A Rising Hope for Our Bighorn Sheep

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 18, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Bighorn sheep are often described as the “icons of the Mountain West.” The three primary species, or subspecies, of bighorns are the Rocky Mountain bighorns (most of the West), the desert bighorns (desert mountains of our southwest and down into Mexico) and the California bighorns (occupying the mountains and steep country of our West Coast states). Our local sheep are Californias, with a few Rocky Mountain sheep in the easternmost wild places of Washington. There are 18 herds of bighorns in Washington, adding up to around 1,500 wild sheep – more than half of which are along the Yakima River.

Icons? Think about it. When was the last time you drove down the Yakima River Canyon – or anywhere else in the West – and spotted wild sheep? And when didn’t you see others already there, or stopping, to admire the beauty, grace and strength of these animals?

As you are well aware, I have long loved bighorn sheep. I was a founding board member of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society in the 1970s and involved with writing bighorn sheep viewing guides for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Some weeks back, I put together a phone conference involving biologists and sheep nuts from around the West. I wanted to share the latest work with sheep and get a handle on where we are headed. This is the first of my efforts to bring you up to speed.

There are fair numbers of bighorns from Mexico to Canada, but they 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.

You recall that we’ve been here before. The issues with our local sheep are a mirror image of problems across bighorn habitat, so an understanding of efforts focused on our Washington sheep will inform us about sheep work happening across most of bighorn country. In the major die-off of 2009-10, we lost a significant number of our regional California lambs and adults to pneumonia. Hard to see – but not surprising – it happened again in 2015. Research and experience tells us now that, for up to a decade, surviving ewes may not produce lambs that live more than a year. Thus, herd recovery can take decades, if it even happens.

Obviously, biologists at universities and game departments in each of the states with wild sheep have been researching die-off issues. Through a growing body of work we are all learning more about the various forms of pneumonia and the range of bacteria involved. A great deal is now known about how, specifically, the illnesses spread through a sheep herd. This informs not only medical responses, it also gives wildlife managers a better handle on just how much – or little – patience needs to be practiced when wild sheep start dying. There is also a major looming move to keep domestic sheep from sharing any given habitat with bighorn herds.

Over the last three decades, alone, pneumonia has almost wiped out wild bighorn herds in the Blue Mountains and others in the Hell’s Canyon area of Idaho and Oregon along the Snake River. The pneumonia outbreaks are all apparently related to various Mycoplasma and Pasteurella bacteria.

Genetic analysis of bacteria over the past few years has shed some light. It appears that the Mycoplasma bacteria sufficiently weaken immune defenses for Pasteurella (and now a variety of other genetically-identified related bacteria) 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.) Some ewes are “shedders,” not unlike human “carriers” (unaffected by something like a strep throat they carry, but infecting others). Then, too, it seems possible that lambs which survived pneumonia are carrying the bacteria and infecting other lambs. Answers are slowly coming.

Through much of bighorn country, the various pneumonia bacteria are transmitted from unaffected domestic sheep to wild sheep, where they spread rapidly. Much research has centered on antibiotics and vaccines (and ways to get them into bighorns). Researchers are developing domestic sheep which are free of the Mycoplasma bacteria – much of this work is being done at the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla. It is unlikely that enough bacteria-free sheep can be developed to be viable in the large flocks of sheep in the vast sheep grazing allotments spread across bighorn country, but these sheep will be highly prized in some smaller areas.

Many western states have developed strict rules about the intermingling of domestic and wild sheep. The risk of disease to wild herds is so great that some states have given carte blanche to the killing of any bighorn (ram, ewe or lamb) found near domestic sheep. Almost any nose contact (a common greeting) will infect a wild sheep with enough bacteria to spread like wildfire through a bighorn herd. Washington and western biologists have worked with both public and private land managers to avoid interactions between bighorns and domestic sheep.

There is now a push among conservation groups (such as the Wild Sheep Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation) to reallocate some wild sheep research and other funds to actually pay sheep grazers to not use allotments that pose a risk to bighorn herds. Some sheepmen have switched to cattle in those sorts of allotments. In addition, current state and federal environmental impact studies performed prior to bidding on grazing allotments are putting increasing value on the presence of, or proximity to, wild sheep.

There is growing hope for wild sheep. Take a drive down The Yakima River Canyon – or into any sheep country – and say hello.

Of Firearms, Tragedies and Our Changing Society

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 11, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

I don’t know how many homeys have asked me when – or if – I was going to write something about school shootings. I’ve probably spent too much time thinking about it – and too much sad time mulling over the ignorance surrounding the so-called “debates” about firearms. I realized how far our society has fallen when I heard an NPR interview with the young man from Parkland, Florida, who became the apparent spokesperson for the survivors of that tragedy.

NPR had reached out to high school students across the country for their reactions to the “March for Our Lives” movement. and its push for stricter firearms laws – and the banning of some firearms. The interviewer played a young Montana woman’s comments about how she and her friends had grown up using and enjoying firearms and didn’t want them restricted and/or taken away. When the interviewer asked the young man how he would respond to her, he suggested that she was basically “just the people we are terrified of…”

I realize that anything I say will be colored by my coming of age in a different time. I am distressed by these tragic shootings. I believe that there are folks who should not have firearms. I believe it is a society issue, not a gun issue. I believe there are many causes for what we are experiencing, and many of them relate to changes in our culture. But what do I know; I’m one of those “seniors…” How about hearing a going-viral contemporary voice?

Kelly Guthrie Raley has been teaching for 20 years. She is the 2017-2018 Teacher of the Year at Eustis Middle School in Lake County, Florida. The day after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she posted her thoughts on Facebook (Find the whole post by googling “Florida-teacher-Facebook-post-gun-violence-goes-viral.html.”)

“Okay, I’ll be the bad guy and say what no one else is brave enough to say, but wants to say. I’ll take all the criticism and attacks from everyone because you know what?  I’m a TEACHER. I live this life daily. And I wouldn’t do anything else! But I also know daily I could end up in an active shooter situation.

“Until we, as a country, are willing to get serious and talk about mental health issues, lack of available care for the mental health issues, lack of discipline in the home, horrendous lack of parental support when the schools are trying to control horrible behavior at school (‘Oh no!  Not MY KID. What did YOU do to cause my kid to react that way?’), lack of moral values, and, yes, I’ll say it – violent video games that take away all sensitivity to ANY compassion for others’ lives, as well as reality TV that makes it commonplace for people to constantly scream up in each others’ faces and not value any other person but themselves, we will have a gun problem in school. Our kids don’t understand the permanency of death anymore!!!

“I grew up with guns. Everyone knows that. But you know what? My parents NEVER supported any bad behavior from me. I was terrified of doing something bad at school, as I would have not had a life until I corrected the problem and straightened my ass out.

‘My parents invaded my life. They knew where I was ALL the time. They made me have a curfew. They made me wake them up when I got home. They made me respect their rules. They had full control of their house, and at any time could and would go through every inch of my bedroom, backpack, pockets, anything!

“Parents: it’s time to STEP UP! Be the parent that actually gives a crap! Be the annoying mom that pries and knows what your kid is doing. STOP being their friend. They have enough “friends” at school. Be their parent. Being the ‘cool mom’ means not a damn thing when either your kid is dead or your kid kills other people because they were allowed to have their space and privacy in YOUR HOME.

“I’ll say it again. My home was filled with guns growing up. For God’s sake, my daddy was an 82nd Airborne Ranger who lost half his face serving our country. But you know what? I never dreamed of shooting anyone with his guns. I never dreamed of taking one! I was taught respect for human life, compassion, rules, common decency, and most of all, I was taught that until I moved out, my life and bedroom wasn’t mine; it was theirs. And they were going to know what was happening because they loved me and wanted the best for me.

“There. Say that I’m a horrible person. I didn’t bring up gun control, and I will refuse to debate it with anyone. This post wasn’t about gun control. This was me, loving the crap out of people and wanting the best for them. This was about my school babies and knowing that God created each one for greatness, and just wanting them to reach their futures.

“It’s about 20 years ago this year I started my teaching career. Violence was not this bad 20 years ago. Lack of compassion wasn’t this bad 20 years ago. And God knows 20 years ago that I wasn’t afraid daily to call a parent because I KNEW that 9 out of 10 wouldn’t cuss me out, tell me to go to Hell, call the news on me, call the school board on me, or post all over FaceBook about me because I called to let them know what their child chose to do at school because they are a NORMAL kid!!!!!

“Those 17 lives mattered. When are we going to take our own responsibility seriously?” (Kelly Guthrie Raley, 2018)

Of Blackbirds and Spring

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 4, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

A handful of us homeys spend a couple dozen winter and spring hours – and parts of a few days – thinking about wildlife habitat. A lot of that planning and thinking effort relates to wetlands and the waterfowl and hundreds of other species relying on them to survive. On some sunny, breezy day each early spring, I make it a point to meander around the ponds and marshes of Paradise with a window down and my rig idling quietly along. I am always reminded of the other reason I focus energy on wetland habitat.

I expect it, yet I am always surprised when I first hear that gurgling, almost metallic, conk-a-ree, conk-a-ree, as some red-winged blackbird male declares his turf out in the cattails. “Here,” he promises, “I will do my best to make more blackbirds, that they may somehow always return spring to Paradise.”

These birds are icons of our marshes, really. You’ve no doubt noticed them, and have perhaps even spent several minutes lost in some primeval ritual of sight and sound before it dawned on you that you were watching them. These are the days of our red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds.

The flashy birds are easy to spot among cattails and bullrushes all over eastern Washington. With a little patience, you can begin to identify their calls and locations within a marsh. The early call of red-headed males is a rather harsh check and a high tee-eek, while its classic conk-a-ree becomes the common ringing call through summer. The yellow-headed boys use a low kruck and several growling sounds, but the more common call over the next few months will be a few musical notes followed by a screeching, buzzing, gunk-eeee (often described as the sound of opening a rusty gate). Males of both species will be singing from any high spot around the marsh.

The males arrived in January or February, from as far south as Costa Rica, to stake out territories prime enough to attract a handful of the females now in the marshes.

Courtship displays are still in play. You may see a red-winged male drop his wings, showing off his red and yellow shoulder patches. He will tip forward, spread its tail, and sing. Researchers have likened those colorful shoulder patches to “sergeant’s stripes,” signifying rank and social order. Numerous experiments and observations indicate that males with smaller (or dyed) wing patches are routinely run off nesting territories by other males. Red-winged displays and battles will be almost exclusively around the shallow edges of marshes and wetlands.

At the same time, out over deeper water (to about four feet), the yellow-headed male will stand with his body thrust upward, showing off his yellow head and upper chest, while tipping forward, spreading his tail, and singing with wings half open.

By now, territories are well staked out, and most females will have agreed to play house (nest?) with a particular male. Dominant males of both species may have several mates within their territories. The females, mostly brown and drab, will build their nests in the cattails or bulrushes. Nests will be built in emergent vegetation, firmly woven of bulky wet vegetation, then lined with dried grass. As the nests dry, they shrink and tighten into place.

Making more blackbirds is not always easy. Nests of both our blackbirds are common drops for eggs of the parasitizing and pesky cowbird, which lets other species rear its young. Nests and eggs of the yellow-headed birds are sometimes destroyed by marsh wrens, but fortunately (Bird Whisperer Deborah Essman tells me) there are few marsh wrens in our part of Paradise.

The female red‑winged will lay three or four blue‑green eggs, streaked with purple. The three to five eggs of the yellow-headed female are gray to greenish‑white, marked with brown or gray.  Females are totally responsible for the twelve days of incubation. Males will generally sit nearby, singing their loud songs (red-headed’s gurgling conk-a-ree, and yellow-headed’s rusty-gate gunk-eeeee), and protecting the nest territory. If time and conditions permit, the red-winged may produce three broods a year, ensuring that they remain one of the most populous bird in North America. The yellow-headed may produce two sets of fledglings.

In late September, our blackbirds will join starlings, grackles, cowbirds, and others in one or another of those large undulating flocks working their way back to Central America. Those flocks may contain a quarter million birds – but who’s counting?

The Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association Science Education Committee requires scientific names. Red‑winged  is Agelaius phoeniceus and the yellow-headed is Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. Both species make their livings on insects, spiders, grass and other seeds, along with some fruits. For more info, including research and observation projects, see The Birder’s Handbook, by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye. Any good field guide is worth the reading. Of course, you will find great photos and research online; start with Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab at www.allaboutbirds.org.

Take your ears, eyes, optics and cameras to the cattails and bulrushes. Immerse yourself. Be inspired by the taste and sounds of spring in Paradise.

All (Mostly, Anyway) About Shed Antler Hunting

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 27, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

You’ve probably been hearing it, too. I’ve had at least a half dozen recent conversations about deer and elk “shed hunting” in the hills around Paradise – our part of Washington State.

People get excited about finding cast “horns,” and some of them get downright nuts about it.  Somewhere in any wildlife nut’s prized possessions will be a shed antler with a good story about where and when it was discovered – or the buck or bull who dropped it. While the level and seriousness of such behavior varies from one wildlife area to another and county to county there have been a number of complaints – and citations issued – over people sneaking onto closed or private ground and harassing elk while trying to find freshly shed antlers. Some people get a bit overexcited.

As you know, antlers grow quickly as blood‑engorged tissue, protected by velvet – a hairy skin.  By late summer, the bone in the antlers is fully hardened and the velvet is rubbed off. Then, by early to mid spring, testosterone levels have hit bottom, the cells at the base of the antlers have granulated and the antlers have painlessly (+/-) dropped away at the pedicel. (Testosterone levels drop because of decreasing activity of the pituitary gland, largely due to winter’s shorter hours of daylight.) Anyhow, those dropped sheds are somewhere out there on wintering grounds.

In Washington, any naturally cast antler found is yours to keep. Joe Watt, Robinson Canyon and Oak Creek feeding areas and the roads around them, however, are closed until Tuesday – May first. Other areas are open to walking and looking, but apparently too many folks just can’t wait.

This shed hunting stuff is a big, wide-reaching deal. I fastened my seat belt and punched “shed antler hunting” into my trusty search engine. I got two or three ads… AND (as best I can tell in my techno-ignorant counting) more than 20,000 web pages about hunting, storing, selling, buying, collecting, mounting, sportsmanship, and salivating over shed antlers. There are web pages with info about every aspect of the game.

Your search will yield articles and stories about training dogs to find antlers, shed hunting clubs, finding the right “shed hunting partner,” the current sale and purchase value of sheds in various condition, and the how or why of getting kids out looking for cast antlers. If you can think of any other related cast antler subject, there will be something on the web for that, too.

Labrador retrievers seem to come up most among dogs trained to find sheds, although other dogs have been local antler-finding heroes, also. Need training tips? It’s all there.

By the way, there are clubs, too. The biggest, arguably, is the North American Shed Hunters Club (NASHC), headquartered in Wisconsin. It has a regularly updated record book, measurers, appearances around the country and a lively blog. Prizes and competitions abound, as do opportunities to hone your craft or arrange a guided shed antler hunt. It’s all there on the NASHC web page at www.shedantlers.org.

Need to figure out the psychological profile for an ideal shed hunting partner? Or about how shed hunting makes you both better hunters overall? It’s on the web.

Kids? Well, you know what a fan I am of using any excuse to get kids and grownups outdoors. Robert Loewendick of Hopewell, Ohio, wrote “Shed Antler Hunting with Kids” a few years back. It’s wise and funny and a great read; find it at www.backwoodsbound.com/yantlers.html. (As you might guess, a big problem is getting kids back inside after they’ve found a shed…)

What are sheds worth? Answers abound. There is a consignment center for your prize pickups, a “buy/sell/trade” site and coaching for making furniture or whatever from your antlers at www.bigantlers.com. The Antler Man (Great Basin Antler Buyers) notes that current prices for deer and elk sheds range from $2 to $16 per pound (condition from chalky to fresh brown) with matched sets of deer or elk cast antlers – depending on Boone and Crocket measurements – selling for $150 to $1500.

Tired of being skunked and need shed hunting advice? Two dozen more-or-less pros each give their top three tips in an article put together by Almo Gregor and Jon Sutton on the Outdoor Empire (outdoorempire.com) site. The article is at www.outdoorempire.com/shed-hunting-tips, and is a fascinating look into the lives of shed hunters.

Questions about the where and when of shed hunting in Paradise? Start with current wildlife area maps, such as the “L.T. Murray Green Dot Cooperative Road Management Area map” available at the DFW office in Ellensburg (201 North Pearl), from the DNR office at the Ellensburg airport, or the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Region 3 office in Yakima.

For access, shed hunting or other wildlife area questions, feel free to contact Melissa Babik, Wildlife Area Manager for the L.T. Murray, Quilomene, Whiskey Dick and Skookumchuck, at 509-925-6746.

Enjoy the game. Have fun. Play fair.

So Long, Patrick F. McManus

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 20, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Patrick F. McManus has been on my mind. You are aware, no doubt, that Pat went on to his well-earned reward on April 11 in Spokane, Washington. He was 84. As our very own Northwest-grown humorist, and as a man whose conversations I treasured, it somehow seems appropriate to make him the focus of this column – number 1,000 for the Ellensburg Daily Record.

Some decades ago (in the mid-1980s), I had an outdoor talk show, “The Rockies Outdoors,” on a radio station in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I also had a syndicated daily outdoor radio gig, “Inside the Outdoors,” in nine western states. I interviewed McManus for those shows, and during the next twenty-some years, we caught up a few times.

I loved talking to the guy. He was a fairly sober, contemplative fellow, with a very natural, easy, humor. I never quite knew where an interview or phone call might start – or end.

The first time I interviewed him, I organized my questions, and asked him where he wanted to start. “Well,” he said, “let’s start at the beginning. Like many people, I started life as a small child…” (I’m not sure I ever got to my questions.) “My mother was a country school teacher so from my earliest memory I was in school rooms… [S]he would put me in one of the back desks and I would sit there and color pictures and so on. …All of my early memories are of these little one room schools way off in the woods some place. We owned a small farm near Sandpoint, Idaho, but for the first seven or eight years of my life we lived in a very remote area far back in the mountains. Eventually, we lived on our farm where we had Sand Creek running through one side and I could step out the back door and go fishing or hunting in the mountains…”

McManus’ father died when he was quite young, and times were often tough on that small farm. Teenager construction work let him save enough to get through an English program at what is now Washington State University. After a stint with newspapers, he returned to WSU for work and a Master’s Degree, took a job teaching at Eastern Washington University and retired as Professor Emeritus after 23 years – a decision made when he realized he could make a living as a writer, with a little side work in television and public relations.

At some point in one of our early conversations, Patrick and I compared notes on the number of rejection slips we’d received for our early writing – and on the coaching we got from a couple renowned editors at Field and Stream Magazine. He wrote daily and sold a few things (like nature and travel stuff, and a piece on funny lookout tower stories). One day, with an hour of writing time left after completing a Sports Illustrated article, he figured “well, I’ll just write a nonsensical thing. I wrote about the use of telemetry, extended it to absurdity in which all of the animals and wildlife were hooked up with radios. I sent this off to one of the magazines – Field and Stream as a matter of fact – and an editor, Clare Conley, bought the story. I thought, ‘Gee this is a pretty easy way to make money, knocking out these quick little humor pieces!’” A dozen or so rejection slips later Clare was still encouraging him. In the late ‘60s, he finally found his humor groove, and Crazy Eddie, Rancid Crabtree, and the others (all based on real people, he claimed) began to appear.

My connection was with Ted Trueblood (also a Field and Stream editor) a regular guest on my early outdoor radio programs at KATN in Boise. He encouraged and coached me after eight or ten pink slips, and my writing got better enough that I later earned recognition from the Colorado Press Association for columns in the Douglas County News Press. Still, I moved more into broadcasting as McManus got more serious about his writing.

“I started at Field and Stream in the late ‘60s,” he said, “ and I did a monthly humor piece, at least six a year the last five years I worked there, but the regular humor columnist was Ed Zern and a column called ‘Exit Laughing.’” Patrick wrote his humor pieces for Field and Stream until about 1981, when “Clare Conley…became an editor at Outdoor Life. Clare called me up and invited me to become a regular columnist for them, with a column right on the back page of the magazine, similar to the position that Ed Zern had in Field and Stream.” Eventually, Outdoor Life fell on tight budget times, and Patrick’s back page column, “The Last Laugh,” ended with the April issue of 2009.

Our last conversation was in early ’09, as I recall. We talked a little bit about my humble efforts in Paradise and his larger world writing goals. “I could probably write humor directed toward [a] sophisticated audience, but I try to avoid that… I would much rather aim at the general population, but I am always pleased when someone from an English Department [likes my writing].”

For our continuing pleasure, Pat leaves behind a body of rich, skillful writing; that 40 years of humor columns, two dozen books (including “The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw,” “Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink!” and several darkly-humorous mystery novels), six one-man plays, and several kid stories. The work of great writers (and I would make that argument for McManus) goes ahead forever.

Thanks for sharing all the life and laughter, Patrick. RIP