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.