Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hunting Ain't Killing

By Bill Geer

SB 197  allows 9 year old kids to hunt so long as they have a mentor who is 21 years old or older who is close enough to be able to yell at them. This same bill has been brought forward by national interests who don’t even work in Montana for the last few sessions. While this bill might seem like a good idea, wrapped up in the traditions of our forefathers, but it completely disregards the entire reason the state of Montana instituted Hunter Education. It also shows a huge problem with the hunting culture of today: It focuses more on killing animals than of the real lessons to be learned while in the field. Hunting isn’t just about killing an animal. It’s about connecting with the natural world and understanding the movements and habits of the game we pursue. It’s about understanding the hunter’s role in managing wildlife and the conservation of our natural resources.   

When I was 11, in 1959, my mother wanted me to go cottontail hunting with my uncle and his sons, that being the cherished entry to manhood in my family.  My parents bought me a .22 rifle and an old bolt-action 12-gauge, but required that I first complete hunter education training before starting my adventure afield.  That was one of the smartest things they ever did for me.

My folks understood that hunter education training tempers the unrestrained excitement of youth with guns.  My cousins I was to hunt with, while sensible, were kids themselves and in no way capable of being mentors with adult sensibility.

Well, wouldn’t you know an accident occurred when an excited cousin shot his 16–gauge at a cottontail in the river bottom without really paying attention to the brush behind the bunny, the brush hiding my uncle on the other side?  The pellets that missed the cottontail and penetrated the brush surgically took off the right side of my uncle’s eyeglasses – while he was wearing them.  Under SB 197, my excitable, 21 year old cousin would be considered a mentor.

We all have stories like that. That’s why bills like SB 197 are bad. The real world excitement of hunting needs to be tempered by the cooler heads that help us realize that the decisions we make in the field have far greater implications than whether or not the animal in our crosshairs is worth taking.

By the grace of God my uncle was not hurt, but all hell broke loose right there on the river bottom when he reminded us kids what hunter education was all about-- good judgment and safe shooting, the kind of things most 9-year olds need training to understand.

What on earth were our Senators thinking?  While the bill has been amended to make it less egregious (at first, there was no minimum age on the hunter apprentice and the sponsor only had to be 18), it is still a bad idea wrapped up in the banner of hunter opportunity.

The potential for abuse is very high with this bill. Hunter’s Ed produces ethical, sharp, well educated hunter-conservationists. Many hunter education instructors testified against this bill. So did many sportsmen’s organizations. Kudos to them for recognizing that the thrill of hunting is not in the kill, but in the ethical ability to do things the right way, even when no-one is looking. SB 197 changes that ethic and places the kill above the ethics. While that might seem like a small change, it really is a large one. 

As hunters, we have a duty to not only ethically harvest wildlife in the most humane possible, we have a duty to conserve that species and it’s habitat. By allowing the harvest to become the ultimate prize in the hunting experience, we remove the ethical standards taught to us all during Hunter Education. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Broke Down Buffalo

If I were a buffalo, I’d be broke down and in the bottom of a bottle of whiskey after this week up in Helena.

The Montana Legislature continues to try and finish the job that the buffalo hunters and railroad men of the 19th century didn’t quite finish.

This week, 4 bad bison bills emerged from committee. Some of them even contradict themselves.

HB 484: This monstrosity by Representative Alan Redfield would turn the clock back to the 1980’s. Upset by their recent court loss, the Montana Farm Bureau convinced Representative Redfield to run this bill as an attempt to blow apart the compromise bill that was SB 212 from the 2011 session. Redfield and the Farm Bureau aren’t content with the extremely rigid rules put in place by both SB 212 and the IBMP when it comes to buffalo wandering outside of Yellowstone or when the state finally decides to transplant a few buff here and there. Redfield’s bill would essentially end hunting of Bison outside of Yellowstone National Park, erode all the work that the Bison Working Group has engaged in (which was full of Stockgrowers and Farm Bureau folks, by the way) and it would push Montana’s management of bison back to the stone ages while forcing more and more litigation simply to throw out a bad bill and leave back where we started. It passed out of committee by a wide margin.

HB 396: This bill hands veto authority of transplanting bison over to County Commissioners. A bill strongly backed by the Montana Stockgrowers Association, HB 396 would turn wildlife management on its ear by allowing one county commissioner to say “not here, not ever,” when it comes to wild bison on tribal ground or public land. This bill hits the floor soon. It’s the same bill as HB 318 from the 2011 Session, one that Governor Schweitzer took his branding iron to.

SB 256: This bill specifically exempts bison from the concept embodied in the Rathbone decision; that wildlife is a part of Montana, and folks need to expect reasonable use of wildlife on their properties. The sponsor of this bill stated that Bison haven’t been a part of Eastern Montana for a long time, and therefore the rules don’t apply to them. Truth is, Elk weren’t in Eastern Montana for a long time until they were transplanted. Rather than the fear and loathing we see with Bison, we fight over who gets to shoot the elk in the Breaks, fight over limited permits for archery hunting, and in general, have seen how wildlife can be a huge economic booster for those communities so blessed with the problems associated with abundant wildlife. SB 256 ignores all of that as the sponsor rails about bison running down the streets of Malta.

SB 305: This bill specifically disallows the transfer of classification of domestic bison to wild bison. It’s another bill borne out of fear. Fear that the American Prairie Reserve would turn over genetically pure bison that came from wild herds back to the state so they can use them for small herds in geographically isolated areas.

Every bison bill we’ve seen this session has one thing in common: Fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change and fear of anything that’s not related to the status quo. They also have something in common: A complete lack of common sense.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day!

Senator Max Baucus has long been an advocate for public access to public lands. That commitment was re-affirmed today with the re-introduction of his bill seeking full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is co-sponsored by Senator Jon Tester. 

LWCF is funded by offshore oil and gas leases. Max's bill would fully fund the LWCF program to the tune of $900 million. While that amount may seem large, it's a drop in the bucket given the record leasing we've seen over the last decade, both onshore and off. But that's how President Kennedy wanted it: Those who benefit the most from the development of the public resource need to help fund it's conservation for future generations. 

LWCF projects in Montana run the gamut from fishing access sites to helping elk and deer hunters conserve some of our best winter range. You can check out the LWCF funded projects on our interactive map. Just select the LWCF filter and go to town finding the places that this fund has conserved. 

Places like Tenderfoot Creek wouldn't be open to hunters and anglers today if it weren't for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, first conceived 50 years ago today. Over 70% of Fishing Access Sites in Montana have benefited by funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That’s impressive considering how many trout bums Montana flood our state on an annual basis.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund started as an idea first proposed by President John F. Kennedy in a letter to Congress on Valentines day, 1963. In that letter, President Kennedy said simply:

Actions deferred are all too often opportunities lost, particularly in safeguarding our natural resources. I urge the enactment of this proposal at the earliest possible date so that a further significant step may be taken to assure the availability and accessibility of land and water-based recreation opportunities for all Americans.

Back to 2013:

Senator Baucus has shared President Kennedy’s vision for a long time. Through his efforts, funding has remained on the table during difficult economic times because Max gets something very important: Public Lands are the engines that help fuel Montana’s economy. He also understands that places like the Rocky Mountain Front and the Blackfoot Valley aren't the same without working farms and ranches. LWCF helps conserve those working landscapes for future generations of farmers and ranchers as well as wildlife.

It's critical to continue the conservation legacy that Montana helped start. Back in the 1800's Montana was one of the first states to institute creel limits on fish and bag limits on game. Montana's dedication to conservation continues to this day. The work that Montanans are engaged in throughout the state is reflective of the grassroots, collaborative nature that Montana brings out in folks. At kitchen tables around the state, folks are sitting down and figuring out ways to keep people on the landscape while ensuring future generations will come to know the Montana we all love. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a huge part of those discussions. 

A tip of the our Stormy Kromer to Senator Max Baucus for his tireless work to ensure that all Montanans have places to hunt and fish as well as keep the economic engine that is outdoor recreation alive in Montana.

Thanks, Max. Well done. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Quivering Livers

It’s one of those weeks were you look at the roster of bills coming forward and think to yourself: Are you serious? Have you people nothing better to do with your time and our tax dollars? 

The war on wildlife continues, and gathers steam.
These bills defy common sense and logic. Here they are in all their resplendent glory:

SB 249: Senator Debby Barrett (R-Dillon) has a great idea: Let’s put wolves back on the Endangered Species List and never allow Grizzly Bears to come off of the list by altering the way that Montana manages wildlife. Science and common sense aren’t good enough for Senator Barrett; she wants to allow the County Commissioners to decide wildlife management issues. Because that’s what we elected them to do.

SB 256: Senator Eric Moore wants to undermine 140 years of wildlife management in Montana over the overblown fear that a Buffalo might eat a blade of grass or look askance at Hereford. We’re not sure why, other than politics, this bill is even in the hopper.

HB 396: Representative Mike Lang wants to take away the freedom of Tribal nations and private property owners to allow transplants of wildlife on their lands. Frightened by having a couple dozen head of buffalo on someone else’s land, Representative Land thinks that the County Commissions should decide for you what you can do with your private property.

HB 376: Representative Nancy Ballance doesn't seem to understand what a County Commission is supposed to do. Rather than focus on the jobs we elected Commissioners to do like ensure roads are graded, Representative Balance thinks that County Commissions should be deciding wildlife management issues. That’s right: The same folks who just laid off 12 people in Ravalli County need to spend countless hours and thousands of dollars of tax payer money writing statements about wolves that bear no credible facts. This bill gets the Bat-Crap Crazy award of the week.

HB 375 is another anti-wildlife bill from Representative Ballance. This one wants you to pay for crops eaten by wildlife. Representative Balance must be a transplant, because she clearly doesn't understand the over 100 year history of Landowners and Sportsmen working together to deal with wildlife issues. This bill furthers the divide between hunters and landowners, and does nothing to stop the war on wildlife we’re experiencing in Helena. Perhaps if Rep. Balance would have advocated a little less development of winter range in her adopted Bitterroot Valley, she wouldn't have to make a mockery of our Wildlife Management

And then there’s HB 440: Representative Doug Kary thinks we should completely gut Habitat Montana so that no new conservation easements or fee title acquisition could ever happen again. Seriously, no more Fish Creeks, no more Marias River WMA’s – just purchasing easements to allow people to corner cross.

While there are a few good bills coming up this week, like HB 401 and SB 123, the vast majority of bills are designed to undermine your ability to hunt and fish, eliminate the North American Model of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, and generally monkey around with a system that has worked for over 100 years.

There is a war on wildlife this session. That’s not hyperbole. It’s a fact.

Show up to the Rally for Access on February 18th and show these Legislators that we’re sick and tired of being pawns in their ridiculous games. Show them that the voters of Montana who hunt and fish value our native wildlife and that we demand they stop the shenanigans and do the work that they were sent to Helena to do.

Stand up, fight back, and kick some ass. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Fish On!

By Hayley Connoly-Newman
I was not raised in an active hunting or fishing home. In fact the entire sportsmen community, especially involved in conservation, was completely foreign to me until I moved to Montana and started working for a conservation organization focused on engaging sportsmen. Working with so many passionate hunters and anglers, in addition to living near some of the most famous blue ribbon trout streams in the country, quickly sparked an insatiable curiosity to try and haul a trout out of one of these rivers. Of course I quickly realized that for many this was not just a hobby, but a culture, a lifestyle, dare I say a religion? Bottom line, these devotees are really into fish. The intensity, strong opinions and vast knowledge can be inspiring for a novice angler, but at the same time can be extremely intimidating and overwhelming. I can’t begin to recount how many times I have walked into a fly shop and felt like a complete neophyte. There is always the awkward silence between myself and the fly shop attendant, while he tries to figure out if I have any idea what I am doing. Meanwhile, I’m like a moth to the flame and get distracted by the astounding diversity of colorful and sparkly flies, losing all focus of why I went to the shop in the first place.
My past fishing experiences had been fun, but the day had always ended with no fish. I would tell myself that it was all about the experience, but there are only so many times a rookie angler can keep their spirits high before he or she loses all hope of ever catching anything but twigs and moss. I felt that I just needed to catch one fish to renew my faith in the sport. The only fish I had ever caught was when I was eight years old. My dad took me to the local reservoir and I hooked a small rainbow on a spinner reel. It was a great day, and we took the small fish home to enjoy the days catch. My dad’s best intentions soon became a nightmare when, after filleting the fish and finding roe, I took it upon myself to scream murder and proclaimed that we had killed a mama and all her babies. A few tears were shed that day, and the experience cancelled any future fishing expeditions for a number of years. Fast forward almost 20 years and I have a new found respect for fishing, especially fly fishing. The graceful nature of the cast, the knowledge of both the river and fish and the overall skill the sport requires are admirable.
I have learned basic casting skills and some knot tying, but the one thing eluding my fishing experience was the catch. I figured that the more I went out, the greater chance I had of catching a fish even if I was throwing my rod around like crazy, so in March of last year I pulled on the waders and stepped into the cool clear waters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. One lost nymph and untangling some nasty knots later, we found an area that we knew there were fish. After roughly 45 minutes, I was reeling in my line to recast when I felt tension on the end. “Drats, got the weight stuck in the rocks again”, I thought to myself. But suddenly the tension on the other end of the line started moving, darting left and right. Fish on! At this point my memory becomes hazy, and a strange euphoric glow surrounds the next five minutes. I reeled in the fish with the helpful coaching of my friend, with my excitement and voice raising an octave for every foot the fish came closer. On the end of the line was a twelve inch whitefish, darting and jumping in and out of the water, its silver sides gleaming in the sun.
If I had pulled a trout out of the water that day it would have been momentous, but I can honestly say that I was just as excited to see that little whitefish on the end of the line. To finally experience the thrill of reeling in a fish, freeing the hook from its mouth and letting it go back into the cool depths of the river is beyond words. My next goal is to reel in a trout, whether it be a rainbow, cutty, brown or bull.
My journey of learning how to fish has made me realize a couple of important points. I’m sure the longer I spend in the water the more nuanced and specific my goals will become, but for now, any fish will do. I suppose that is the beauty of fishing. There will always be a new challenge, a new goal, and the small victories will keep you coming back for more. The same can be said for conservation. Of course I would love to win every battle over access rights, keep large tracts of land intact and roadless, and improve habitat for all animals, but it won’t all happen at the same time or the first try. I must be realistic and set small goals. As my colleagues and I achieve those smaller goals, new challenges will arise and the goals will become more focused and refined. The main thing to remember is to keep trying, whether it is the rookie angler hoping for their first catch, or the conservationist fighting for sportsmen’s rights. 
The second point is the importance of mentoring, not only for kids but also for adults. No matter how challenging or ultimately humbling, I try new activities every chance I get. I don’t have the money to spend on a guide, and most of my friends that are accomplished anglers are working on the river. This makes it hard, really hard in fact, to get a foot in the door and gain a solid foundation in basic skills. I suggest if you find yourself with extra time and know anyone that wants to get outside, whether it be wading, floating, for a short afternoon, or a dawn to dusk day, invite them along. I can guarantee that they will appreciate it. To witness a new angler getting hooked on a sport you love is something not to be missed. And who knows, you may be able to partake in the raw excitement, overwhelming joy, or complete euphoria that comes with reeling in that first fish.