Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Wilderness: The Crown Jewel of the Treasure State

By Nick Gevock

Imagine Montana without the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or as most Montanans simply call it  “The Bob.”

Think of the Treasure State without the Absaroka-Beartooth, Anaconda-Pintler or Lee Metcalf Wilderness areas. Throw in those smaller gems –like the Rattlesnake, where an elk tag can be filled within sight of Downtown Missoula. . It was five decades ago this month that Congress had the foresight to pass the Wilderness Act. Today we look back and see how blessed we are that people of all political stripes did the hard work to set aside some of our country’s most spectacular places; we see the wisdom inherent in the passage of the act.

One only has to look at other areas of federal or state lands that are heavily roaded, logged, drilled, mined and otherwise disturbed by man. That is not to say that every piece of public land should be wilderness. Nor is it a call to end natural resource development on public lands.

In fact, there are many places where some sound timber management is warranted, and where energy development can be done responsibly.

But the fact is, there are other places in Montana that are best suited for wilderness protection. They’re places that still maintain the untouched character of wildness that the Act described so eloquently. They’ve been studied, and studied, and from a landscape analysis perspective the highest and best use is as wilderness.

That offers the protection that allows wildlife to thrive. It allows streams to continue to provide cold, clean water for fish and to supply drinking water for our homes and towns Wilderness provides places for hunters, anglers, hikers, horseback riders, wildlife watchers, skiers and anybody else who wants a bit of relief from the modern world. Anybody with a pair of boots and will to walk a little bit can experience Wilderness.
Just the language in the Act itself is inspiring. Places that are “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” That well describes the Bob, where people hike and horseback ride in summer but for much of the year is free of human intervention.

Of course like anything with public lands there are people who say we have enough wilderness and don’t need more. Others say you can’t get into a wilderness because no roads go into them.

But even those people benefit from wilderness areas. Hunters who spend their days afield on the national forests are often pursuing game that came out of these high mountain areas. Anglers that enjoy  our world-class fisheries as well as the irrigators that produce our alfalfa, corn and barley  rely on the water pumped into our rivers by clean mountain streams. And for others, getting the watch the wildlife that comes out of those mountains every year is a special reward – and a call to protect these natural places that make Montana such a destination for people from around the world. It’s been over three decades since we designated a wilderness area in Montana. 

The areas we’re working on now, including the Rocky Mountain Front and some lands in western Montana, are controversial, but worth the effort to protect. Montanans have strong legacy of standing up for Wilderness and protecting important public lands. While the politics of Wilderness designation has deteriorated, the spirit, drive and determination of Montanans of all walks of life has only grown stronger. It’s time for Congress to act and pass the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, Forest Jobs & Recreation, and the North Fork Protection Act. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Finding Fish in a Changing World

By Hellgate Hunters & Anglers Board member Josh Conner

Montana is a state known for its abundance of pristine river systems.  With thousands of miles of winding rivers, creeks and streams, it is a fisherman’s paradise.  From Cutthroat fishing in cold water cobblestone creeks, to hunting big browns in the slow moving waters of the Missouri, there is something to satisfy even the pickiest of anglers. 

I’ve fished the rivers in Montana for over 30 years and these diverse offerings have kept me passionate in the sport my entire life.  I could travel in any direction and find something new and different; rising rainbows in the soft waters of the Clark Fork, elusive brown trout hiding under the banks of the Bitterroot.  I can swing a streamer for that opportunistic monster in the Blackfoot, or present that perfect drifting dry fly to that picky surface sipper of the Yellowstone.  The opportunity appears to be endless, but these productive fisheries in Montana haven’t magically appeared. We worked for them. 

Our river systems have faced several challenges over the years:  Logging, habitat degradation, mining, and dams have historically been devastating to the local rivers and fish populations.  As of recently, nonnative fish introduction, invasive aquatic plant life, and warming water due to climate change stress these fragile river ecosystems.  The question is how much impact do these things have on fish populations, and are the fish able to cope with such drastic changes within their environment?  Although the answer is uncertain, one thing is for sure, the sport of fishing in Montana is changing.

I recently did an overnight float trip on the lower Clark Fork, which in 2009 overcame its own obstacles with the removal of the Milltown Dam. I found myself surrounded by fish diversity.  I set up camp on a small rock bar between a slough and the main channel.  In the main river to my right I could see a pod of rainbows sipping small dry flies from the surface.  I almost reached for my dry fly rod when I looked to my left over the slough.  

There was a group of Northern Pike lurking toward the middle of the glassy water.  The smallest was about 25 inches, and the largest topping over 35 inches.  Before I could choose between streamer rod and dry fly rod, something else caught my attention.  I noticed a large shadow lurking up the bank of the slough toward me.  It didn’t take long before I could make out the large red stripe down its side.  I picked up the nymph rod and put my nymph just ahead of the fish and could tell it was immediately interested. 

My line pulled tight.  The surface of the water broke as the fish exploded up the slough. Just as soon as he was there, he was gone, my tippet broken.  After a five minute timeout, and regaining some confidence, I tried my luck again for another red-banded beast. I casted blindly up the middle of the slough, and it didn’t take long to hook another good fish.  This time I was ready, and I horsed the 20 inch fish around a log and into my net.  I caught two or three more of these slough rainbows, and decided to try my luck for something a bit larger.  I put on a simple streamer, articulated in the middle, fleshy in color with no weight, and tossed it out into the middle.  A couple slow strips later and smack, I hooked into a nice Northern Pike.  It immediately came out of the water, dancing across the surface before it darted toward the back of the slough.  It carved my line through the water as it sped from one bank to the other, winding and weaving its way through patchy weed beds, and rolling violently on the bottom.  Finally I was able to land the fish which measured just over 25 inches.  I couldn’t hold back the smile on my face.  I ended up spending most of the day switching rods between explosive rainbows, aggressive pike, and the occasional rising cutthroat.  I was in fish heaven, dabbling into different species with different techniques of fishing.

It was on this trip when I realized what true fishing is about.  Taking what is given to me and figuring out how to overcome it.  This is easier said than done.  The challenges to be a successful fisherman extend beyond a good presentation of the fly.  Trying to locate the fish can sometimes be the biggest challenge. Fish have learned to avoid making themselves vulnerable.  Placing themselves in harder to reach areas of the river, and feeding at night are adaptations I think fish are inheriting in response to added fishing pressures.  Rising air and water temperatures are forcing fish to find cooler water, which means they are spending more time in deeper pools where a nine foot leader isn’t long enough to reach them.   Learning about these changes will give us a deeper understanding of fish behavior, and help us as fisherman overcome the challenges of a changing environment.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

          Today we face an entirely new set of challenges in our rivers, the introduction of nonnative fish species.   What’s a fisherman to do when having more fish in the river is actually a bad thing?  It becomes a problem when the nonnative fish species out-compete the native species, forcing them to relocate in areas less suitable for their needs.  It’s obvious which species aren’t going to be a good fit for the ecosystem.  

         Northern Pike are a prime example.  Often refered to as water wolves, Pike are the true hunters that can eat almost anything that crosses their path. But is there a place for them in the rivers?  What about other nonnative fish species that anglers covet?

         Rainbows and Brown trout are not native to Montana (Except for the Red-Band Rainbow in the Kootenai), yet they hold a higher value to some anglers than even a native species like the cutthroat.  The biggest problem with Rainbows is cross breeding with Cutthroat Trout and eliminating the pure strain of the Cutthroat species.  Montana has used fish-kill techniques for decades trying to eradicate the Rainbows and prevent them from hybridizing with native species.  I understand the importance of this especially in the upper headwaters of river systems where Cutthroat and Bull Trout populations continue to thrive in their natural pristine environment and don’t have to compete with nonnative fish. 

         We must continue to pay special attention to the river systems we can still influence without killing fish, and the ones that hold critical habitat for threatened species like the Bull Trout.  Fish are amazing creatures.  The more I learn about them, the more I admire them.  They can migrate hundreds of miles to spawn, swimming under log jams, through raging whitewater, and over hydroelectric dams.  They can survive the harsh Montana winters, and escape the relentless flows of runoff. 

         Fish are at the top of the menu for many predators, including being cannibalized by their own kind.  They can determine a meal the size of a grain of sand, and deny my #22 mayfly displayed perfectly in front of them.  This is one aspect of fishing that has never changed for me and remains the biggest challenge for any body of water around the world.  It doesn’t matter where I go or what I’m fishing for, I will always need some level of experience or knowledge to catch that one fish we’ve all been searching for. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

This Land is Your Land

It doesn't matter if it’s the Supper Club in Shelby, The Pony Bar in the shadow of the Tobacco Roots or the Bison in Miles City: Bitching and stitching about public land management is just as much fun as bingo night. That’s a good thing, by the way. It means people care about how our shared American birthright is managed. It means we all take ownership over how these lands will be left for future generations. It’s best example of democracy in action that we have in modern America.

That estate, from the West Pioneers in the Big Hole of Southwestern Montana to the wild Frenchman’s Coulee in the northeastern corner of the state belongs to us, the American people. For over 100 years, the guiding principle that the land must be used for the greatest good for the greatest number of people has stood the test of time.

Until recently.

The barroom brawls over wilderness, logging and whether or not roadless actually means exponentially better elk hunting are growing again. Out-of-state interests, primarily from Utah, are infiltrating the way that Montanans manage lands. For the last decade, conservationists and timber interests, ranchers, wilderness outfitters and many, many more have been able to put aside the things they disagree on and work to find solutions on mutual problems. That’s where we ended up with the North Fork Protection Act, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and the Forest Jobs & Recreation Act: Communities working together despite ourselves to find common ground.
Here’s what we’re up against:

Transfer of Public Lands: This idea is a rebirth of the old Sagebrush Rebellion, led by a huckster named Ken Ivory out of Utah. His efforts to eliminate Public Land have garnered the attention of the Salt Lake City press corps. The reality of this boondoggle is laid out well by the Billings Gazette Editorial Board: More taxes, less access.  

Sale of Public Lands: Both Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Paul Ryan have been working overtime to force the sale of your public lands. Cruz helped defeat the Bipartisan Sportsman’s Act with a poison pill amendment that would have forced states with more than 50% of their land base in public hands to be sold. Since he’s from Texas, I suppose we shouldn’t expect him to understand what a morning sunrise over Crown Mountain while elk bugle is like. Representative Ryan is an avowed archery hunter, but given his penchant for food plots and private land, I doubt he knows what it’s like to walk into wild country with nothing but your wits and a rifle on your back. His “Path to Prosperity” budget featured the sale of public lands.

Land & Water Conservation Fund: Montanans have used LWCF for 50 years. 70% of our fishing access sites are paid for by this visionary fund. Elk have the room they need in the winter along the Rocky Mountain Front because of the LWCF. Congress has to pass a full funding and re-authorization bill by 2015 in order to ensure that our funding mechanism for access to public lands remains in place.

H.R. 1526: This bill shows a clear and present danger in terms of taking the public out of public lands. Using serial litigants as boogeymen to further the agenda of eliminating protections for elk & deer, the House of Representatives have voted to create Top-Down panels that will manage our public lands based on politics rather than science. The bill would establish politically appointed “Boards of Trustees” to manage “Forest Revenue Areas.” In Montana, that could be as much as 14 million acres of Roadless Areas that account for some of the best elk hunting in the state. Those Roadless Areas and Wilderness Study Areas are generally within 2-3 miles of a road and elk seek those dark, timbered slopes to escape road traffic and hunter traffic. The bill has not had one public hearing in Montana, despite a lot of valid concerns being raised. If the goal of public land management truly is getting more local control so the people who know the land can help manage it, then H.R. 1526 is the exact opposite of what people want when it comes to collaboration as it relates to land management.

What can you do?

Stand and be counted. Your voice is desperately needed at this rally. If our officials don’t hear from hundreds of hunters, anglers, hikers, bikers, horsemen and lovers of public land of all stripes, then shame on us.
You can RSVP to the event so planners have a good estimate of what to expect here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1471479189779397/

Buses are available from Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula and Great Falls (click here to find out when and where).

We’re seeing bomber bulls, monster bucks and some freaky pronghorn hitting the dirt this archery season. Post your public land critter up on our facebook page and let’s show our officials what really matters to hunters and anglers. If we don’t stand up today, our children and their children will never hear an elk bugle in wild, public country. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014


By Nick Gevock

The morning air has a new coolness to it.

Every evening, the sun west of my home dips below the hills a minute earlier, and for the first time this summer,  I notice the daylight is just a little shorter.

It’s that time of year – when I know that within a few days I’ll be combing the wild country in Montana with a bow in hand as bull elk scream in a fury during the rut.

I have yet to kill an elk with a bow, although I’ve had a few chances that just didn’t work out. But for me, the week I spend every year is so much fun I could care less whether I punch a tag.

The experiences of getting to explore great country, see abundant big game and get close to a host of wildlife ranging from big bull moose to foxes and eagles, makes September the best month of the year.

My annual trip to a corner of Montana that shall remain unnamed is a tradition that I hope to maintain for the rest of my life. Every year I gather with good friends and spend a week away from the cell phone, the computer, the stress of the office. It’s a chance to remember what hunting is supposed to be about – the experience and the fair chase, rather than some antler-obsession or the Boone & Crockett score.

The country where I hunt is some of the most unique I’ve ever seen. It’s not really mountainous, but rather big, broad hillsides punctuated by small willow-lined creeks. Moose frequently hang out in the creek bottoms, mule deer roam the hills and of course the elk most years are everywhere. It’s some of the best public land America has to offer.

One year I was awakened in my tent by the car as a herd moved to within a few hundred yards of the car in the early morning dark, again with the lead bull screaming in a fury. I didn’t have to walk far to get into the herd, although the band of cows made getting in close nearly impossible. Once again, I was caught and the herd ran off as I tried to work my way closer.

I’ve spent many an early morning walking through the sage brush, trying to get to a certain patch of timber before the elk made it there. I’ve had plenty of evenings sitting atop those hills, watching as the sun frames every ripple in the land as it slowly wanes. The air cools and in those final minutes of daylight, the elk get more active.

Some years are a full-on rage as multiple bulls fight to keep their harems in line. I’ve never been good enough to bring one of those mature, smart bulls in, although few come close. This year, the anticipation of putting it all together swells my neck.

These experiences also remind me of the value of our public lands. They’re the vast landscapes that we all own. These public lands make every hunter in America a king. We enjoy world-class hunting here, and with a little effort and planning we can be successful.

Maybe one of these years I’ll actually kill an elk with a bow. Maybe I won’t. But in the long run, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s being out among the rutting bulls and the vast expanses of open, wild, public country that matter.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Waters of the U.S. Benefit Us All

By Nick Gevock

Protecting the headwater streams from pollution seems like a pretty reasonable move. These are the streams that supply cold, clean water to Montana’s legendary trout rivers. Iin a state without stocking, headwaters are our hatcheries. They do more than just give fish a place for hanky-panky though. They provide critical benefits for  all Montanans, including supplying drinking water for cities and towns.

The EPA this year proposed the “Waters of the United States” rule that would put under the jurisdiction of the landmark Clean Water Act intermittent and ephemeral streams. In fact, those waters were covered by the act for decades following the initial passage of the law in 1972 and the law worked.

Then a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings – one in 2001 and another in 2006 – threw the jurisdiction over tributary streams into question. In essence, the court told the EPA to get its act together and write a rule to clarify which waters are covered. Until that rule was written this year, it was up to individual government officials to make the call. That threw uncertainty into whether someone needs a permit to alter or fill a waterway.

It’s that simple. The rule gives clarity and certainty. And in truth it’s less restrictive than the way the act was applied for three decades.

The rule is not an expansion of EPA authority. It includes explicit exemptions for normal farming practices. It exempts all man-made ponds and farmer’s irrigation ditches. Rather, it defines the waterways as within the marks of where the water normally flows, even if that’s only for part of the year during natural runoff. This is about water that we all use, not about the land.

But that’s not good enough for some. Some groups have engaged on a campaign of misinformation, stoked by fear and hatred. The rhetoric is outlandish. They say: If you have a puddle in a tire track, that’s covered. Farm ditches will be covered, they claim. A farmer even told an EPA official during a listening session in Missouri that the agency was out to “enslave” farmers. Really.

The best source to dispel all these myths comes from the National Farmers Union. It produced a fact sheet that takes on every myth about the rule head on, and the group strongly supports it. And having a clear definition of which waters are in and which are out benefits everyone – farmers, ranchers, developers, anglers, and of course 117 million Americans who depend on these waters for drinking water. Of course fish and wildlife benefit too.

In truth, the only time someone should worry about these waters is when they will either pollute or fill in one of these areas. And there’s another element to the rule that speaks to the good of everyone. When these waters are polluted, it costs cities and towns a great deal more to treat the water. That’s a cost many bear.

As conservationist hunters and anglers, we know that you can’t have quality habitat without clean water. The WOTUS rule goes a long way to restoring clear protections for these tributaries and keeping Montana’s coldwater fishery world class. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bark at the Moon

By Nick gevock

A proposal to create a new “wolfstamp” for non-hunters to help fund Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks legislatively mandated $900,000 per year wolf program has been cast as a secret plot to end wolf hunting in the state by some people. Others claim it will lead to more dead wolves and shouldn't be instituted because of that. Like 99% of all public policy, if both extremes are upset, you might have just hit the ball out of the park. 

The problem is, like so many things these days, both sides would rather fight than win.

While the idea might need a little bit of refinement, it seems foolish to deride anyone who comes up with new, innovative ways to fund wildlife management.
To begin with, it’s important to note that the idea came from the Natural Resource Defense Council, a nationwide group with an office in Bozeman. Zach Strong, a Great Falls native and lifelong hunter, proposed the idea to offer anyone who wanted to contribute to wildlife management to pay for non-lethal means of managing wolves.
The pitchforks came out right away. Opponents jumped on the proposal, making outlandish claims that don’t bear up under any scrutiny. Others opposed the stamp along financial lines, which have some merit. FWP is currently engaged in seeking funding increases to ensure our world class wildlife stays world class and a stamp like this could possibly upset the political balancing act necessary to get anything through the Montana Legislature (which is notoriously antagonistic to Fish, Wildlife and Parks). But even the more moderate criticisms shouldn’t stop movement forward of this proposal. Those issues can all be worked out before the session begins in January of 2015.
Here’s what the revenue generated by the stamp can be used for: preventive measures to keep wolves out of trouble by the state Livestock Loss Reduction program; the acquisition of habitat that benefits elk & deer as well as wolves and for game wardens to help enforce wildlife laws. That’s it.
The preventive programs include active carcass removal to get rid of attractants that bring bears and wolves down into valleys, setting up trouble. They also involve hiring range riders and some selective fencing efforts to reduce conflict.
It’s worked. In the Blackfoot Valley alone, problems with grizzly bears have been reduced by a staggering 96 percent, according to state officials with the livestock loss program. It’s also kept wolf attacks on livestock at a bare minimum.
It’s important to note that this funding doesn’t support anything FWP isn’t already doing. And while it may have the non-lethal stipulation on it, getting more funding into FWP could free up other money to fund the day in, day out management of wildlife, including wolves. The wolf stamp is only dipping a toe into exploring opportunities for non-hunters to help shoulder the burden that hunters, anglers and landowners have carried for generations. This is a pilot project that should be welcomed, not feared. .
The larger and more important point is that getting more of the public to fund public wildlife will help keep it that way – a public resource to be enjoyed by everyone. We will never all agree with some policies put forward by some groups, but the fact is those people have as much of a seat at the table as anyone else. Some people are quick to call them “freeloaders” and yet decry them for wanting to put up funding. That’s a bit of talking out of both sides of your mouth.
And finally, it’s critical to look at the path some other states have taken on this issue. States that have broadened the funding for their fish and wildlife agencies – most notably Missouri and Arkansas – have maintained strong departments and strong public hunting opportunity. States that have gone another route – like Colorado and most strikingly Utah – have seen a steady decline where hunting has become a privilege of the moneyed elite.

I’d rather share the burden of funding wolf management with those willing to purchase a stamp which frees up my license dollars to work on other issues than continue down a road that sees less and less funding for wildlife management. 

The public has a chance to weigh in on the wolf stamp. You can attend the meetings this evening at your regional Fish, Wildlife and Parks headquarters and you have until August 22nd to submit comments online. We encourage you to participate in the great democratic process that is Montana's Wildlife Management. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Hunter’s Dilemma

By Tony Hoyt, Hellgate Hunters & Anglers Board Member

Can you love a species of wildlife so much that you won’t  hunt it anymore?

Since I came to Montana in 1962, I have loved the way Mule Deer look, with their big ears and the way they stolt when disturbed. I especially love the country they live in. And of course, I love to hunt and eat them.

I usually justify my hunting by looking at the animals as a species and not as individuals. This is how the professional wildlife biologists view mule deer when determining how many animals can be harvested in a sustainable manner.

For the last 55 years, I have viewed mule deer, and the other animals I hunted, as a species, rather than as individuals with complex social interactions in their herd. My long-time hunting ethics was shaken by the PBS nature program Touching the Wild. Its storyteller and author Joe Hutto lived in the midst of mule deer winter range in the step country east of the wind river range in Wyoming.

 Hutto is an Ethologist. “Ethology in its pure and most honest form is primarily an exercise in revealing the magnitude of how little we know about living things---but it could be logically inferred that every living thing should be regarded with at least a modicum of respect or who it is.” He spent every day for years living with those mule deer. He was accepted as one of the herd. A pregnant mule deer doe would lay down next to him and let him feel the fawns kicking in her belly. By the time they were born, the fawns knew him from hearing his voice.

These profoundly intelligent deer had a complex social life. When one mule deer doe’s fawn was killed the doe was freaked out for two weeks, running around and obviously distressed. When a fawn lost her mom to a mountain lion, the fawn did the same thing. It was especially tough during hunting season when animals he had known since birth went down.

Mule deer are not  “a resilient species like elk, pronghorn and white tailed deer, which seem to readily recover from drastic fluctuation in population in the past caused by habitat destruction, catastrophic weather event, disease or overhunting… with every hunter carrying a rifle and scope capable of killing or at least crippling at one half-mile in this open terrain, it is a rare deer that survives three hunting seasons.” I learned so much from Joe Hutto’s experience that made me love and respect mule deer even more than I had before.

This is my dilemma. Come fall, my favorite time of year mostly because of hunting season, it’s going to be hard to forget about Joe Hutto’s experience with these smart and social animals. If I kill a doe will it upset the entire herd for weeks?

It is always a solemn thing to kill an animal. I try to honor them and show respect. I understand the important role of predators on the landscape, be they two legged or four. Hunters have empathy for their prey while lions, bears and wolves do not. That’s why we aim to dispatch our prey in the most humane way possible.

This spring and summer I will enjoy watching them with all that I have learned, but come fall I don’t know how it will turn out if I have a shot at a mule deer.