Robertson and how much it has done, going on to suggest that perhaps the program should be broadened to extend the excise tax on other hunting equipment, such as 4-wheelers, camouflage clothing, and the like. Similarly, others have suggested that since it has been such a long time since the last increase in a cost for a federal Duck Stamp, we duck hunters should double up and buy two stamps, to help compensate for inflation, as well as declining numbers of waterfowl hunters.

Those are all ideas worth considering, but for now, let’s celebrate those 75 years, and then buy more stuff.

The mountain doesn’t give a hoot.

The mountain doesn’t much give a hoot about hunters.

That’s a reminder I often give myself during these fall and early winter months when I’m spending a lot of time walking up and down mountainsides, usually carrying a shotgun. I suspect I’m in a minority on that point, but whether you’re carrying a shotgun, rifle or bow, the principle is the same: the mountain doesn’t give a hoot.

The mountains are full of hazards, any of which can trip up the hunter or hiker. Things such as tree roots or branches hiding under loose leaves are an example.

As winter comes there are new hazards. I can think of falls I’ve taken over the years simply because the ground had frozen and become slippery, or stepping on frozen moose or elk droppings that act like ball bearings on frozen ground. Snow hides hazards, and I’ve often slipped on branches and sticks hiding in the snow.

Then there are oddities such as bogs on the mountainsides. I remember one hunt when I went across a low spot and suddenly one leg went down to the top of my thigh in wet mud.

Then, of course, there are rockslides, talus slopes and other such places where it’s never safe under any weather condition.

Again, it’s not that the mountain is out to get you; it just doesn’t give a hoot about mere people, or animals, for that matter. The mountain has been there for millions of years and will be there millions of years after we’re gone. If visitors do something foolish and get hurt, the incident won’t even register as a blip in the history of the mountain.

Then there are the water hazards.

On my last hunt I spent a pleasant few hours looking for ruffed grouse. I didn’t find any that day, but that didn’t detract from the outing. Flicka, my Labrador retriever, and I were poking our way up an aspen-covered hillside when Flicka suddenly stopped, then started growling and barking. About 40 feet down the hillside a pair of moose, a bull and cow, got up and went trotting off through the trees. I wish I had reacted quicker as the bull was sporting one of the heavier sets of antlers I’ve seen in several years, and I would have loved to get a photo of him.

I’ve often seen moose in this area. It’s good moose habitat, with aspens, brush thickets, and water. On one hillside there are springs that emerge from the ground and flow down to a creek at the bottom of the hill. The springs nurture a thick bed of watercress. I don’t know if moose like to eat watercress, though they certainly like having an all-season source of fresh water. For my part, I do like to eat watercress and I carry a plastic bag with me when I hunt the area so I can bring home a watercress salad.

When Flicka and I had pretty much exhausted our possibilities we headed back to the truck. Remember that creek? To get back to where I parked I have to cross this little creek. I’ve crossed it dozens of times over the years without incident. This time, however, to avoid getting my boots wet I elected to step on stones to get across.

Stepping-stones are unreliable, however. My boot slipped on one and I made an ungraceful water entry. I went to my knees and got soaked to the waist in icy water. One knee cracked up against a rock. Worst of all, my shotgun hit the same rock, and if my knee picked up an abrasion, the stock of the gun picked up some nasty gouges.

I gave up any thoughts I had about checking another hunting spot in favor of getting home as soon as possible and changing into dry clothes.

My knee, happily, just had a shallow scrape. The shotgun needed a good session with sanding, stain and refinishing. The afternoon’s hunt was a good reminder about the hazards of a fall hike.

And the mountain? It didn’t give a hoot.

On getting outwitted by ruffed grouse.

  I wish I had a dollar, no let’s make that five dollars to allow for inflation, for every magazine or calendar illustration I’ve seen showing a ruffed grouse sailing over a clearing in the forest with a hunter, with gun raised, and a dog at his side.

Flicka and the day’s bag of grouse.

Over some 30 or more years of chasing after ruffed grouse I guess I have actually seen a few grouse take those flights across clearings, but they’re few and far between. Ruffed grouse survive by breaking rules, not imitating art.

Those cold rains in mid-September ushered in autumn. By the calendar it was still summer, but when it cleared there was a chill in the air along with clear blue skies after the rains washed out the smoke haze of recent weeks; in other words, the perfect time to check one of my ruffed grouse coverts.

This ruffed grouse walk took me over familiar terrain, a mountain hillside with patches of aspens interspersed with pine stands. I’ve been visiting this hillside every year for over 20 seasons. Sometimes I find grouse and sometimes I don’t. I even remember one year when there were a lot of grouse, but that was an exception.

Flicka, my Labrador retriever and hunting partner, was acting ‘birdy’ as she sniffed out bird scent along the ground in a clump of pines at the edge of the aspens. My shotgun was ready, but I wasn’t quick enough when a grouse flushed—not from the clump of pines Flicka was sniffing, but from another one 10 feet away. I caught just a glimpse of the bird before it disappeared into the trees.

From the sound of wings as the bird flew off, I didn’t think the bird went far. The trick was to find out just where the bird went.

We tramped through the aspens, Flicka occasionally finding tantalizing whiffs of scent, though nothing that resulted in a flushing grouse. After a couple wide circles, however, a grouse flushed from the top of a knoll, flying downhill through the trees. I got off a couple shots at the disappearing bird, but they weren’t good shots.

We walked down the hillside, again hoping to flush the grouse, optimistically thinking that the third time would be a charm.

We did find that bird a third time. This time it was up in the twisted branches of a pine tree that recently perished to a pine beetle attack. The bird flushed from high up the tree and disappeared without giving me a glimpse. We tried to get yet another flush but this time the grouse gave us the slip. We searched the area hoping to see it one more time, but this bird didn’t hang around any longer. Chalk up another score for ruffed grouse.

Some of my favorite places in southwest Montana are ruffed grouse coverts. Ruffed grouse and aspens go together like a horse and carriage. Aspen thickets are islands of color, sunshine and moisture in autumn, as aspens and underbrush turn from green, as they were in mid-September, to shades of yellow and orange, as they will be these next couple weeks. A month from now, after the leaves drop, the aspen thickets will be austere shades of brown and gray.

Ruffed grouse habitat is dynamic and always changing. In recent years it seemed like pines were taking over many of my grouse coverts. Then pine beetles came along and now new aspens are popping up.

Whatever the season, ruffed grouse depend on aspens for shelter and livelihood, and that means I keep coming back, and sometimes things work.

On that outing, after Flicka and I circled back to the truck and had a lunch break, we tried another spot. We hadn’t gotten far when I realized that Flicka had gone on point. I prepared for a flushing grouse and was ready when it took off. Another pine tree bravely sacrificed a branch, but enough #8 shot slipped through to drop the bird.

There are never guarantees but sometimes those meanders end with the makings of a gourmet dinner.

Blue Grouse Training Camp

Flicka and the first grouse of 2011

It’s been a tough fall training camp, up on that western Montana mountain.

Trudging up and down those mountainsides, I couldn’t help thinking back to those long ago twice a day football practices back in my high school days. Those sweaty sessions under a steamy August sun were a long time ago, to be sure. In fact, I have to concede that the last time I put on cleats and pads, President Dwight Eisenhower was running for reelection, if that’s any indication.

Still, the goal of those practices: to get in good physical condition so that playing football games would seem easy in comparison, seemed altogether too much like the opening of the upland bird season over Labor Day weekend.

In recent years we’ve spent Labor Day weekends camping at a Forest Service campground convenient to both flyfishing and grouse hunting. There’s a Forest Service road that loops its way to near the top of a mountain and over the years I’ve established about five different areas that have blue grouse habitat. There are other areas on the mountain that look pretty much the same to me, but I never found grouse there. I guess you’d have to ask the grouse why they never go to these other spots. If you can find them, that is.

On opening day we drove up that mountain road before dawn and halfway up the mountain I spotted a covey of grouse on the road. The birds nervously moved off the road when Flicka, my Labrador retriever hunting partner, and I made our approach, but we managed to get shots at the flushing birds and dropped one of them. With one bird in hand we pounded the bush but the birds had scattered and didn’t want to be found.

At the top of the mountain we ran into another covey of grouse. I missed a shot at one bird, but another bird flew directly at me, about 15 feet off the ground. It’s an easy shot to miss, but I got this one. The bird folded, though its momentum carried it so that it actually crashed into and bounced off my leg. Flicka was at my side and caught it in midair on the bounce—an easy retrieve.

On another sagebrush ridge we put up just a couple birds that flushed at the edge of shooting range. I got off a couple shots but nothing dropped. We had friends coming to our camp for lunch that day so that ended that first day of hunting. I felt pretty good about getting a couple of those big, chunky birds.

In succeeding mornings, however, those grouse outfoxed Flicka and me at every turn. They’d flush when we were still 50 or so yards away. If we followed them into the timber they’d flush from the tops of trees, and I learned long ago the hard way that that’s about as tough a shot as they come.

I called the birds blue grouse, though if you look in the upland hunting regulations you’ll see the birds referred to as “dusky” grouse. In 2006, the American Ornithological Union designated blue grouse into two different strains. The grouse of inland mountains are now officially dusky grouse and the grouse of Pacific coastal mountains are “sooty” grouse. In the current issue of Montana Outdoors, writer Dave Carty wrote about hunting mountain grouse and used “dusky” throughout the article. He explained the official name change, though he acknowledges that when he’s talking to his hunting buddies, he’ll still call them blue grouse.

Whatever you call those grouse, don’t call them fool hens. While blue grouse, or dusky grouse, if you want to be correct, often have a reputation for innocence, I can take you trekking across a mountain where I know grouse are to be found, but after they’ve flushed at long distance, or flushed where a big tree screens their escape flight, you may start calling those grouse some new names, but fool hen won’t be one of them.

There may be fools on the mountain, but it’s the hunters, not the grouse.

Looking Back at September 11, 2001 – An Outdoors Perspective

This coming weekend we will commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001.

It was one of those days that, like the day of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, are indelibly imprinted in our memories. It was one of those days we can remember where we were and what we were doing and with whom we were doing it. I can’t think of another day quite like it, when my wife and I both spent most of the day in front of a TV set, watching again and again, the sights of the airliner crashing into the second tower, and then the two World Trade Center towers collapsing.

After watching and listening to hours of endless coverage and interminable analysis, both my wife and I were totally numb by evening and we finally had to turn it all off and get some respite.

A couple days later, in an urgent search for less information, we hooked up the trailer and headed for the northern prairies and a couple days of sharp-tailed grouse hunting.

I had to go back and check my hunting journals as to what kind of hunting success I had that week. It was one of those trips when Candy, our Labrador retriever of those years, and I did a lot of walking across the grasslands but put up just a few grouse and I never pulled the trigger on my shotgun. From the success/failure aspects of the trip, the only productive part was, on the way home, an evening stop along the Missouri River south of Great Falls and catching some nice rainbow trout.

The most memorable part of the trip was what we didn’t see. We had beautiful weather that week, with lots of clear, blue skies and warm temperatures. What was missing in those clear skies was contrails.

Normally, those big prairie-country skies are always crisscrossed with contrails of various aircraft going over what many along both east and west coasts think of as ‘flyover country.’ That week, with all civilian aircraft grounded, there were no airplanes flying over flyover country.

I recently read a book of fishing stories, with one of the stories telling of the author taking a trip to a remote Canadian river, culminating with flying into an even more remote spike camp, with an appointment for the bush pilot to fly back and take him out on a specified date.

The appointed date came and went and nobody came. Finally, running out of supplies, the fisherman packed up what he could carry, and after a difficult trek through the mountains, made it back to base, where he belatedly learned about the events of September 11, 2001, and why the bush pilot wasn’t able to bring him out.

Many people had stories of epic cross-country trips to get home. Getting home, wherever that might have been, was the overwhelming goal for so many people that week.

A lot has happened these past ten years in the aftermath of that terrible day. We’ve gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and thousands of Americans and allied troops have made the supreme sacrifice. At last count, there were 4,792 military coalition deaths in Iraq and 2, 698 in Afghanistan (source: icasualties.org), plus the hundreds of thousands of other casualties. According to antiwar.com, the total American wounded are over 100,000, far more than the official figure of 33,125, and that doesn’t include a possible 300,000 or more Americans with undocumented brain injuries and concussions.

As of last week, the total cost of wars since 2001 is over $1.2 trillion, and that figure goes up about $10,000 every three seconds (costofwar.com).

Osama bin-Laden, the architect of 9-11, finally kept a belated appointment with destiny this spring, though the chain of mischief he set into motion keeps unfolding.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on national affairs and international relations. What I do know is that spending time on trout streams, mountains and prairies, carrying a flyrod or shotgun, is my sure grip on sanity in this insane world.

Did I mention that I love September?

Flicka in search of grouse last September

The days are shorter and the mornings are getting chilly, though chilly mornings are the norm rather than the exception here in the mountains of western Montana.

Is this the end of summer? I don’t think so, though while early September may not be the end of summer, it is the beginning of the end of summer.

To my mind, however, tomorrow is New Years Day. I know you won’t find many calendars marking tomorrow as a holiday but it is to me, because that first day of September is the first day of the 2011 Montana hunting season.

The upland bird season for grouse of various kinds, along with Hungarian partridge and wild turkeys opens tomorrow on the first day of September. On Saturday, September 3, big game archery seasons begin. Note, however, that the pheasant season doesn’t begin until October 8 and waterfowl seasons have not yet been set. The deer and elk rifle seasons will begin on October 22, but that’s a long time from now, so we won’t worry about that for now.

Still, I look ahead to chilly dawns on top of a western Montana mountain. There’s a haze in the air from a distant fire smoldering away, and as usual there are some questions in my mind. Every year, it seems that the mountains are higher and steeper, and I have to pause more frequently to catch my breath.

Those thoughts are a given. The major question running through my mind will be whether we’ll find birds somewhere on this walk through the mountaintop sagebrush meadows.

We had a late winter and a cold, rainy and snowy spring. Did those grouse chicks chip their way out of their eggshell, back in June, to find a sunny, early summer day, or was their first peek at the world a late spring storm? The answers to that question on thousands of mountains and millions of acres of prairie add up to what kind of days Montana hunters will experience when they take their first walks of the year in search of upland birds.

While the question of what Flicka, my black Labrador retriever and faithful hunting partner and I will find is still to be answered, rest assured we will be out there taking those morning hikes. It’s what we do, and, good lord willing, we’ll keep doing it as long as we’re able.

While I mentally begin to focus on shotgunning and upland birds in coming days and weeks, it’s a focus that often shifts to trout and flyfishing. For many anglers, the summer of 2011 has been a difficult and frustrating season with prolonged periods of spring runoff.

Now, at the end of summer, rivers are in prime shape for angling. The fish are feisty and robust after chowing down during all those weeks of high water. Fishing may not be easy right now, though it may be rewarding if you’re on the water at the right time.

Tricos, those diminutive mayflies of late summer, make their spinner flights to lay eggs on the water in mid to late mornings. When conditions are right, fish go nuts over the millions of bugs coming to the water. If you enjoy fishing light tackle and tiny flies, this can be some of the most exciting fishing of the year. Using #20 flies on a 6X leader isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it sure is fun when a good trout sips it in. Of course, for comic relief, this is also the season for hoppers. Take your choice.

In short, tomorrow is September and with early season hunting, late season flyfishing, ripening chokecherries and wild plums, there are more opportunities in the great outdoors than there is time in which to do it.

I kind of hate to see those sunsets getting earlier every evening and sunrises later every morning, but it’s the rhythm of the seasons and that rhythm beats with more urgency this time of year.

Did I mention that I love September?

New Trend: the Locavore Hunter – and Welcome!

A pair of sharptailed grouse from last year – the beginnings of a couple gourmet dinners.

The summer is flying by. Now that southwest Montana rivers are finally getting into good shape, it seems like the fishing season is just beginning. On the other hand, we look at the calendar and realize that the 2011 hunting season is just a few weeks away, with upland bird hunting beginning on September 1 and archery season on September 3.

Hunting was a hot topic at last month’s annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, held at Snowbird resort at Salt Lake City.

Keynote speaker Hank Shaw predicts a wave of new hunters coming on the scene, helping to reverse a decline in hunter numbers in many states. Shaw calls them “Adult Onset Hunters,” people who have not grown up in hunting families or in a hunting culture.

Shaw is a longtime political reporter who has gravitated towards a new career as a food writer and blogger, and he counts himself among this new wave of Adult Onset Hunters, people who are out there for the food. He says, “I’m a cook who hunts. We enjoy the experience, but at the end of the day, we want food on the plate.”

Shaw, who also describes himself as, “the omnivore who has solved his dilemma,” (a reference to the bestselling book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan) is a person who enthusiastically looks for natural foods and writes about it at his blog, “Hunter Angler Gardener Cook” (http://honest-food.net). He also wrote a book on the topic, “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the forgotten feast.” To indicate he’s serious about it, he reports that grackles, a bird that mostly annoys people, are great eating. “They’re seed eaters, and as a general principle, seed-eating birds are good eating.”

Shaw says he is continually running into prospective hunters at places not traditionally associated with hunting, such as food co-ops or on online forums, or at restaurants where there are chefs who feature game and foraged food. He asserts that there’s a whole new world of hunters out there and they’re eager for information on how to get started hunting, and then how to turn that bounty into food on the table. That wild bounty includes things such as starlings, jackrabbits and the like, as well as more mainstream wild game. His website also has many recipes for wild game and foraged food.

Shaw also suggests that state game agencies should offer additional hunter education classes geared for adults, as a beginning adult hunter may feel like a misfit in a class of 11 and 12 year-olds.

Jackson Landers is another hunting advocate who has made a reputation by teaching hunting basics to people who hadn’t been part of any hunting tradition but recognize wild game as an excellent source of locally grown, natural food. He regularly teaches classes on deer hunting, including field dressing animals, meat cutting and cooking. The New York Times produced a video about his classes, “Closer to the Bone,” in 2009, which can still be viewed online.

Landers recently completed a book, “Hunting Deer for Food,” which will be issued next month, and is working on another book project, “Eating Aliens,” about hunting and eating alien invasive species. He also has a website, “The Locavore Hunter.”

Landers grew up in a vegetarian household and never tasted meat until he was ten years old. He learned to enjoy eating meat and when, in his 20s, he inherited some guns, he took up hunting, and has turned that into a career.

Of his classes, Landers says, “I’ve had hundreds of people take my classes and they’ve become serious hunters.”

Landers does point out, however, that these new locavore hunters haven’t gotten much recognition, especially by the mainstream outdoor press, which generally focuses on lifelong hunters. He asserts that, “New hunters need the wisdom of old hunters; old hunters need these new hunters to maintain hunter numbers.”

Maintaining these hunter numbers is essential to preserving our hunting tradition as a mainstream, politically accepted means of outdoor recreation and, of course, meat in the freezer.

Welcome to the gang and bon appétit.

It’s November and the Seasons Are Progressing

The Bounty Under a Cold, Late Autumn Sky

“Don’t go to Montana or Idaho. The wolves have gotten all the elk and deer. There’s nothing left.”

This spring our son, who lives in North Dakota, reported on attending a sportsmen’s show and that was the message blared out by a person promoting his business of booking hunts in Canada. Right now I think a lot of Montana hunters would say the guy was full of beans.

Opening weekend of the big game rifle season is just a small part of the season but if the initial reports from game checking stations hold up this could be a great hunting season. Certainly the heavy snow that pelted the high mountain peaks is a positive factor in hunting success on the opening weekend. That snow can also make hunting difficult when it comes to navigating some of those back country roads, but it also forces deer and elk to lower elevations where hunters have a better chance of finding them.

The big question is what will the weather do as we progress through the season? Certainly we’ve had other years when stormy opening weekends turned into mild and sunny Novembers, better for flyfishing than big game hunting. If nothing else, with the election campaign ending yesterday the weather should be cooling off. There will be a lot less hot air blowing around.

If you’re looking for some new hunting territory, you may be interested in knowing that the new Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area near Deer Lodge is open to hunting this season. While there was some controversy as to whether the state should have acquired the property in the first place, it’s a done deal and the area is an important acquisition to the public lands open to hunting. More information is available at the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website at http://fwp.mt.gov. You can download interim regulations for the area as well as a map.

While elk and deer are getting a lot of attention this time of year let’s not forget that there are a lot of other hunting opportunities right now.

I always figure that right now is a good time to go pheasant hunting. Now that we’re almost a month into the season a lot of the people who were out tramping pheasant country in early October are now up in the mountains looking for elk or might have even quit hunting for the year. This means that some landowners will be more receptive to a polite request for hunting permission. In addition, as hunting pressure eases pheasants may be returning to some of the high quality game habitat on public land areas.

Last month I spent several days in and around the Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area near Fairfield, Montana. There is some great pheasant habitat in areas of the complex, with brushy shelterbelts, food plots and about as much grassland as you care to walk. The birds get pushed hard in the first few weeks of the season, but things get better.

Mountain grouse kind of get forgotten as we get into the late autumn, but right now is a prime time for hunting ruffed grouse. In Midwest and eastern states ruffed grouse get a lot of hunting attention. Here in Montana hunters often ignore these wonderful game birds. Granted, it isn’t always easy hunting, climbing up and down mountain foothills and wandering the aspen thickets. With leaves off the trees, however, it’s slightly easier to find the birds and to follow their flights through the forest.

If you’re out in search of upland birds, however, don’t forget to wear blaze orange clothing. It’s just about the most important thing you can do to stay safe.

The waterfowl season has been open for a month but I always figure the best hunting is yet to come as some of these winter weather systems sweep across the western Canadian provinces and the northern prairies of Montana. Each storm means fresh flights of ducks and geese heading for southwestern Montana.

As usual, the biggest problem is finding time to do it all. Good luck!

I Say Vote ‘No" on I-161

The cock pheasant flushed from the edge of a patch of cattails and took to the air. I swung my shotgun along the pheasant’s flight path and pulled the trigger. The pheasant kept on flying for parts unknown.

I apologized to Flicka, my Labrador retriever. She’d been working the cover and finding the birds. She figures I should do my job and give her a pheasant to retrieve. Sometimes it works that way. This time I fell down on the job. Fortunately, Flicka is forgiving—as long as we’re looking for more birds she’s willing to overlook my lapses.

We were hunting on a farm along the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s a place I’ve hunted many tines and I treasure the memories I’ve stored up from many walks across the fields, as well as the three different Labs who have shared these walks. Also treasured are lively discussions over the kitchen table with the elderly couple that made their home on the farm for so many years. They’re gone now, too, but the bond of friendship continues with their adult children who continue to reside there.

Like many good hunting properties around Montana, the hunting isn’t free, though in this case the price of hunting is some good conversation.

I treasure this and some other farms and ranches where I have hunted over the years. At a time when many hunters are struggling to find a place to hunt it’s good to know there are places where I’m welcome to hunt. In fact, they often call to find out when I’m coming.

Nevertheless I still mourn the loss of some other farms and ranches where I used to hunt. One of those, a farm along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana, was a pheasant paradise. It was often tough hunting because of impenetrable brush and thorns in spots, but it seldom failed to produce pheasants.

Several years ago the owners elected to start charging their hunters a trespass fee. That’s when I stopped going there. Before taking that step they also considered leasing the hunting rights to a local outfitter, but they ultimately decided to charge a trespass fee so as to maintain direct control of the hunting.

Losing the privilege of hunting on that farm still hurts though I don’t blame them for making changes in their policies. Making a living on a farm or ranch is a tough proposition, what with the high costs of production and a razor thin profit margin. If there has been a lot of turnover in farm and ranch ownership the last couple decades, the cold, harsh realities of agricultural economics are usually at the root of change. It’s no wonder many operators have resorted to charging trespass fees or leasing hunting rights.

That’s also at the heart of an initiative on the Montana ballot this election season. Initiative No 161 (I-161) is one of the few initiatives to pass the hurdles to get on the ballot. Two weeks ago, Rick Foote, the editor of the Weekly, wrote a detailed analysis of the measure and its pros and cons. I won’t go into that detail other than to briefly summarize the provisions of the measure. In short, I-161 would end a program of outfitter-sponsored licenses for elk and deer. Under this program non-residents pay a premium price for a big game hunting license when they book a hunt with a Montana outfitter

If the measure passes, all non-residents wanting to hunt in Montana would have to enter the general drawing for elk or deer license and pay higher fees, as well.

Backers of the measure assert that abolition of the outfitter-sponsored license will reverse that trend of landowners leasing hunting rights to outfitters and, thus, improve hunting opportunities for Montana residents.

Personally, I’m not convinced that I-161’s backers have made their case. I doubt that this measure, if passed, would roll things back to those good old days. As far as I’m concerned it’s agricultural economics that forces farmers and ranchers to seek additional revenue by leasing hunting rights and I-161 doesn’t change that.

I’m voting no.

Montana’s Hunting Outlook for 2010

The aspens in Montana’s mountain country will be turning golden in a few weeks.

The upland bird hunting seasons opened today at sunrise and the archery deer and elk season will open on Saturday. As we plan early hunting outings, what are the prospects for success?

According to a phone interview with Rick Northrup, upland bird coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Helena, the overall prospects for bird populations are good for most upland game birds, with some localized exceptions.

Northrup explained that the projections of bird populations are based on a combination of looking at 2009 hunter harvest statistics, adding in data for weather conditions during late spring and early summer when birds are trying to lay and hatch eggs and get the chicks through their first couple weeks. Finally, they add in about 30 years of weather data, hunter harvest data and try to correlate all those statistics into projections for brood survival. He sums up, “We’re trying to be scientific.”

In Region 3, which includes much of southwest Montana, FWP predicts bird populations to be similar to 2009 with the exception of the southern portions of Beaverhead, Madison and Gallatin Counties, which had severe cold and precipitation conditions during the crucial nesting period. Otherwise, hunters should find average bird populations among mountain grouse, sage grouse and Hungarian partridge. The pheasant season doesn’t open until October, but bird populations should be similar to 2009, when the pheasant harvest was slightly above average.

The northwest and northeast corners of Montana are exceptions to the generally optimistic outlook for relatively healthy bird populations. Northwest Montana had severe weather conditions this spring that affected nesting success.

Northeast Montana, a popular destination for pheasant hunters, had a severe winter in 2008-2009. Pheasant hunter success in 2009 was just 41 percent of average and sharp-tailed grouse success was 74 percent of average. The 2009-2010 winter and 2010 spring conditions were better than a year ago, but putting it in sports terminology, this is a rebuilding year.

Some areas of the Rocky Mountain Front had severe weather in late April 2009 that caused pheasant and partridge deaths, and lower fall populations. There should be some improvement in 2010 populations.

While FWP makes projections based on those complex factors, the best idea is to put on those boots and see what’s out there in the areas you like to hunt. That’s what I’m going to do.

In other hunting news, FWP has tentatively sent dates for the waterfowl seasons. In both the Central and Pacific Flyway areas of Montana, duck and goose hunting will begin on October 2. In addition there will be a combined Youth Waterfowl Season and Youth Pheasant Season on September 25 and 26. These special youth seasons are statewide and are to encourage younger hunters to get involved with hunting. Youth are classed as age 11 -15, legally licensed and accompanied by a non-hunting adult age 18 or older.

For archery hunters looking for early season elk, as well as rifle hunters looking ahead to October, Vanna Boccadori, a big game wildlife biologist at the FWP Butte office says, “It’s a good year for elk. We had spring rains and summer rains, the grass is belly-deep all over in our area.

“The calf counts are good, and last year’s spike bulls are raghorns this year. We had good recruitment among this class of elk.”

On the other hand, she reports mule deer numbers are down and “They are generally depressed around Montana—it’s one of those periodic cycles, and it’s reflected in a cut in numbers of B Tags available in Region 3.” She also reports pronghorn antelope numbers are up and for a little variety she mentions, “We’ve had a lot of black bear sightings. People who still have a bear tag left over after the spring season should take it along just in case. And, as usual, whitetail deer are thriving.”

The important thing, as always, is that the hunting seasons start this week. Whether you carry a shotgun or archery equipment, our time, the best time of the year in Montana, is finally here. But don’t forget your fishing rod.

Hunting Season Almost Here

Flicka and a blue grouse from opening of 2009 hunting season.

So, what happened to summer? By the calendar, of course, it’s still summer and will be for almost another month.

By the calendar, however, September 1 is a week from today and by my standards that means fall, because that is when the hunting seasons begin.

Yes, one week from today the upland bird hunting seasons begin, and time to get the shotgun out of the cabinet and make those long walks across the prairies, sagebrush meadows and mountainsides of Montana in search of mountain grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse and Hungarian partridge. The pheasant season will open October 9, and while some seasons close a bit earlier, it means we can go chase birds of one kind or another until New Year’s Day, and then, presumably, we’ll still have a couple weeks of late waterfowling before the 2010 general hunting seasons finally close.

The archery seasons for deer and elk open a week from Saturday, on September 4. The archery seasons, in general, run through October 17, and then the rifle season, which for many Montanans is hunting season, opens October 23, running through November 28. A newer wrinkle in the hunting season calendar is a youth deer season, which will be on October 21, and 22.

Of course, don’t rely on me when making your hunting plans for the coming months. Pick up a copy of the various hunting regulations at license vendors, sporting goods stores, or online at http://fwp.mt.gov.

This has always been a special time of the year for me and most people for whom hunting is ingrained as an important part of life, and it is especially true for those of us who keep a hunting dog twelve months out of the year in order to have a canine partner during the hunting season.

At our house, Flicka, our black Labrador retriever, is definitely getting anxious for those first hunting outings of the fall season. She demands and gets daily retrieving sessions, and she wades and swims the trout streams when we’re fishing, but that’s just fun and games and the things she does just to be with her people. Finding bird scent, pointing, flushing, and when things work right, retrieving is what she lives for. For that matter, the fun of following a dog across a mountain meadow and watching it do what it was born to do has come to be almost more important than the shooting and occasionally bringing home a bag of birds.

Flicka, for those of you who have followed her adventures since she was a pup, just celebrated her fifth birthday earlier this month. She’s in this all too short prime of life, the fleeting period between obnoxious puppyhood and the inevitable geriatric period of life. She’s the seasoned veteran of many hunts since her initiation to hunting in early winter of 2005. Yet, she has lots of energy and stamina for as many days of hunting as we can fit in during the season. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that she likely has more reason to worry about my keeping up with her as we start another season.

While we make that mental adjustment to hunting season, we shouldn’t forget that there is still a lot of fishing to do. In fact many people would suggest that the best flyfishing of the year is in the fall. The best thing is that it’s perfectly feasible to have it all. We can hunt in the morning and fish in the afternoon and evening. Cast and blast, as it’s called.

Chokecherries are now just about ripe. The tourist season is about over, so campgrounds will be all but deserted much of the time—at least after we get past the upcoming Labor Day weekend. Hunting seasons are about to start and fishing is good. The weather is great—at least some of the time at least. Yup, early fall is great. Get out there and enjoy it while it lasts.

The best time of the year is here.