Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Wolf You Feed

We’re coming up on the end of Wolf season. It’s the second time in history that there was a regulated wolf hunt in the lower 48 United States. The first being in 2009, before the Simpson/Tester delisting rider passed congress.

It's been interesting to watch the adjustments made at the Commission level, from the elimination of hunter orange after the big game season to using hunters to help remove problem wolves, to extending the Bitterroot season until April 1st. Some of it makes sense, like extending the general season to February 15th, in the hopes of adding a few more wolves to the quota. Others tested our collective conscience of what it means to be an ethical hunter.

The West Fork of the Bitterroot is ground zero in the wolf saga of Montana. That iconic herd of elk has crashed, and crashed hard. There are a number of reasons why that crash happened, and yes, wolves had something to do with it. But a little known law had more to do with it. The law, HB 42 passed in 2003 required FWP to manage “at or below” objectives for elk. The Legislature mandated that we manage below carrying capacity. Like it was as easy as passing a bill.

That led to the issuance of approximately 1000 antlerless elk tags. We shot the shit out of that herd. In the mean time, you have a switch in season structure for Mountain Lions, going to a more restrictive hunt (and thus helping increase the quality of cat hunting in the area), decreased interest in bear hunting, and a myriad of habitat problems, from a decade of drought, to conifer encroachment to loss of winter range and subdivisions. But mostly, an over-reaching legislature passed a bad bill which started a chain event that caused a once mighty elk herd to crash.

Thanks for that. It’s a shining example of why we don’t want legislators setting objectives, seasons or a host of other issues and procedures.

So, last week, the Commission voted 3-2 to extend the wolf hunting season in WMU 250 until April 1st. Two commission members whom I deeply respect voted no. Commissioner Ron Moody spoke about why he voted no on Montana Public Radio’s news show the other day. I believe that he has some valid points. Now, I was the strongest proponent for moving forward with the extension, but I don’t think we should think of this as a fair chase hunt. It is a management action. Commissioner Moody has some ethical reservations about that. I do too. Commissioner Ream pointed out that the current study is implicating Lions as the major predator of elk calves and that increasing the harvest of wolves isn’t necessarily get us what we are looking for. I can respect a no vote based off of a conviction that we’re making a wrong decision. Ream’s next motion was to increased the number of tags available in WMU 250 by 50% and add more cat hunters. What it boils down to is an honest discussion about how we manage wolves. Not one filled with rants about tapeworms and super-Canadian wolves eating babies.

We’re a long way from filling the quota. Many wanted a higher quota, and now that we’re not able to find 220 wolves willing to be shot, there’s a loud contingency out there calling for gunships and poison.

There’s an old Cherokee story:
Legend has it that one evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?" The old Cherokee replied, "The one you feed."

Go hunt. Quit whining and let’s finish this job.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Parting SHOT

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade or SHOT Show in Las Vegas put on by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The SHOT Show is arguably the largest gun show in the world, but it’s not just guns, anything that has to do with hunting. Blinds, camo, ammunition, binoculars, boots, backpacks and lingerie…what? Yes, there is even camo night wear. And it doesn’t stop. There is a whole tactical side with bullet proof vests, purses for concealed carry, and grenade launchers. To say that I was a kid in a candy store would be a gross understatement. Throughout the show I often found myself caught up in all the hoopla that is the SHOT Show, bewildered at the sheer size of the event, and salivating at the hundreds of millions in merchandise. At one point I found myself caught staring at the Parazzi booth, coveting gorgeous Italian-made shotguns, for a price tag of $35,000. Those guns will never have the pleasure of accompanying me to the field, but I can still admire their beauty. The show covers three floors in the gigantic Sands Expo, an expanse that I couldn’t even come close to completely covering. Take the biggest sports show that you have ever been to and multiply by fifty.
During the show I attended a press conference to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the passage of the Pittman Robertson Act. Sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the press conference was held to call attention to the best story never told. In short, back in 1937 when this country was in dire economic times and the landscape was feeling the effects of the dust bowl, wildlife and waterfowl, in particular, were in trouble. Hunter conservationists and folks from the firearm industry got together to impose an excise tax on the purchase of guns and ammunition. Two Democrats, Senator Pittman of Nevada, and Congressman Robertson of Virginia, crafted language to address not only the issues of the time, but also a lasting legacy. Excise taxes collected on guns and ammunition are still put into the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Fund http://wsfr75.com/content/about-wsfr, which then are distributed to state fish and game agencies based on a formula that takes into account the size and population of the state. Later, excise taxes on fishing and archery equipment were added to the Fund. The concept of redirecting these taxes to benefit wildlife populations was simple: by investing in improvements to wildlife populations and public access, more people would go hunting and the sales of items that generated this tax would increase. This partnership between the hunting and shooting-sports industries, hunters and anglers, and state and federal wildlife agencies has restored many wildlife populations to unimaginable numbers and provides an incredible array of hunting opportunities.
It ain’t bad for the firearm industry either in dollars, the estimated Return On Investment to manufacturers who paid the excise tax (referred to as the “Excise Tax-Related ROI”) ranged between a low of 823% in 1976 to a high of 1,588% in 1997.
Since its inception, the Pittman-Robertson Act has generated more than $200 million for conservation, access, and hunter education right here in MT. In 2011 alone, Montana received more than $20 million. The federal funds require a 25% match, which the State does through license fees.
As I walked around the SHOT Show I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the 65,0000 people in attendance knew this important piece of history, how many knew that every gun, every piece of ammunition they bought, whether for hunting, home protection, tactical, or just plinking, went back to conservation and access? Hunters, anglers and shooters, truly put their money where there mouths are, and our contributions benefit a host of other outdoor users. That said, I couldn’t walk the aisles of the show and wonder how much money we could be generating from other parts of the industry. For example, there is no excise tax on binoculars, backpacks, or tree stands. There is no excise tax on game calls, camo, or ATV’s. You get the point. Our country is once again in tough economic times. Conservation programs at a federal level dodged the figurative bullet this last year, but still experienced drastic funding cuts. This means less money for conservation and less money for access, very similar to what we experienced back in the dirty thirties. At the same time, hunting license sales are down across the country, which means less money at a state level, especially when it comes to matching the all important Pittman-Robertson funds. Ducks Unlimited called on their supporters to “Double Up” this year, purchasing two federal duck stamps, essentially trying to make up for some of the budget shortfalls. While I obliged and bought two, I knew this wouldn’t be enough. So as I walked the aisle I thought, “Why not?” Why don’t we join together with other parts of the industry to expand what’s eligible for the Wildlife and Sports Fish Restoration Fund by a self-imposed excise tax that could generate millions, even billions of dollars for conservation and access, helping perpetuate the sports the outdoor industry depends on? Remember, this is good for the industry as well, with a Return on Investment averaging more than 1000%. And why stop there?
Conservation and restoration of fish and wildlife has almost solely rested on the shoulders of hunter anglers and shooters for 150 years. Bird watchers and backpackers enjoy our natural resources, too, kayakers and tubers use fishing access sites, too. You get the point. It’s high time that the responsibility to conserve our uniquely American landscapes, and the fish and wildlife that call them home, is shared by all that use and enjoy them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the personal contributions I have made through purchases of shotguns, rifles, and handguns, proud of those who came before us who had the forethought to tax themselves, and I’m more than willing to work with industry to expand what is eligible in regards to hunting equipment, but it’s high time others get “skin in the game.” Once you have “skin in the game” you become an active participant and the value of your contributions and appreciation is deeper. Together, hunters, anglers, and other outdoor users can, and should, unite under this funding banner.
As Theodore Roosevelt said more than 100 years ago, “Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method." And later, "The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others."
Let’s celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Pittman Robertson Act by telling the story, but let’s not stop there. The best celebration we could have this year would be to expand the sources of funding for conservation and access, thus guaranteeing that Montana stays the last best place to hunt, fish, and recreate.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hunting Camp Muley

By Chris Clasby

It was still midmorning and well beyond first shooting light when we reached a dead end on the two-track and turned around to descend the quarter-mile back downhill to the main logging road. The first hour of light was spent near a shaded snarl of fallen trees where we hoped to find elk feeding on the witches' hair on downed trees or in one of the clearings within view. Neither happened, so we had traversed up the logging road a mile or so until discovering the two-track, which appeared to be the timber company's most recent foray into uncut country.

This was, of course, primarily a deer and elk hunting expedition but had assumed undertones of much more. My last trip in the area was 20-some years prior and I had been in my own saddle, atop my old rope horse, and hunting from my current companion Dan's horse camp. I had made a few trips into that camp as a young teen, nearly beside myself with excitement while planning the trips and savoring every second while living them.

On this day, Dan and I found ourselves, while driving to the area and now moving slowly up the logging road, watching intently but stopping regularly to remember particular scenarios in different locations. One location were he'd caped a friend's first 6 x 6 bull in deep snow where it fell, another where Dan had shot a nice mature muley literally crawling away as we crested a hill above camp, and another when we walked within spitting distance of a black bear sow while stalking elk thick in lodgepole. We recalled another where my boot fell off my foot in the stirrup in darkness without me knowing since my feet were so cold! We laughed quietly, reminding each other that we were hunting after all.

There'd been many changes since we'd last hunted here together, but not because we hadn't tried getting here. Logging had occurred, timber rights had changed hands, the lumber mills that processed the timber now sat idle, and many who'd worked in them were unemployed or had moved on. I had personally experienced changes, including a truck wreck a month out of high school that had broken my neck and left me quadriplegic without arm movement. My rope horse was long gone, and instead of my saddle I now sat in a power wheelchair controlled by sipping and puffing on a plastic straw.

Much, however, remained. I had discovered an adapted rifle mount that attaches to my wheelchair, allowing me to aim by moving a chin joystick and fire by sipping on a plastic straw. Dan's committed friendship and our fervent pursuit of adventure had driven us to tackle unusual obstacles and to relish the height of hunting success. As if just being afield wasn't enough, we'd taken quite a few animals together. Several tagged deer and a few elk affirmed the possibilities beyond expectation.

We had explored different ways to get back to hunting camp but access prevented it. Walk-in hunting (roll-in in my case) was allowed behind the Forest Service gate, but my batteries wouldn't make it far enough. We considered a burro pulling me in a rolling cart, but the inherent risk advised against it. A saddle horse or mule lacked necessary postural support. Dan was a good friend, but physically pulling me up the grade was out of the question. Finally someone with private land beyond the gate had a key and permitted us temporary access. We had driven my van some 11 miles behind the gate, hunted on foot and wheelchair tire, and were now returning to the van. We'd seen several mule deer, including a couple small bucks we had passed, and fresh elk sign but no elk yet.

Just then I spotted several mule deer watching us from the trees in a shaded draw paralleling the two-track. Spinning my chair toward them quickly, I stopped Dan and motioned with my head which brought his binoculars to his eyes as I looked through my scope. The single buck with them, a decent 3 x 3, was quartered toward and looking directly at us.

"It's pretty early in the season, and you only have one tag," Dan whispered. He always says he's reminding me to be patient but I've gotten the feeling he's sick of gutting my animals.

"I want to take him," I replied, prompting Dan to switch my safety to 'off.'

A final chin-joystick adjustment later, I sipped to fire a single shot and watched the buck collapse into the grass at his hooves. The others bounded off as Dan offered me the traditional "fist bump" to my forehead with congratulations at having made a nice shot. We now have a new location to talk about the next time we find a way into this area.

-- -- * * -- --

The personal experience above includes multiple themes we all experience as hunters. Knowledge of quality areas and habitat is key, but accessing them is an ongoing challenge especially for hunters with mobility impairments. Fortunately, many state and several federal agencies have implemented programs and policies to improve access opportunities including some unique to hunters with mobility impairments. A current proposal to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission (MFWPC) for 2012-2013 regulations change may appear contrary to these efforts but is based on sound principle and resource/wildlife management.

In the mid-1990s, Montana FWP introduced the Permit To Hunt From a Vehicle (PTHFV) to increase hunting opportunities for those with "substantial impairments to mobility." The PTHFV holder must be accompanied by a companion who can assist in dispatching, dressing, and retrieving any game animal wounded or killed. The PTHFV holder is also allowed to shoot "from within a self-propelled or drawn vehicle parked on the shoulder, berm or barrow pit right-of-way of a public road (excluding state or federal highways)." Federal land management agencies such as the BLM and Forest Service also defer to the PTHFV to determine eligibility for access privileges such as driving on designated roads where others can only walk.

Statutory changes to PTHFV eligibility criteria and special regulation privileges in some Hunting Districts (HD's) have occurred over time. In 2001, eligibility was expanded to include anyone who is unable to: "walk, unassisted, 600 yards over rough and broken ground while carrying 15 pounds within one hour AND … unable to handle and maneuver up to 25 pounds." In 2008, elk regulations in some Montana HD's were changed to enable PTHFV holders to harvest antlerless elk with a general elk license whereas non-PTHFV holders cannot. This antlerless elk privilege is in excess of the biologist-recommended antlerless elk harvest quota to sustain the population, which is based on their annual counts.

Two things happened with these changes: 1) Medical professionals have stated the above quoted criterion is vague enough that it is difficult for them to disqualify many reasonably mobile individuals, and 2) The antlerless elk privileges that accompany the PTHFV are reported to have significantly increased the number of PTHFV applications. There are currently 8957 Montana hunters with a PTHFV, 2988 (33.4%) of which have been granted since 2008.

This large number of PTHFV holders in addition to the de facto antlerless elk privilege has also resulted in alleged abuse. Montana FWP employees working in the field report cases in which some PTHFV holders walk long distances over difficult terrain and retrieve animals solo. Many hunters report instances of PTHFV holders with good personal mobility using motorized vehicle access privileges to transport friends to and from hunting areas and to retrieve game where motorized vehicles are otherwise restricted.

The current proposal is directly focused on the PTHFV antlerless elk privilege in some HD's which creates a potential threat to the vitality of our elk populations. Consider, for example, Montana HD 270 in the Bitterroot. The 2011 Deer and Elk regulations (see page 39) for Oct. 22 - Nov. 27 allow those with a general elk license to shoot "Brow-tined Bull Elk" only. "Brow-tined Bull or Antlerless Elk" may be taken by Youth ages 12-15, and by PTHFV holders. However, there are only 20 Antlerless Elk B licenses available by drawing, which again is based upon biologists' recommended harvest quotas.

Considering the 8957 hunters with a PTHFV, if even 5% (or 447) of them hunted in HD 270, and 10% (or 44) of them shot antlerless elk, that is 44 antlerless elk in addition to the 20 Antlerless Elk B licenses already granted through special drawings and the undetermined number taken by young hunters. The possibility of harvesting over 64 antlerless elk in that district - more than three times the recommended quota - could result in a very serious reduction of that elk herd.

Considering survival of our elk populations and reduced incentive for PTHFV abuse, the Blackfoot Access Committee introduced a proposal to the MFWPC that, if adopted, would change PTHFV privileges in a single way: hunters who hold a PTHFV will adhere to the same general regulations by district for taking antlerless elk as hunters who do not hold a PTHFV. This proposal would suspend - in all applicable Hunting Districts – the special privilege granted to hunters with a PTHFV to harvest an antlerless elk with a general elk license. PTHFV hunters could still shoot antlerless elk in areas where hunters without a PTHFV can, and they have the same opportunity to draw an antlerless permit.

Members of the Blackfoot Access Committee, which includes two hunters who are permanently reliant on wheelchairs for all indoor and outdoor mobility, have appeared before the Commissioners three times this year to support this proposal. While ours is a small group, we have sought advice and assistance from the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers (Missoula), the Helena Hunters and Anglers, the (Montana) Statewide Independent Living Council, Montana Wildlife Federation, two physicians and several avid hunters around the state with and without permanent mobility impairments.

Yes, some opportunity to shoot a cow elk will be minimized, but future hunting will be protected. As one person put it, "We are working to restore respect to the PTHFV program."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Kicking Ass and Taking Game

2011 is in the books. What a wild ride it was. We began the year screaming about wolves, and that quickly led to the ugliest Legislative session in recent history, when it comes to wildlife and conservation issues. Congress, in an attempt to mirror the 62nd legislature, followed suit with a host of poorly crafted and outright hostile bills that would remove existing protections for elk, sheep and many other species, while handing control of our public lands over to one Federal Agency, because, apparently, there’s a bunch of potheads crossing over into Glacier (world renowned for it’s dope and ease of foot navigation, right?).

The year ended much differently however. In May, Jon Tester (D-MT) and Mike Simpson (R-ID) got wolves delisted by the only means left: Congressional Action. Many of us were involved in this effort, and while things got weird for a while, it seems like the wisdom of the approach that was embodied in Simpson/Tester has proven to be sound. Wolves are still thriving in the Northern Rockies, and the harvest has not been nearly as high as the doom and gloomers on one side of the issue would have you believe. The doom and gloomers on the other side continue to spill out inaccuracies regarding elk populations, disease and offering no real world solutions to the issue. This is, of course, in spite of a lot of good science that helps define that path forward. No species has been as controversial as wolves, and I doubt anybody thought that it would take Congressional Action to turn management of a recovered species back to the states where it rightly belongs. The month of May also saw the wacky 62nd Montana Legislature adjourn.

Over 250 bills that would have negatively impacted Montanas wildlife and wild lands, including a bill to get rid of all public lands, were introduced and chewed on. Montanan’s turned out in force to stop the assault on hunters and anglers, and luckily, we were able to beat back about 80% of the bad bills. The worst of these was the attack on Stream Access. Buses filled with sportsmen and women showed up from around the state to let the Senate Agriculture committee know that they should follow the will of the people, and protect the bedrock Stream Access law. It was the largest attended hearing since the original stream access law was passed in 1986. Over 450 folks filled the Old Supreme Court Chambers, balcony, and adjoining halls. They even filled the Rotunda, on both the first and second floors. Ultimately this ill advised bill that passed the House died in the Senate committee…a grassroots victory to preserve the Public Trust. TR would be proud of that. It took the Governor’s pen to ensure that the worst of the worst died. The Branding party was a blast, and while about 150 folks stood around on a cold spring day, it became clear that Montanan’s united and engaged in their most sacred franchise: Democracy.

In April, Sportsmen from around the Nation held a teleconference highlighting their concerns about the appropriations process back in D.C. (where Congress has an approval rating slightly lower than Ted Kazinsky). That effort, and the subsequent lobbying efforts of the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and hundreds of thousands of everyday hunters and anglers who wrote, called and cajoled their elected officials led to some amazing results at the end of the year. I received an email from Senator Tester’s office with a yearly wrap up. Here’s the word straight from the Co-chair of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus:

• Land and Water Conservation Funding
Amount Funded: $322 million
This final amount was over five times what the House Interior Appropriations bill had proposed. Land and Water Conservation Funding was one of the few budget line items to see an increase over FY11 funding, increasing $21 million. Because you all expressed such broad support for the program, Senator Tester requested strong funding for Land and Water Conservation Funding and worked with Chairman Reed (D-RI) to achieve this.
• North American Wetlands Conservation Act
Amount Funded: $35.5 million
This was another priority Senator Tester heard from Montana’s sportsmen, and the Senator worked to restore some funding from the House’s cuts. This program was zeroed out by the House in HR 1 and funded at $20 million in the House Interior Appropriations bill. As many of you know, for every dollar the government provides, it leverages another four dollars in private conservation funding to protect important migratory bird habitat.
• State and Tribal Wildlife Grants:
Amount Funded: $65 million
Senator Tester increased the funding from HR 1’s allocation of $22 million and the House Interior’s committee request of $61 million. This funding provides grants to States and Tribes to manage non-game species that are currently not listed as endangered or threatened. This funding is critical to keep species from being added to the Endangered Species List. It supports surveying species, defining needed habitat protections and building cooperative partnerships with local landowners and agencies to carry out management.
• Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund
Amount Appropriated: $47.8 million
The House Interior Appropriations bill cut funding for the this fund to $2.85 million from the FY11 level of $59.9 million. This program provides federal matching dollars to work with local governments and private land owners to plan and enhance conservation to secure core habitat for critically important species. An example in Montana are projects to secure spawning habitat for Bull Trout. You all have seen first-hand the importance of this program.

Two bills that were hugely positive for Montana’s hunters and anglers continue to grab headlines and attention. In November, Senator Max Baucus introduced the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. This proposal has been put together over the last 4 years by a group of hunters, ranchers, outfitters, business owners, hikers and anyone who wanted to sit through hours of meetings and was willing to check their ego at the door.

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, sponsored by Senator Jon Tester had a wild ride this year. We were hopeful that it would have been attached to the final Continuing Resolution, but politics as usual stopped the momentum in the waning days of Congress.

On the other side of that coin, Hunters and Anglers have worked non-stop to try and derail H.R. 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act. This bill, as drafted by Representative McCarthy (R-CA), would eliminate existing protections on over 43 million acres of prime hunting and fishing ground throughout the US. The motorized crowd, and the oil and gas industry are fully in support of this anti-hunting bill, claiming that this will open more access to forest lands. It will – for companies who put profits ahead of people, and believe that cutting corners is the best way to ensure a healthy bottom line. This fight is not over, and we, along with the vast majority of hunters and anglers, will continue to fight against this travesty.

The lesson of 2011 is simple: Stand up, fight back and keep fighting. Together, thousands of Montanans made a huge difference during a year that could have seen the reigns of wildlife management handed over to those who care not for public hunting. Our public lands could have been handed over to subdividers, had existing, reasonable protections eliminated, and been denuded of wildlife, and of hunters and anglers.

It’s years like this that TR’s words ring so true, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Now, as 2011 starts out, we see that some folks continue to push bad ideas, and will stop at nothing to buy political favor. 2011 might end up being the opening act to a tumultuous 2012. Remember, it’s the election season, and anything seems to go these days.