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Sheep VS Sheep – The Next Chapter

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 19, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

We’ve had the conversation before; that one about die-offs of bighorn sheep across much of bighorn habitat in America. Causes of the die-offs are now quite well understood. The challenge lies in finding – and implementing – prevention measures. That is the next chapter in looking after these “icons of the Mountain West.” If you doubt this “icon” business, think about the last time you drove down Central Washington’s  Yakima River Canyon – or anywhere else in the West – and spotted wild sheep. Odds are that others were already stopped, or stopping, to momentarily immerse themselves in the beauty, grace – the majesty – of these animals.

Recall that there are three primary subspecies, of bighorns: Rocky Mountain bighorns (most of the West), desert bighorns (desert mountains of our southwest and down into Mexico) and California bighorns (occupying the mountains and steep country of our West Coast states). Our local sheep are California sheep (there are a few Rocky Mountain bighorns in the easternmost wild places of Washington). There are 18 herds of bighorns in Washington – somewhere around 1,500 sheep, of which more than half are along the Yakima River.

At the range-wide scale, the fair numbers of bighorns from Mexico to Canada live a rather precarious existence. While there have likely been bighorn die-offs through history, regular die-offs in wild sheep herds became a fact of life when European settlers moved into their various habitats…bringing domestic sheep and goats with them.

Countless die-offs have occurred over the past 150 years. Our most recent regional losses were in 2009-10, and again in 2015. Those losses were largely a mirror image of the problems across most of bighorn country, caused by one or another form of pneumonia – with lingering after-effects. In the last three decades, pneumonia has almost wiped out bighorn herds in the Blue Mountains and in portions of the Hells Canyon area of Idaho and Oregon along the Snake River. For up to a decade after a die-off, surviving ewes may not produce lambs that live more than a year. Thus, herd recovery can take decades, if it even happens. This is a big deal.

The pneumonia outbreaks are all apparently related to various Mycoplasma and Pasteurella bacteria. Recent study confirms that the Mycoplasma bacteria sufficiently weaken bighorn immune defenses for Pasteurella (and several other genetically-identified relatives) to trigger the pneumonia. Each of the various bacteria-caused pneumonias may lead to different outcomes. (For example, sheep may survive one type, develop antibodies which last for only a year or two, and be re-infected. Or, some strains may kill so quickly that little evidence remains of the bacteria responsible.)

A great deal is now known about the specifics of how the illnesses spread through a sheep herd. Wildlife managers are learning more about how much – or little – patience needs to be practiced when wild sheep start dying. Most urgent, now, are growing efforts to keep domestic sheep from sharing any given habitat with bighorn herds.

Through much of bighorn habitat the various bacteria are transmitted from unaffected domestic sheep to wild sheep through nose-to-nose greetings, and spread very rapidly. Significant research has centered on antibiotics and vaccines (and ways to get them into bighorns), but those solutions are still well down the road. Domestic sheep are also being developed which are free of the Mycoplasma bacteria – some happening at the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla – but they are unlikely to be viable in the large sheep flocks using the vast grazing allotments scattered across bighorn country, but they will be highly prized in some smaller areas.

We have discussed before the efforts among groups like the Wild Sheep Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation to actually pay sheep grazers to not use allotments that pose a risk to bighorns. In addition, current state and federal environmental impact studies prior to bidding on grazing allotments are putting high value on the presence of, or proximity to, wild sheep.

That brings us to the next chapter for our state’s wild sheep. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (OWNF) is now underway with its Sheep Project, in partnership with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. This begins an environmental analysis (NEPA) process intended to update forest plans for managing domestic sheep/goat grazing allotments to meet its mandate to protect and maintain healthy bighorn sheep populations. It seems that a number of those allotments are within the OWNF, and many overlap nearly three-quarters of our state’s wild sheep, in or along the forest. An open house held in Cle Elum the evening of June 12 was the second step in kicking off the process.

We will return to this process in the next few weeks, but you can begin your own learning now. Find the overview to the Sheep Project at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=53257 – just follow any interesting link, particularly those in the “Get Connected” box. A video of that 6/12 open house will be found at facebook.com/OkaWenNF (scroll down to “videos”). For some great interactive maps of the forest and project areas of interest, take an online trip to arcg.is/0DbDbD.

This is just a next chapter as we work for the future of our wild sheep. Next time you’re in the Yakima River Canyon, say hello to ours.

On Buying Dreams of Great Hunts

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 12, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Among the well over 100,000 men, women and youth who hunt big game in Washington each year, a good many of us spend a few bucks in April or May to purchase very big fall dreams. Buying a dream is a simple and effective process, really. And this is the week we find out whose dreams come true.

At some point in April, the Washington Big Game Hunting Seasons & Regulations booklet shows up online and at license outlets. That booklet lays out the “general” seasons within which any legal hunter might pursue big game. More to my point, however, it holds the details of the dreams we are about to enjoy; the dates and conditions under which most any of us might receive a “special hunt permit” to hunt a deer or elk or moose or goat or bighorn sheep or whatever in a place and time few others ever will. In that booklet there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of these “special” hunts. Listed for each hunt are the number of permits available and last year’s number of applications (this gives you an idea of the odds of being drawn for a permit, assuming you submit your permit application by the midnight May 22nd deadline).

Thus, during the weeks before that deadline, tens upon tens of thousands of us begin seriously considering possibilities. We think about hunting some critter we have long dreamed of pursuing, in some season or place we have long dreamed of experiencing. Of course, even with the “preference point” system, getting the permit for one of these hunts is like winning the lottery, and many of us have been chasing these permits across decades.

[One gets an additional preference point (essentially, and one more ticket in the drawing) for each year one is not drawn. The mathematics of the system can be cruel, however, and our Washington Fish and Wildlife pros are working very hard to keep the weighted draw (preference point) system fair. True, an applicant with many points has better odds of being drawn than one with few points, but the pool of points held by newer applicants is so much larger than the pool of points held by long-time applicants, that in many of the draws fewer of the available permits go to those of us with a large number of points than to those with only a few points. The system is legit, it just suffers increasingly from its popularity. This issue is being examined in a number of states, and some possible solutions lie ahead. Still, as it works today, each new preference point grows hope for NEXT year.]

To apply for a special hunt – to purchase a big dream – one buys an application, the cost of which varies with the perceived value of the hunt ($7.10 or $13.70 for residents, and $110.50 for nonresidents). One then submits that application for his/her dream special hunt by that 22 May date, says a series of prayers and/or performs traditional rituals, dreams wildly…and waits. The drawing results are promised by the drawing gods at the Department of Fish and Wildlife by this Friday (14 June), although they may be available as early as today.

Most of us, of course, are certain that this is the year we have enough points to finally win a permit for a great adventure hunting moose or bighorn sheep or a big bull elk or buck deer. Therefore, the time between submitting our applications and the drawing results (by this Friday!!) is time rich with hopes and satisfying dreams. All this faith is in spite of long odds. Allow me to share a  couple examples. This is my lucky year for a moose adventure – I just know it – even though last year 10,885 hunters applied for 12 permits in my dream unit, and my 20 points will do the trick. I also will draw a bighorn sheep permit with my 15 points, although last year 3,788 hunters applied for the 4 permits in my area. I have applied for several other special hunt permits, too, each with long odds. Still, I only need one permit in each of those hunts, and this is my year.

In rare states, there will be leftover licenses after the draw takes place. Each year, for example, we still purchase “leftover after the draw” licenses for our annual Wyoming deer and antelope safari. Such opportunities are becoming ever fewer and farther between, and Washington is typical of most states these days, where there are no leftover special permits. So, we buy applications – dreams – each year and get in line.

[By the way, if you are somehow overlooked again in the current draw, there is always the raffle. For somewhere between 6 and 23 bucks, you can buy another dream and a chance at an extra deer or elk permit, a goat, sheep or moose tag or a combination of several of them. Instructions start on page 10 of the 2019 Washington Big Game Hunting Seasons & Regulations booklet. Purchase raffle tickets – and new dreams – by July 15, and you will be notified that you’re a winner in mid-August.]

The truth of the matter is this: what we really purchase, once we hit that “submit” button for each special permit application, is a dream and one more preference point for next year’s drawing. And, yes, these weeks of waiting for the drawing, imagining that long-awaited hunt experience, are worth every dime. Then, too, any day now – or one of these years – it’s going to happen…

Take a Kid – of Any Age – Fishing

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 5, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Here we are again: Washington State’s Free Fishing Weekend – for a great many youngsters, the waterside social event of the year. And a great opportunity for adults to get hooked or re-hooked on fishing, as well.

This Saturday and Sunday, you will need no license to fish in any open water in the state. Nor will you need a Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) Access Pass or Discover Pass to be on any public fishing water on DFW or State Parks ground. You will need to abide by size and bag limits and closures, but opportunities abound, and plenty of fat “truck trout” have been dropped into local waters for you.

See the 2019-2020 Washington State Fishing Regulation Pamphlet for rules and regulations (Free at any hunting and fishing license dealer or online at wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations). In addition, DFW has posted a great deal of help and fishing tips online (including recent stocking reports) at wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/free. This site has a great deal of useful and valuable information for folks who have licenses and fish regularly, also.

The big excitement each year on our Free Fishing Weekend (is always the weekend following the first Monday of June) seems always to be the kid fishing derbies. There are many of these kid fishing events across the state and most of them are held on this particular weekend. There is something appealing about these derbies – watching groups of parents, grandparents and friends gathered around fishing holes cheering for kids fishing. Why not? As a friend reminded me decades ago, “Teach a kid to fish and she’ll hassle you for more ‘til she’s grown and gone!”  Isn’t that one of the primary reasons we work to get kids hooked on fishing?

Here in Paradise, we have a couple great chances to get kids out on the water and fishing.

Here in the Lower County, our big Saturday event is the Kiwanis Kids Free Fishing Derby at North Fio Rito. The Derby runs 9 to Noon for any fishers 14 and under. There are abundant prizes and guaranteed family fun! Just show up and join the fun. Questions to Dale DeFoor at 509-929-0449.

Saturday’s primary kid event in the Upper County is the Annual Cascade Field and Stream Kids Fishing Derby (also 14 and under) happens under the sponsorship of the Cle Elum Ranger District and Cascade Field and Stream Club. Registration is at 6 a.m. at Lavender Lake, exit 74 off I-90. Overall prizes are awarded for the first trout, largest trout, and largest other-than-trout caught, and there are also prizes in each of four age groups for the three largest trout caught. Always a fine kid and parent morning! Again, just show up ready to fish or, if you need more info reach out to Don Frey at 253-631-4862.

The Kiwanis Pond (formerly the first Hanson Pond across I-90 from Cle Elum, south of exit 84) is not a “fishing derby” site, but it is popular and has been stocked with some very nice trout. It is open to kids 14 and under, disabled fishers with a designated harvester companion card, and seniors 70 or better. You are certainly welcome to join the gang there if you qualify.

While I now have only adults (Edward, last of the Hucklings, left “youth” some years ago), I do have a passel of grand-Hucklings. Their outdoor education needs furthering, so kid fishing in a couple western states lies waiting in the summer ahead.

Those now-grown Hucklings have been reminding me that Free Fishing Weekend are not just for kids. Adults become kids again when a frisky fish is suddenly at the end of the line flowing through the ferrules of the rod in their hands. Apparently, a couple of my offspring regularly get non-fishing friends and kids on the water. “It’s very cool, Dad,” I’m told, “When a fish bites, the parents start laughing and giggling just like their kids.”

You have plenty of time to plan something special for yourself and your kids or some friend who needs to try fishing again (or for the first time). Find plenty of resources, encouragement and coaching at wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/free, and get out there this weekend.

It is never too early or too late to hook someone on fishing and outdoor activity. It’s all about fun, yet it is also about an outdoor future for our children’s children and beyond. We will need every voice we can find.

It is summer (well, almost). Take a kid of any age fishing. Life doesn’t get much better.

Washington Mountain Lion Issues

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 29, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

I’ve enjoyed a couple long conversations with friends and fellow outdoor nuts in Stevens County – up in the Chewelah and Colville area of the northeastern part of our fair state of Washington. That area is pretty close to its habitat capacity for wolves, but these conversations were about cougars – aka mountain lions and pumas. It appears that these last couple weeks of columns are about our two best known apex predators (wolves and lions).

The way our Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) responds to mountain lion issues varies significantly across the state, given differences in habitat, animal and human density and populations, and so on. Director Kelly Susewind has made clear his intention to support his local wildlife enforcement officers in their decisions about actions to take regarding cougars which have come to public attention in their regions.

Across the state, mountain lion sightings and interactions seem to be on the increase. Whether this is because our human population is growing rapidly, because more people are out and about with cell phone cameras, because of an actual increase in big cat numbers, or because of some fundamental problem with mountain lion management remains to be seen. Public conversations and concern, however, are most definitely on the rise.

In several recent conversations, I have heard a couple general summaries of DFW’s approach to cougar problems across the state.

West of the mountains, wildlife agents generally focus on educating the public on ways to protect their pets and livestock from lions (such as bringing them in at night, and watching them closely when they might be at risk of becoming prey) and sharing information about living with big cats. In general, DFW enforcement agents and officers on the West Side have been reluctant to remove individual cats unless deemed absolutely necessary. This is probably understandable given that so many communities are right in the middle of lion habitat. Then, too, some officers apparently received death threats after euthanizing a cat which knocked a man down, then killed and began eating his leashed dog. The best decision – one which might best protect the public – is not always an easy one to make, according to various correspondents.

Here in Paradise, and across Central Washington, it is not unusual for depredating cats to be removed. On occasion, a handful of cats will be killed in a given month, but the frequency seems generally constant over the past few years. And the public is generally supportive of the work of our local DFW officers.

In Northeast Washington, however, a number of citizens and at least one county commissioner are insisting that cougars have reached a “critical mass.” According to a Jared Arnold story in the Chewelah Independent, three weeks ago (7 May), Stevens County citizens overflowed the commissioners’ conference room, presenting a nearly 400-signature petition demanding that the board and the sheriff take action on the growing cougar problem in the region – that it has become a serious threat to public safety. In the past year, alone, there have been 58 serious incidents involving mountain lions – including the one in which the bow hunting 16 year-old Colville Indian girl killed the lion stalking her six-year-old brother last fall. While local DFW officers were praised for their efforts in the meeting, DFW’s cougar management and the arrogance of some of its experts, however, was roundly pilloried.

One or two widely known cougar researchers continue to insist that the issues are largely people’s misperceptions and exaggerated reports of sightings based on the publicity given to incidents involving cougars and people and pets. The facts, and well-documented incidents, seem to show otherwise.

Jeff Flood is a wildlife damage specialist for the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office. He has spent most of his life in northeast Washington, and has decades of dealing with its predators. In his view, the county’s deer, elk and moose have seriously suffered from wolf and lion depredation, likely driving cats, in particular, into town for food. With state rule changes, the hunting pressure on both lions and bears has dropped, leaving fewer territories for young lions and pushing them toward people, although it is unlikely that simple. On trail cameras, folks are reporting far more predators than ungulates – a significant change from just a few years ago. Numbers of problem cat incidents are up – the most Jeff has seen in decades. In 2018, nearly three dozen problem cats were killed, and it is in the mid-twenties so far in 2019. Jeff works closely with local wildlife officers, and some days, he says, it is hard for them to keep up. It is no longer uncommon for Jeff and officers to deal with five separate livestock and pet depredations involving cats in one day.

As DFW enforcement officers continue to deal with local problem predators as well as possible, Director Susewind has directed an advisory group to rethink the state’s overall approach to mountain lion management and hunting. On the table are fresh ways of looking at, and calculating, big cat densities across much broader habitat areas. Montana and others seem to be making progress with similar approaches, and DFW’s group is to have a plan in months. It is hoped that a more holistic look at the state’s cats and their habitat will greatly improve local cougar management approaches. Soon enough for our friends in Stevens County? Stand by…

Wolves: Delist or Not?

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 22, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

You have no doubt been witness to the wolf debate of the last couple months. On March 15 of this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued a proposed rule, with comments due by May 15. In summary, the rule states that the USFWS had “evaluated the classification status of gray wolves (Canis lupus) currently listed in the contiguous United States and Mexico under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). Based on our evaluation, we propose to remove the gray wolf from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. We propose this action because the best available scientific and commercial information indicates that the currently listed entities do not meet the definitions of a threatened species or endangered species under the Act due to recovery. The effect of this rulemaking action would be to remove the gray wolf from the Act’s protections. This proposed rule does not have any effect on the separate listing of the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) as endangered under the Act.” Many thousands of private individuals, organizations, and agency folks commented on the rule.

As you might expect, there has been no shortage of opinion and emotion in the recent discussion. Our Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) Director, Kelly Susewind, has favored the delisting, suggesting that to continue protecting a thriving wolf population “could expose the Endangered Species Act to legislation weakening protections for species in actual danger of extinction.” Oregon’s DFW Director, Curtis Melcher, wrote to USFWS officials on May 9, noting that his agency supports the delisting because the wolves no longer meet the definition of “endangered or threatened.” Oregon Governor Kate Brown nearly immediately slapped down Melcher’s statement, insisting that “it is critically important to maintain wide-ranging recovery areas for wolves across the West,” given that wolves pay little attention to state boundaries. At the center of the wide-ranging debate seems to be this: How much more help do wolves need?

So often, the arguments pit wolf supporters – who see wolves as an icon of wild places, and fear a wholesale slaughter if they are delisted – against ranchers, who simply fear the killing of livestock by out of control wolf numbers. These fears don’t really play out on the ground. In fact, in states where wolves are managed – and hunted – wolf populations are stable or growing. And the costs of wolf presence are far higher to ranchers from the constant harassment of wolves (leading to calves reaching market as much as 80 pounds lighter than normal and cows going into breeding in poorer shape than in the past) than from losses due to wolf depredation.

Given the polarized, emotional and over-simplified aspects of the debate, I thought we might check out The International Wolf Center of Ely, Minnesota (www.wolf.org). Established in 1993, it “advances the survival of wolf populations by teaching about wolves, their relationship to wildlands and the human role in their future.” The Wolf Center has a reputation for providing factual information to help folks make informed decisions about wolf issues, and seems to keep its pledge to offer up-to-date, accurate wolf information. Thus, the following questions/answers posted on the Wolf Center webpage, with pros and cons about the USFWS delisting proposals.

What would the proposed change NOT do? It would not remove protection from the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), [nor would it] affect the endangered status of red wolves (Canis rufus) in the Southeast, and recovery efforts for them will continue.

“Where would wolves NOT be affected? Wolves have already been delisted and are under state management in Idaho and Montana.

“Wasn’t the Endangered Species Act required to restore wolves to their entire historic range? The FWS says, ‘The Act does not require us to restore the gray wolf (or any other species) to all of its historical range or even to a majority of the currently suitable habitat. Instead, the Act requires that we recover listed species such that they…are no longer in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future. For some species, recovery may require expansion of their current distribution, but the amount of expansion is driven by a species’ biological needs affecting viability and sustainability, and not by an arbitrary percent of a species’ historical range or currently suitable habitat… There is no set formula for how recovery must be achieved.’ 50

“What are some commonly stated pro/con comments about the proposal?

PRO: Wolves are recovered, according to biological standards…with about 6,100 in areas of the U.S. where there is enough wild prey, good habitat and minimum road- and human-density.

CON: The Service’s portrayal of recovery disregards the full definition for threatened (any species likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range) and endangered (any species likely to become extinct within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range) species…. ‘Its range’ has to equate with ‘its historical range’ for the ESA to have the broad sweeping impact intended by Congress and for previous agency actions to have relevance to future agency actions.

PRO: As management for wolves passes to the states, wolves will still be protected so that their populations never dip below the numbers set in the ESA’s recovery plan.

CON: Where states have assumed management of wolves they have instituted or plan controversial recreational hunting and trapping seasons, that, for animal protectionists, seem to subvert the whole purpose of past wolf recovery efforts.”

Check out the Wolf Center (www.wolf.org) for much more, or google “wolf delisting” for all you need to know.

Enjoy the debate!