The Mystery of Disappearing Elk

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 17, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Fellow master hunter and homey Wes Clogston and I have been doing our part to protect the ag ground of Paradise. Master hunters are essentially advanced hunter ed graduates who have passed an extensive exam over rules, statutes and ethics, who have completed a significant number of volunteer conservation hours, have demonstrated shooting skill and have a clean criminal record. One of our challenges is to deal with trouble-making wildlife. Wes and I are currently committed to removing a couple of the renegade elk which raid said ag ground nightly, then return to the Yakima Training Center to rest up for their next night’s work. Thus far this fall, we have managed to remove one of those wapiti.

In the process of finding these renegade wapiti, we have made a startling discovery – one which may serve as a cautionary tale for you if you plan to hunt elk in Washington’s general season which opens in a bit over a week – or elsewhere around the West.

What we experienced took me back to an eye-opening conversation I had with Utah brother-in-law Jerry Johnson nearly two decades ago. We had gathered at a long-overdue wedding in Bow (north and west of Mount Vernon), Washington. Jerry believed he had solved a mystery with which he had struggled through decades of Utah elk hunting.

As you know, the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association holds the finest minds in the West. Thus, mysteries often lead us to the forefront of wildlife science (though some see only accidents of timing and bumbling). In my role as RCRGWD&OTTBA Wildlife Research and Update Chief, I broke the news of Jerry’s stunning research in this space in August of 2000, the Biennium.

In your own study, you have found, no doubt, that there are only two recognized species of wapiti in North America. Cervus elaphus includes three subspecies (or “races”); our Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk, and the Manitoba wapiti, of Canada. Cervus nannodes is the mule-deer size critter known as the tule, or dwarf, elk of California. To achieve recognition of a new subspecies of elk has long been thought impossible.

Enter brother-in-law Jerry. Jerry makes custom knives, and has long studied southern Utah’s wildlife. He has an eye for detail, and this is the story as he told it to me.

Some decades ago, he began to see distinct differences between many of the wapiti taken on his turf and most Rocky Mountain elk. For example, the antlers of a number of local bulls looked like leafless woody shrubs. The ears of both bulls and cows were covered with long hair clusters, resembling dried bunch grasses. They had thicker and longer dew-claws than most elk, and most of them had dust and sand in their coats.

Over the years, fewer and fewer elk were being taken in Jerry=s country, and those harvested were taken mostly at first and last possible light. A few normal looking elk were still being taken during mid-day hunts, but the Adusty@ elk, as he began calling them, virtually disappeared.

In September of 1999, during a pre-dawn scouting trip, Jerry spotted a cow and a calf moving quietly into a sandy opening in the sage. “I still don=t know quite how to describe it,” he said. “Did you ever watch a burrowing toad in the desert, as it wriggles its legs and body and sort of >settles= into the ground? Well, that=s as close as I can get to it.” Shaking his head in some still disbelief, he continued. “So the cow dropped onto her belly, with her calf right next. They started moving their legs – like they were loosening the ground with their dew-claws – and wriggling so fast they literally shook themselves into the ground… A dust cloud hung for a minute or so right over where they=d been. I, uh.. I never saw anything like it.”

Jerry said he began seriously studying the elk. In the dark, he sat over the sage and brush flats, pinpointing the tiny dust clouds at first light. Once the elk were in the ground, he found, they absolutely would not move, and were almost impossible to find. Their ears covered the tips of their noses, and they breathed in what appeared to be clusters of dry bunch grasses. Documenting their habits required weeks of sitting silent and motionless until dark, when they would literally “shake” themselves out of the ground.

Jerry’s observations and copious notes earned him just recognition. He was notified that biologists with the High Order Lobby Yegga, Congress of Wapiti Studies, recognized his subspecies of the Rocky Mountain elk – officially to be known as Cervus elaphus johnsonii. Its common name would be “burrowing elk.” (Somehow, his elk is not yet listed in the scientific literature. …Another mystery.)

Time after time, as we beat the bushes for marauding elk on the Training Center, Wes and I saw elk we’d been watching literally disappear – impossibly. The only logical explanation is that some of our local elk have developed (evolved?) habits not unlike the burrowing elk of Utah.

Given our astonishment at the tactics of those disappearing elk, we will now be examining with great care the ground and brush where elk disappeared. Wes and I strongly recommend that you do the same each time an elk literally disappears from where you expect it to be. It=s time, we think, for a serious scientific survey of the disappearing elk of Paradise. Report your findings here.

Wes and I, as have all master hunters, signed an oath pledging to always act in an ethical manner. How we react to truly remarkable scientific theories abour elk evolution, however, is apparently up to us. Good luck. Happy hunting.

Opening Days and Food Traditions

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 10, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Saturday opens the general modern firearm deer season in Washington State. We have several openers in the state – for archers, muzzloaders, master hunters and various special hunts – but this is the big one, with some 150,000 of our closest friends heading afield to make deer meat. It’s a special day.

I was fourteen when I was first invited to be part of the deer hunt on Uncle Ed’s place, up the Little Chumstick out of Leavenworth, Washington. I remember having a tough time sleeping that pre-opening night, with visions of the buck which would give itself to me so that I could help feed my struggling 1950s family. I remember being terrified that I might somehow screw up, but more than anything, I remember the breakfast Aunt Evy fixed before we headed out for each opening day from that one on – ham and eggs and pancakes. I remember savoring them until The Old Man got cranky about “burning daylight.” It was all part of the tradition.

I was twenty-one when my mom and step-dad Ray handed me the sourdough starter I still use today. I made breads and rolls that went with me on every hunt for decades. A great tradition.

I think each hunting and outdoor family has its rituals and traditions – carefully nurtured to set success in our minds – for season openers of whatever stripe.

There are many moments that tell us the time of year and the state of our lives. Times like canning and freezing and putting up meat, or places and people without whom we could not truly welcome begin an annual fishing trip or hunting season. These icons or traditions represent key aspects of our lives. They may change a bit over time, but they are always important.

I was barely a grownup when I attached to the first real tradition of my adult outdoor life…and not much older when I felt the loss of it.

“Uh, oh…” Buddy Rick muttered. “This is not good… This is a bad omen.” We were halfway down Crow Hill on U.S. 285, southwest of Denver, headed for trout fishing in South Park. Dark-thirty breakfast time on a Saturday; summer of 1969.

There was a note on the door of the darkened diner.

Rick and I had discovered the diner in 1964, a year after we met at Lowry AFB, following our overseas duty. We had quickly found each other’s outdoor spirit, and partnered up for all our hunting and fishing. At the time of discovery, we were on a pre-dawn drive to deer hunting in the hills around South Park. Our drive had been filled with youthful talk of big bucks and well-fed families of successful hunters. We planned to grab a quick bite in Bailey, at the bottom of the hill. Then we saw the lights of the diner.

The old wood-slab diner sat alone on the outside of a carved-out turn on the west side of the road. It had a clean, well-worn linoleum counter smoothed by the sliding of a million plates of eggs and sausage and flapjacks. The tall, lean old-timer behind the counter had probably cooked every plateful. We were struck by his ease and the hand-rolled smoke that somehow stayed lit while clinging to the farthest possible corner of his mouth. “Well, what’ll it be boys?”

Over the years, the Old-timer’s Diner became the start of our outdoor play – our tradition. We could pass up every food joint out of Denver, because we knew that the old boy would have the coffee and the grill and good humor ready when we got there. Plenty of others knew the place, too, but it was OUR place. “Huntin’ and fishin’ keep you young,” he said once, “and I love ta get out… But first, I gotta feed my boys and get ‘em on their way.” Some days, we had a better time over breakfast than in the woods or on the water the rest of the day – but we counted every day that started with his breakfast a success.

Then came that 1969 morning, and the hand-scrawled note. The old-timer had gone to his reward – which, we figured, could not possibly be enough to repay him for all he had given. We stood for a moment outside that worn old building with the shiny new “For Sale” sign. We wiped tears we were too manly to have, and wished the old man a happy hunting and fishing ground.

They built a bank there. Our South Park fishing and hunting was never again the same. Within a year, my grad school and Rick’s new career and crippling accident changed us, too. Still, any mention of the old timer put us back in a safe and sacred time.

We need our traditions.

Saturday, hundreds and hundreds of us will find our way to the 31st Annual Hunters Breakfast at the Swauk Teanaway Grange on Ballard Hill Road on the way up the west side of Blewett Pass (signs at SR 970 and Teanaway Road). Many will do a morning hunt, come refuel on ham, eggs and hotcakes (with homemade apple butter, coffee and orange juice), then head out to a day afield. Busloads of West Side folks will be there, too. The Hunters Breakfast is an icon – a tradition.

In two weeks, Friday the 26th, the annual Free Elk Hunters Breakfast will happen at PSE’s Wild Horse Visitors Center off the Old Vantage Highway, a few miles east of Ellensburg. In company with DFW folks and members of co-sponsor Kittitas County Field & Stream Club, hunters will swap ideas, hopes and stories over a variety of eggs, sausages, potatoes, biscuits, pancakes, fresh fruit, coffee and juice. It’s becoming a  tradition.

Welcome to the start of the primary 2018 hunting seasons.

About Chronic Wasting Disease

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 3, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Chronic wasting disease, or CWD (similar to “mad cow disease” in its effects), seemed to be the topic of the week during our time at the KOA campground in Wyoming. Son James, son-in-law Chris and I were there on our annual Antelope and Deer Safari a couple weeks back. (Scratch “Antelope” for 2018, as there were no antelope licenses available.) Interestingly, as we were preparing our white-tailed doe deer meat for trips back to our homes in Idaho, Colorado and Washington, traveling folks from Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska wandered over to chat.

Each of our three home states has specific regulations regarding the importing of wildlife carcasses from states with known/documented presence of CWD in wild cervids (deer family). Wyoming is one of those “documented” states. Thus, we were carefully preparing our made meat for transport. Idaho and Colorado allow import of whole quarters, or boned meat, but both ban or discourage transport of any bone containing brain or spinal tissue. Meat brought back to Washington must be entirely boned out. If any of us wanted to carry a skull back to our home base, it would have to be boiled and dried. To date, no CWD has been found in Washington or Idaho, and biologists aim to keep it that way. As the transportable portion of each carcass was properly prepared, it was bagged and put on ice in one or another cooler.

There seems to be a great deal of misinformation about CWD and the handling of wildlife carcasses, so I was struck by how knowledgeable our visitors were. We carried on some lively discussions about hunting and game meat and the blessings of each in our home states.

Still, given the large body of misunderstanding about CWD, and my role as chair of the Wildlife Disease Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog and Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, it seems that a primer is in order.

The USGS definition of CWD is “a fatal, neurological illness occurring in North American cervids…including white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, and moose.” The USGS has the simplest (although CWD is a complex process) description of cause that I have yet found. “CWD is caused by a misfolded protein called a prion. All mammals produce normal prions that are used by cells, then degraded and eliminated, or recycled, within the body. When disease-associated prions contact normal prions, they cause them to refold into their own abnormal shape. These disease-associated prions are not readily broken down and tend to accumulate in – and damage – lymphatic and neural tissues, including the brain.”

The disease is transmitted directly and indirectly. It spreads through animal-to-animal contact and through contact with various environmental features – including water sources – which have been contaminated by infected animals (this could be from saliva, urine, feces, or even carcasses of infected animals). Several recent studies indicate that the prions passed out of deer and elk may be taken in by other cervids eating grass or other food plants growing in contaminated soil.

Visual signs of this wasting disease may take up to two years to appear after infection (animals will appear to act normally during the incubation period). Obvious signs are steady weight loss, decreased interaction with other animals and an apparent loss of fear of humans. As the disease progresses, observers report excessive salivation, and frequent drinking and urination. One challenge for biologist is that most symptoms of CWD have other causes as well, so early diagnoses have sometimes been off the mark and testing is indicated.

CWD was first discovered in 1967, at a Colorado wildlife research facility near Colorado State University. I know more about that facility than I wish to know, but that is another, sore, subject. Arguably, CWD spread from there. Today, CWD is of great concern to wildlife managers dealing with cervids anywhere, but especially those in the 23 states, two provinces, South Korea and Norway, where it has been detected. No treatments or vaccines are currently available.

To date, there is no evidence that CWD can be transmitted to cattle or humans. Still, precautions are always warranted. Obviously, we would not feed ourselves or family the meat made from a sick deer or one in very poor condition. We will certainly continue handling carefully those parts of carcasses in which prions accumulate – especially brains and spinal tissue.

Find out all you want to know about CWD at the end of a Google search for “chronic wasting disease.” The CWD Alliance (cwd-info.org/) has current information for each state and province.. For a list of states from which you may only bring boneless meat, click on the Washington part of the North American map, then see the question “Ban on Movement of Animal Parts?” (Or see wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/cwd/.)

Oh, yes. Our Wyoming hunt. Thank you for asking. It was very different this year from hunts in the previous 21 years in the area. Still, we had a great hunt. In fact, the boys noted that this actually was a more relaxed hunt than the last few. Can’t wait ‘til next year!

Happy hunting – and check your local meat import regs if you go out of state.

Mountain Goats and High, Wild Country

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 26, 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 Homey Aaron Kuntz – 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 tags. 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 dawn, however, I was far enough up Kneeknocker Pass to have the sun’s 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 the trip.

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 down either side a hundred feet or more to other outcroppings.

Somehow, I got the meat, hide and head to my base camp. The next morning I started moving two 70-pound loads back to my rig; two packs 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 Aaron. May the memories of your experience be as rich as mine.

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

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.