Mountain Goat Adventures

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 19, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

A bit over three decades ago, this week (1987), I was packing my base camp up into Colorado’s Gore Range, across the Blue River from the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness. I had drawn one of the once-in-a-lifetime mountain goat tags. It would be four days alone, hunting mountain goats, up the Piney River country north of I-70 above the Blue River between Green Mountain and Dillon Reservoirs.

The pack in was three or so miles on the trail around the north side of Piney Lake, then a sharp left onto a steep scratched-out series of steps alongside a tumbling creek. The last two miles up that giant staircase to the little basin above timberline – right at 11,500 feet – was tough. I kept teasing myself with thoughts of a great supper by the fire, and no other human in miles. The jelly-legs would be well worth it.

This particular withdrawal from my personal memory bank account is courtesy of two recent events. One is the intention to remove all the non-native and somewhat over-populous mountain goats from the Olympic National Park in the next five years (the goats are native to the Cascades). The other has to do with a recent conversation with one of my favorite homeys – who just happened to mention that he would be unavailable during a certain couple weeks. Oh, yeah… and several scouting weekends prior, because he drew one of Washington’s once-in-a-lifetime mountain goat tag. The flashbacks from his announcement are still sitting in my mind.

That goat hunt remains one of the most satisfying and remarkable experiences of my lifetime as a hunter. Even though I admit to a very deep envy, I know that Homey deserves a similar experience and will treasure it for the many remaining days of his life, as I have. There is nothing like mountain goat country.

Mountain goat’s scientific name is Oreamnos americanus. Not a true goat, actually, it is most closely related to the chamois of the European Alps and some African antelope. A large billy may be three feet at the shoulder, five feet long, and weigh three hundred pounds.  A nanny will reach around half that weight. Shaggy white hair and a shoulder hump may be why they were sometimes called “white buffalo” by Native Americans and early European settlers. It acts like a goat on rocky outcroppings, cliffs and alpine tundra in some of the most remote high country of North America, so the name sticks.

These animals, it is said, live one step below the sky. There, they feed on low grasses, sedges, mosses and willow shoots.  Their black hooves have concave rubbery pads surrounded with sharp, hard edges, enabling them to keep solid footing even on near-vertical cliffs.  An amazing sense of balance, powerful hind legs, and forequarters strong enough to lift them to a higher ledge make their climbing legendary. (Still, even the best of feet may fail on ice, and freeze-thaw action will loosen benches and ledges. Many goats have scars or broken horns, proving survival ability, and it is not uncommon for entire groups to perish in the misjudged crossing of an avalanche chute.) In most of goat habitat, one goes up and up to find them.

At dark-thirty the morning after my pack in, I crawled out of the sack to find two other hunters stumbling through my camp. By sunup, however, I was far enough up Kneeknocker Pass to have the first rays to myself.

Over the four days, I scaled cliffs and scrambled down avalanche chutes. I got overheated and chilled, refreshed and exhausted. I was scared and exhilarated. I was totally alive. Goats were everywhere — big ones and little ones, old and young. But not the goat I sought. I called that part of the trip, and crawled into my rig a bit after dark.

I returned to that country a week later. This time I saw no one else.

On the second day of this second climb into the sky, I scrambled into a col along the edge of the straight-up-and-down headwall of a cirque perched high above Piney Lake. I was debating about a way up a cliff to a rockpile I was sure held an old billy, when I felt a chill. A large goat slowly worked its way down the cliff and laid down on a small outcropping a couple hundred yards out onto the headwall. This was the goat I was to be given. After a short stalk, a good prayer and one careful shot, the goat never moved. A narrow ledge led to the outcropping. As I straddled the animal for dressing and skinning, I could look straight down, on either side, to other outcroppings a hundred feet and more below.

Somehow, I got the meat, hide and head to my base camp. The next morning I figured my strategy for getting two 70-pound loads back to my rig; two loads down the stairsteps, then two three-mile carries to my ride at the trailhead. The pack out along the lake with the second load was more than I could do. I knew I couldn’t make it. I sat down on a log, exhausted. After a moment, I remembered a taco place a few miles down the road. I walked that last three miles with a vision of a hot cheese and bean burrito in front of my nose.

It is an honor to hunt these white beasts of the sky. Safe hunt to you, Homey. May the memories of your experience be as rich as mine.

While only handfuls a year are drawn to hunt goats, we can all marvel at the watching. Google “mountain goats in Washington” (or another state with goats), pick up a copy of the Washington (or other western state) Wildlife Viewing Guide, and get a copy of get Chadwick’s A Beast the Color of Winter. Then round up your camera, binoculars and spotting scope and go look. There is nothing like mountain goat country.

About Monarch Butterflies

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 14, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

This is about the time the monarch butterflies remaining in Southcentral Washington State – largely down around the Tri-Cities – start south to California. While many of the monarchs across the central and eastern parts of the U.S. (and Canada) are beginning to return from serious trouble over the past couple decades, our western monarchs continue their precipitous drop in numbers.

What got me thinking about monarchs was a weekend travel radio show. One of the guests arranges and books winter tours to Mexico, where guests may see as many as a million monarch butterflies in the (I gathered) Michoacan Highlands. While the promoter told great stories about the monarchs and their amazing migrations, breeding and life cycles, the stories contained several glaring errors.

As Chief Butterfly Information Officer for the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I suggest we briefly review what we know about this most royal of butterflies. Monarch’s scientific name is Danaus plexippus (named after Danaus, a mythical king of Egypt and son of Zeus).

The monarch is a new-world butterfly, found from Hudson Bay to Patagonia (and now reported in Europe, Australia and New Zealand). AKA the milkweed butterfly, this one is spectacular. Its orange-brown or reddish upper wings have veins outlined in black and surrounded by broad black borders with two rows of white spots. Its wings may spread four inches. It is not unusual to see magazine or television images of monarchs so thoroughly covering roosting trees during migration that the trees seem to be in full fall color.

It is mind-boggling to imagine such fragile, delicate creatures flying as many as 2500 miles each year; from winter in southern California and central Mexico to summers in the U.S. and southern Canada (following several flowers and milkweed) and then south again. The migration itself seems highly dependent on surface features, with only rare long flights over water. The monarchs appear to learn over time (some observations indicate that north-south trending highways or railroad tracks have been incorporated into migration routes). Here is the most fascinating aspect of their story: while the butterflies have made this annual migration for untold time, they habitually return to the same trees, no single butterfly makes more than two-thirds or three-quarters of the trip.

So, do the young just follow, or communicate somehow with the older, slightly more experienced, adults? Or is there some ancient genetic coding at work? Let’s just say that more is learned each year.

The butterflies generally breed in wintering grounds in Mexico and Southern California, with fertile eggs carried north to just the right milkweed patch. Some breeding (as many as a couple different cycles) also takes place in summer habitat. Once the eggs have been laid, the cycle of ovum (egg), larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and imago (adult) will begin anew. The eggs must hatch in time for the adults to get south before cold weather, but there is more to the story.  With increased interest and observation we now know that the butterfly doesn’t only go through its four life cycles annually, it often also goes through four generations in a year. Check out that amazing and involved story at www.monarch-butterfly.com.

A brighter future for most monarchs is dawning. If the monarch lives generally east of the Rocky Mountains, it will migrate to Mexico and hibernate in oyamel fir trees. The Michoacan Reforestation Fund and La Cruz Habitat Protection Project is replanting trees in critical highland Mexico communities where overlogging has been an issue (see www.michoacanmonarchs.org/). At the same time, the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Foundation is educating forest users about the importance of those trees to continuation of the butterflies and their impact on the economy (tourism, forestry, and so on) of Mexico. Support from government officials is growing.

Our western monarchs, however, continue to lose ground. Those summering west of the Rocky Mountains, will hibernate in and around Pacific Grove, and as far south as Goleta, California, in eucalyptus trees. Problems with the western monarchs, according to WSU professor David James, and other studies (google “monarchs in Washington”), are not likely in California. More likely is a lack of food the butterflies need here in order to migrate, breed and deposit eggs.

WSU professor James notes that here in the mid-Columbia region, a favored flower is that of native rabbitbrush, and more needs cultivating. There is still a need for milkweed for breeding and egg-laying, even though I-82 is his “milkweed alley.” Over the past decade and more, he has worked with prisoners from the state prison at Walla Walla, Washington, and hundreds of Tri-Cities and regional volunteers to increase numbers and prove that western monarchs migrate to California (some using Pacific Ocean winds). His group has raised and marked thousands of monarchs with tiny wing tags, but more is to be done. In June of 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will determine whether or not our western monarchs should be designated as “threatened.”

Want more? Google “monarchs,” then check out “The year of the Butterfly,” by George Ordish, Robert Michael Pyle’s new “The Butterflies of Cascadia,” or the Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest.” Then think about what you or your family might do for our butterfly royalty.

 

[Jim’s note: this is my last Friday posting of this column! Beginning next week, the posting day changes; we will be meeting on Wednesdays! See you then…]

About the Wild Pacific and Unreachable Tuna

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 7, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Last weekend – Labor Day Weekend – was Ilwaco Tuna Adventure-Seventh Edition for Hucklings, family, homeys and former homeys. Planning started when I again booked all ten tuna rods on Captain Rob’s Katie Marie right after he returned us and our fish to port a year ago.

This has become a habit, this chasing of albacore tuna with Captain Rob Gudgell on the Katie Marie (named after his daughter). In February 2012, I met Milt and Sarah Gudgell (Rob’s folks) at their Pacific Salmon Charters booth at the Central Washington Sportsman Show in Yakima. How do you explain that instant sense of meeting an old friend for the first time? I don’t know, either, but we were immediately into tuna talk, and within a few minutes, I’d signed on for several family albacore tuna fishing spots aboard the Katie Marie. That first year was so much fun, I have reserved the whole boat each Labor Day Sunday since.

Every year is different, but our faith in Captain Rob, the Tuna Whisperer, never wavers. If we get out to the tuna grounds, Cap will find fish. That first year, we brought 88 tuna aboard, filling the boat. The next year, we ran out of time at 50 fish – but all bigger than the first year. The following year, we worked hard to get three nice big fish apiece. In year four (2015) family and friends descended on Ilwaco from as far away as Los Angeles and Denver, but exceptionally stormy weather kept us from reaching the tuna schools – we turned back about 12 miserable miles out. 2016 was rainy, but manageable, and 70 25- to 33-pounders filled the boat. Last year looked like a shipwreck – for a little while – but an available Monday trip for which a few of us could stay over yielded a good many 35 to 40 pound tuna (our biggest yet).

This was a pretty special year for our gathering. While two of our fishers were kept at home because of serious family or personal health issues, the other eight (and folks who came for the campground play and cameraderie) made it in Saturday afternoon to prep for Sunday’s cruise out to tuna-rich waters. Last-Two-of-the-Hucklings stuntman Edward and actress-model Anna drove up from Los Angeles; adopted Huckling Jonathan (Edward’s kid brother) flew in from Colorado; former homeys and fishing nuts Brandon Rogers and Margo Aye drove from the Tri Cities area; Cousins Debbie and David Yount arrived from Tacoma; and daughters Katie and Arcelia, with grandson Jonas in tow, made it from Renton and Ellensburg. Diane and I worked our way down from Paradise.

We figured on a great tuna catching adventure, as our Sunday trip looked better and better. On most of the days leading up to our day, the weather had been near perfect: sunny, comfortable and mostly calm. Regularly, Captain Rob brought the Katie Marie back to port early, full to the gills with fat tuna up to 40 pounds. What a year it would be!

Sunday morning, we rolled out of the campground at 2:45. Under calm and lightly overcast skies, the morning promised perfection. After a couple late office check-ins we were all aboard the Katie Marie by 3:30. We met Tony and Gregorios, the two guys who filled our vacant fisher spots, and Cap gave us his morning safety and rules chat. He loaded live anchovies for the big fat tuna awaiting us, crossed the bar into the Pacific and pointed the boat west.

No rain and not much wind, but the ocean was restless. By the time we were 12 or 13 choppy miles out, a couple of our ten fishers were chumming the ocean with whatever they had eaten over the previous 24 hours. I was relaxing, enjoying the rhythm of the bumpy ride and thinking about big tuna, when Captain Rob came into the cabin. “This is a lot rougher than forecast,” he said. “Look,” he said, “it’s not better out ahead. In these pitching seas, it’s just too dangerous. I’m not willing to get someone hurt or overboard for any fish, so we’re turning back. Pacific Salmon Charters will refund your money, of course, and there are some closer-in salmon and bottom fishing spots available – but they will be pretty rough, too. There are also tuna spots available later this week. I’m sorry folks.” That was that.

So, now what? We got back in the office by 7 a.m. and collected our refunds. After rounding up coffee, we convened at the campground for a confab. Bottom line was that none of us came for salmon fishing, nor could we stay around for a days-later tuna trip. We settled on the number of ttuna filets we might buy for canning, smoking and searing (Well, we were there, weren’t we?). After a collective prayer of thanks for a captain keeping us safe, I went back to Pacific Salmon’s office and ordered a dozen or so sets of four filets.

As I finished ordering, Cap walked up and said, “Jim, I’m so sorry we couldn’t get out there.” “Stop that Cap,” I smiled. “While I expect you to walk on water, I don’t expect you to control it!” Then I booked the boat for Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, 2019. (After all, what could possibly go wrong?)

Great food, laughter, walking beaches, a helmeted 3 ½ year old racing his tiny bike, and catch-up time with family and good friends… Maybe that is the highest purpose of our annual Ilwaco Tuna Adventure.

See you 7 p.m. Monday evening at Hal Holmes. I am now ready to learn more about the status and value of our I-90 Snoqualmie Pass wildlife crossings.

Happy almost-fall.

All about Wildlife Overpasses and Underpasses

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 31, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

The conversation on the floor of a recent off-Reecer-Creek meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association was the upcoming video and discussion of our Snoqualmie Pass I-90 wildlife crossings. This is co-sponsored by the 99+ year-old Kittitas County Field and Stream Club and the Ellensburg Public Library, and happens Monday evening, September 10 at Hal Holmes. The presentation will be made by folks from the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition of Washington.

At any rate, Homey just looked at me. Finally, he shook his head and asked the most common question I hear about these crossings, “Do critters actually use those overpasses and those places where they go under highways?”

“Yes. And yes,” I replied. “There are hundreds of wildlife crossings around the world, and they are credited with saving thousands of two-legged and four-legged lives. One or two of them have been developed for animals you probably never even considered…”

Probably the most widely-known and photographed crossings in North America are those around Canada’s Banff National Park in Alberta. Our Snoqualmie Pass crossings are the largest wildlife crossings project in North America. They will, I think, be as celebrated and discussed – and as popular to tourists – as those around Banff.

Wildlife crossings – overpasses and underpasses – have been built all across the world. In the U.S. you will find them in Montana, Colorado, California, Florida. New Jersey, Nevada, and several other states. In Sublette County, Wyoming built the first overpass designed specifically for pronghorns – to protect a couple thousand antelope which migrate 160 miles each way – with special vegetation and a very unique design. Across the globe, wildlife crossings are found in (among many others) The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, South India and Australia. Google “wildlife overpasses” and you will find photos and videos of worldwide animal bridges, and links to an amazing variety of studies which support the value of these crossings.

While we think mostly about preventing human-animal collisions, a primary motivation for finding crossing solutions has been the fragmenting of wildlife habitat – the division of contiguous wildlife ground – by ever-increasing numbers and sizes of highways, and the traffic they carry. Crossings allow animals of all sizes and species to move more freely – and safely – through historc range.

Of course, the cost of vehicle-animal collisions is significant both in terms of property damage and deaths/injuries to human drivers and passengers. Wikipedia (under that “wildlife overpasses” Google) cites dozens of studies, with some mind-boggling numbers. In 1996, Bruinderink & Hazebroek estimated annual European human/ungulate collisions at more than half a million, with 300 human deaths and 30,000 injuries. In the U.S., Donaldson’s 2005 study cited one and a half million traffic accidents involving deer, annually, causing more than one billion dollars in vehicle damage. Other studies cite up to 30,000 injuries, with more than 200 fatalities, each year in the U.S.

Wildlife crossings are not cheap, but arguments are made that planning and construction costs are trumped (word used in its traditional meaning) by wildlife population and habitat protection, reduced vehicle and property damage, and lives saved by fewer collisions. (A Virginia Department of Transportation study estimated that underpasses for wildlife become cost effective if they prevent between three and nine car-deer collisions annually – depending on the cost of building the crossing.)

Add all those costs to concerns about wildlife mortality and habitat fragmentation, and it is easy to see why biologists, engineers, and transportation pros have been looking at mitigation tools to reduce conflicts between roads and wildlife. It appears that, while proper siting and proper design for species, habitat and so forth is critical, wildlife crossings have been most successful at meeting those concerns.

On September 10, you will have a chance to see where our I-90 corridor fits in this worldwide work. Cascade Crossroads is a 30-minute documentary film chronicling the work over and under Interstate 90 just east of Snoqualmie Pass over the Cascade Mountains. These crossings grew from the work of the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition, formed in 2004 by more than two dozen organizations and businesses. The Coalition’s mission was “to advocate for high quality wildlife connectivity measures in the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project, while ensuring the habitat adjacent to these structures contributes to their success.”

Find out more about the I-90 project at www.wsdot.wa.gov/projects/i90/snoqualmiepasseast. And find more about the film at i90wildlifebridges.org/cascade-crossroads/.

Washington State is now fully in the wildlife crossing game. Our overpass and underpass crossings will be as successful as they are striking. Join the I-90 Wildlife Bridges folks for a beautiful video and fascinating discussion. Hal Holmes, Monday, 10 September, 7 p.m. Come learn the things you will use to impress friends when they visit Paradise.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Budget – Our Challenge

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 24, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Cousin Ron and I, as do most folks who grew up hunting and fishing in Paradise in the 1940s and ‘50s, take frequent trips down Memory Lane. We all see how expensive things are these years, and there is certainly little argument about many of the things we need. But how many costs are actually comparable to – or cheaper than – the late 1950s?

I like to start with context – and gas prices. In the late ‘50s, I made anywhere from 80 cents to a buck an hour for full-time work. A gallon of gas ranged from 19.9 cents (in gas wars) to 29.9 cents day to day. Today, we see gas prices ranging from 10 to 12 times that – still about the same percentage of lower-wage incomes – and most of us make well over 10 or 12 times those 1950s wages.

What about our hunting and fishing licenses? In the late 1950s, a resident hunting and fishing license, with deer and elk seals (tags) cost $13.50. This year, for the same licenses, I paid $126.55 (with dealer fee). Yes, there are other permits and fees we often add, but do the math and you will see that, apples to apples, the out-of-pocket cost for my tags is cheaper now than when I first started hunting and fishing.

So, what’s the total cost of operating our Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), today? And that $30+ million hole it is facing over the next biennium? How did it happen, what has been done about it, and how will it be filled? Again, I like looking at context. This is complicated, since until the early 1990s, the State Department of Game and the Department of Fisheries were two different agencies. Those 1950s budget numbers are hard-found. Still, with the help of folks at DFW, the Washington State Library and Oregon (ODFW has an excellent history online, and its budgets follow a similar trajectory to ours), we have a starting point. Understand that the numbers I pass along are approximate, intended to provide a general picture of the challenges facing us. Remember, also, that all the state natural resource agencies, combined, get well under two percent of Washington’s total budget.

In 1955, the Washington Department of Game operated on a budget of just over $3.5 million and the State Fisheries folks were somewhere around $3 million. In 2017, DFW expenditures for managing terrestrial wildlife (lands, habitat, hunting, etc.) were just under $100 million, and on the fisheries/aquatic side (hatcheries, fishing, habitat and species work) added up to about $160 million. Obviously, there is some overlap of fish and wildlife expenditures in both those numbers. (Double these numbers to get the biennial – two-year – budgets.)

What has driven these budget increases so far beyond my “context’ of 10 to 12 times the costs of the 1950s? Consider only a few of the hundreds of changes in the last six decades. In 1976, the US extended its control over Pacific Ocean fishing out to 500 miles – adding several hundred thousand square miles to Washington’s responsibilities. We have seven and a half million people – well more than twice as many as 1970 – in the smallest western state, with a relatively small amount of public land. We have a great diversity of fish and wildlife in a wide variety of habitats – wet mountains, dry mountains, desert, semiarid and humid lowlands, temperate rainforests, open pine forests, salt water, small to large streams and lakes of all sizes. Add the 24 treaty tribes with rights to fish and wildlife and their management. Each combination of place and species and rules requires one or another level of specialists to manage it.

That looming $30 million budget shortfall? Several factors are involved. DFW is still struggling from cuts imposed during the recession, yet our Legislative approved expenses without funding. License sales and general fund allocations have fallen behind management costs. Several one-time funding band-aids are expiring. The Department has eliminated several positions and curtailed a number of fisheries and other operations. [Note that everyone with whom I discuss this has a deep and genuine concern about agency priorities – ranging from fish hatcheries to the diminishing statewide number of enforcement agents over the past couple decades. These battles will, and must, be fought through the various public wildlife and budget advisory committees. Still, if we can’t keep our agency functioning, those arguments will be moot.]

After a lot of public ourtreach, DFW is asking for more legislative help this year. Without it, $30.5 million of services will have to be cut, beginning next year. DFW is asking the Legislature for the ability to raise license fees (last increase was in 2011), keep the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement fee, and for more money from the General Fund. (The Wildlife Commission has yet to settle on that fee increase request, but look for something between five and twelve percent,) Together, these will keep the agency on track managing our wildlife.

You will much more detail about DFW, its budget, and the future in the “Draft Long-Term Funding Plan” at wdfw.wa.gov/commission/meetings/2018/08/aug0918_02_plan.pdf (or Google “long term funding plan WDFW.”)

This budget challenge belongs to all of us. This is our wildlife on our lands. This is our agency, staffed by folks we have asked to keep wild things and wild places for those who come after us. When the Legislature takes up these budget questions, we need to have our voices heard. And we must continue to help our agency develop its priorities.