About the Bald Eagles of Paradise

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 9, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

It was an impromptu outside-Arnold’s-Ranch-and-Home meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog and Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association on South Main in Ellensburg. The only agenda item was bald eagles – specifically those visible on drives up and down and around the county, or perched from time to time at town edges.

Both fellow attendees were excited about bald eagles. Why not? It is, after all, our national symbol and striking in appearance. Of course, had Ben Franklin succeeded, our national bird would be the wild turkey. In his argument, Ben described the bald eagle as “a bird of bad moral character: he does not get his living honestly… besides, he is a rank coward!” He almost pulled it off, missing by one vote in Congress in 1782. The bald eagle has been our icon ever since.

Today, probably, most of us see the bald eagle as a beautiful, strong, independent creature. In some Native American traditions, the soaring eagle could touch the Great Spirit, and its sacred feathers might then teach one to fly above the mundane – to see the truth as Great Spirit might see it. Most of us, I think, feel a bit of awe just seeing these birds.

That was not always the case. For a century we did not well honor our national bird. Until the federal protections of 1940, bald eagles were widely shot, trapped and poisoned by sheep ranchers worried about predation, shot by fishermen intending to protect the fish resource and electrocuted by power lines. Beyond that direct abuse, eagles (and many other raptors) suffered the effects of DDT.

That pesticide washed into waterways, accumulating in fish the birds were eating. DDT, its breakdown products, and other chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides (and hydrocarbons such as PCBs) posed an insidious threat to birds. Since the chemicals are persistent (they don’t break down) they tend to concentrate as they move through the food chain. Hydrocarbons accumulated in fatty tissues in females’ bodies, particularly in the fatty tissues of the ovaries, and eggshells became thinner or nonexistent, so eggs broke while being laid or during incubation. (This is not unlike the concentration of arsenic and other metalloid poisons in the fatty tissues of humans’ reproductive systems – thus early arsenic treatments for syphilis and the lack of children of young ranchers settling along certain water sources in western arid rangelands. But I digress…)

In 1976, the Feds and most states placed the bald eagle on the endangered species list. Once DDT was banned, and the killing was stopped, bald eagle populations rebounded. On August 9, 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species.

Here in Central Washington, we get a fair number of wintering bald eagles dropping in from the country north of us, and returning north in mid-spring. There are also several nesting pairs in our part of the state, so we have a few year‑round birds.

As our meeting degenerated, eagle tales were flowing like cool malt beverages at The Tav. A young rancher stopped for a second. “You know, we feed a lot of eagles,” he smiled. At one member’s protest that eagles hunt their own food, he chuckled, “Yeah…but mostly what the flocks of eagles find is the afterbirth left on the ground when our calves are born!”

In keeping with the wishes of our little think tank’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. Bald eagle’s scientific name is Haliaeetus leucocephalus. It may reach 12 pounds and have a wingspan of eight feet. As with most raptors, the female will be larger than the male. This eagle favors open waterways and riparian areas, where it finds the fish on which it generally makes its living. In addition to the smorgasbord provided by the valley’s calving cows in late winter into spring, it will also eat waterfowl, rabbits and the occasional small dog or cat.

If you want to travel a bit, you will likely still find a few eagles around the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center at Howard Miller Steelhead Park near Rockport, on the west side of the north Cascades. If you want to see them from the comfort of home or office, google “eagle cams,” or keep an eye on Fish and Wildlife’s site, wdfw.wa.gov/wildwatch/, for the updated eagle cam (along with several others for fish and wildlife).

Locally, bald eagles will be found in riparian areas up and down the Yakima River. As local cows drop more calves, they will be commonly seen around the Canyon entrance and across the Kittitas Valley. This is a perfect time to gather family and friends, cameras and binoculars, and go get some fresh air while enjoying the bald eagles of Paradise.

Happy almost-spring.

Putting the AR-15 in Context

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 2, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Full disclosure (thanks for asking): No, I am not a fan of the AR-15 nor of the 500 or so other brands of “black guns” modeled on it, although they are really fun to shoot. Yes, one can burn through 200 rounds of ammo in slightly more than a few blinks of an eye. Yes, many of the new versions are among the most accurate firearms ever built. Yes, they are very popular for hunting, and are available in dozens of calibers. Yes, I believe it is folly to engage in discussions of AR-15-type firearms without understanding the context within which they exist today. Allow me.

If you have followed this Friday column over many of these past 993 Fridays, you are aware of my long-held views of what is or is not a proper hunting rifle or sporting firearm. Given the current furor over “legitimate” arms for hunting or sport shooting, I invite you to wander through context with me.

In my mind, our modern hunting rifles grew from military firearms of WWI and WWII. Soldiers used bolt-action and auto-loading rifles, and those familiar tools grew sportier, lighter, more accurate and graceful as soldiers returned home to traditional hunting and shooting activities. Over the decades before and after WWII, many fine rifles were built around European and American military surplus actions (the mechanism moving the cartridge into the barrel’s chamber and locking it in place).

New cartridges in many calibers (the bullet’s diameter in inches or metric) were developed to expand beyond 7mm and .30 caliber military cartridges. With varying success, cartridges were developed for hunting critters of all sizes, with bullets in calibers from .22 and 6mm (.243) to .500 caliber.

A quality rifle had a strong, smooth action screwed onto a carefully forged and machined steel barrel. This “barreled action” was fitted to a finely carved and finished wood stock (likely walnut, but maybe maple, myrtle, or another strong and attractive hardwood). This finished rifle would deliver a bullet with consistent accuracy to a point of aim downrange. Given how wood rifle stocks might swell or bend, and affect the rifle’s accuracy, all sorts of solutions – from “free -floated” barrels to laminated wood stocks to new sealers and finishes – were developed.

Accuracy was paramount; commonly described in minutes of angle, or MOA. One MOA covers one inch at 100 yards, so MOA accuracy meant that bullets would consistently hit within a one-inch circle at 100 yards. Many hundreds of articles have been written over the decades on hunters’ responsibility for accurate shooting afield – and one MOA is the standard.

That accuracy was found in a sleek blued steel barreled action precisely fitted to a wood stock carefully shaped for weight and balance and shooting pleasure. To me, and many others within a couple generations of me, THAT was a hunting rifle.

War, soldiers, tools and times changed. We sent our young men and women to fight in places that were often hot, wet and muddy, and traditional military arms didn’t hold up. New firearms were developed.

The first AR-15 (Armalite Rifle 15) was created for use in Vietnam in the early 1960s, and is still the military weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The M-16 is the version most GIs learned to carry.) Although it had its problems, it was light, dependable and could lay down a terrific barrage of fire. The original caliber was the 5.56mm NATO – a version of the .223 Remington – which could spit tiny bullets at 3200 feet per second. At that velocity, the round could do a lot of damage, and a soldier could carry a lot of ammo.

Those soldiers, like the WWI and WWII vets before them, brought home expertise with a light, semiautomatic, gray/black carbon/plastic firearm with corrosion-resistant metal where needed. And just like the GIs before them, they started playing around with the tools they knew.

Today, AR-15 type firearms – black guns – are made for many calibers. A good many will shoot sub-MOA groups, and cost several thousand dollars. Even shotguns and handguns are made with this light and weatherproof technology.

The transition to AR-15 rifles as firearms of choice for hunters, target shooters – and self-defense devotees – has not been easy for those of us who “know” how a real rifle looks and feels, but…

Let me give you a context here. According to Wikipedia and other sources, as of 2017, there were more than 10 million rifles from the AR-15 family being used by US civilians. They are the most popular rifles in America. They are manufactured for cartridges in 31 Imperial calibers from .17 to .50, 19 metric calibers (5.45mm and up) and 14 handgun calibers. (Larger calibers have become preferred for hunting deer, wild pigs, bears and other game.) Only Colt makes the official AR-15, but there are about 500 US and international manufacturers of AR-15 type guns.

Thus, to me, a continuing argument about civilian use of AR-15 type firearms is folly. Perhaps we might focus on safety and training – it is generally how we successfully deal with tragic happenings in our country.

The 2018 Hunting Film Tour

Written by Jim Huckabay on February 23, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

The Hunting Film Tour (HFT) is back in Paradise for a second year, thanks to Ducks Unlimited. This feature-length film showcases the finest short hunting films available. This is a celebration of the hunt – why we seek remote places, quiet times and wild critters. You are invited.

This year’s celebration happens next Thursday evening, March 1, at 6 p.m. We will convene at the SURC Theatre on the Central Washington University Campus here in Ellensburg. (All attendees will be in the drawing for a Yeti cooler.)

This year’s film features nine beautifully filmed hunting videos from across North America. These amazing videos have titles like Blue Collar, Arctic Red, Strut, The Zone, 3 Up 2 Down, and In Search of Reverence. Several homeys who attended last year’s 2017 film tell me they can still close their eyes and be carried away by those hunters’ experiences. This film is an intimate, honest celebration of hunters and hunting, wild places and wild things.

You will find previews and other info at huntingfilmtour.com/. Click on “Trailers” to see samples of breathtaking cinematography and the rhythms of our hunting lives.

Sportsman’s Warehouse is now the Official Retail Partner of the tour. The other sponsors and partners of HFT read like a Who’s Who of hunting, conservation and outdoor gear. Outfits like Sitka Gear, Yeti, RMEF, North American Wild Sheep Foundation, Vortex Optics, Traeger, CarbonTV, Spypoint, Mathews, Kimber and Kennetrek join Ducks Unlimited and others to make sure the films find their way into theatres across North America. This year’s film will be seen in hundreds of theatres across North America, with groups like the South Dakota Wildlife Federation hosting half a dozen showings in that state alone.

Bringing the HFT to audiences like us is clearly in line with the Ducks Unlimited mission statement, noting that it “conserves, restores, and manages wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl. These habitats also benefit other wildlife and people.” This is OUR mission, as well; from the nationwide Hunting Film Tour sponsors to local outfits like our 99-year-old Kittitas County Field and Stream Club. We are all in the game of ensuring wildlife and its habitat for our children’s children and those who follow them.

Here’s a brief primer on Ducks Unlimited. It formed in 1937, combining early groups which grew from the Boone and Crockett Club in response to North America’s nosediving waterfowl numbers. It became the model for other successful wildlife conservation organizations which have made huge strides toward having wildlife for future generations. DU’s 700,000+ world-wide members have raised more than three and a half billion dollars since 1937 – more than 80% of that money going directly to conservation projects, enhancing waterfowl, wetlands and other critical habitats. Nearly 14,000,000 acres have been conserved across North America. No other conservation or environmental group matches DU for putting its money where its mouth is.

The wetlands producing most of our waterfowl also provide habitat for billions of land birds and animals. Much of that wetland ground is under constant development threat. International DU has been most successful at finding solutions protecting habitat and meeting human needs. This is why DU is supported by a broad range of sportsmen – not just waterfowl fans.

Restoring and enhancing quality habitat in key waterfowl areas is a game we play each time we commit to look after wild things and wild places. Eastern Washington is one of the top ten DU support regions in North America. In addition, more than 30,000 Washington residents buy federal duck stamps – a good many are non-hunters, seeing the duck stamp program as a way to contribute to the future of all bird life. Since its inception in 1934, this program has conserved 5.7 million acres and created or expanded 300 federal wildlife refuges. No matter how you look at it, waterfowl habitat conservation serves almost all the wild things in which we share interest.

Everything you want to know about waterfowl and the conservation of its habitat is at www.fws.gov/duckstamps/conservation/mbcc.htm, www.birdnote.org, or www.ducks.org.

In six days, we will convene in the SURC Theatre at 6:00 p.m. One of us will leave with a Yeti65 Cooler, a bunch of us will have hats, mugs and other swag, and all of us will enjoy a great film of hunters celebrating the lives we live – and dream of living.

Get your $10 ticket online at www.ducks.org/washington/events/51641/ellensburg-hunting-film-tour, at 509-423-3954, or at the door of the SURC Theatre (the SURC is at the end of Chestnut, just north of University Way).

This film – and the others past and yet to come – are the celebrations of the devotion we carry to our hunting heritage and a forever future for wildlife and those who come after us. Remember that our children are the emissaries we send to a time we will never see; what do we want them to take?

See you next Thursday evening.

Outdoor Adventures and Closure

Written by Jim Huckabay on February 16, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Dwight “Lee” Bates has submitted several stories to our writing contest over the years. Lee is a professional engineer with long experience with shipbuilding, auto manufacturing, and aviation – which I think holds the lion’s share of his fascination. His work directly with students, stirring their interest in math and engineering, along with the book (Due Diligence – Memoirs of the Life of An Engineer and Outdoorsman) he wrote for them, is widely recognized. He built and flew his own Light Sport Aircraft. Lee often reminds me that “outdoor adventures” are not just about hunting, fishing and camping.

Here is Lee Bates’ tale of wild places, family, and a man’s closure.

“I was looking around online and found a story that caught my eye on a website, www3.gendisasters.com, for airplane crashes.

“The story was about a guy whose father died in a 1946 DC-3 crash. He was trying to get closure by visiting the crash site on Elk Mountain, not far off I-80 in Wyoming – a site which I climbed up to on the mountain twice to find. This guy wrote, ‘I am taking a trip next week to Elk Mountain to be where the plane crashed ending my dad’s life. I was only 7 months old and I am now 68 years old. But need to finally get closure on saying goodbye to the dad I never knew! I plan on leaving him a letter on the mountain top.’

“So I posted the following on the website: ‘I read your trip report on the crash of a DC-3 on Elk Mountain in 1946. I found the crash site twice in 1960.

Elk Mountain, Wyoming (Dwight Lee Bates photo)

It was to the West of the lookout by two huge broken off trees. I first went to it with a friend of mine I hayed with, and later with my cousin Rod. I think they would have not crashed if they had not hit the two big trees. Each tree was about 3 foot in diameter. They were only about 50 feet from the top. Most of the parts were just beyond the 2 trees to the South East. I found a DC-3 access cover to the gas caps there, verifying it as a DC 3. When I showed it to my Uncle Robert, he also identified it.’ He said: ‘I recognize the access cover to the gas caps since when I have flown on a DC 3, I have seen those access covers flopping in the wind when they forget to close them.’ ‘I heard that a rancher took his pickup to the top and hauled the metal to the scrap yard to sell. This is probably why the crash site is hard to find today. Also I heard they used the electric starting motors from the DC-3s engines as electric winches for their trucks. Please call me.’

“Well, the guy called me and said he visited the crash site of the DC-3 on Elk Mountain in 2013 to get closure. He said a rancher with ATVs took him to the site, where he left his letter. He said they used a road made by the University of Wyoming to access their cloud seeding building on the top of Elk Mountain. He said that he took a picture of the crash site, but there was not much metal left. I said there was not much metal also left in 1960 when I visited the crash site. I can verify that this is the crash site since I can see the two broken off trees that they hit far in the distance in a photo of the mountain. Also I remember this is what the crash site looked like when I found it twice. I told him I had just talked to my Uncle Fred that day who helped bring the bodies down after the crash in 1946.

“I am glad that the guy who lost his father found closure. I asked him if his dad was the pilot but he would not tell me. My uncle said they could not find the pilot’s body for quite a while until they dug through the snow drifts. He was thrown clear of the wreckage through the windshield. My uncle said the stewardess who was found in the tail section did not have a scratch on her – she may have survived the impact only to freeze to death. It was January so it was hard to get to the wreckage in the deep snow. They slid the bodies and themselves off the mountain and used dog teams to retrieve them. The DC 3 was flying alongside another DC3 that belonged to the same airline. The pilot of that DC 3 tried to raise the other plane after he saw a flash of light coming from their direction. When he did not get a response, he knew they hit Elk Mountain. I think that the airliner was supposed to use the Cheyenne ADF [Automatic Direction Finding] to avoid hitting Elk Mountain at night but he must have wrongly used the Laramie ADF which put him off course. Evidently the pilot could not see the other DC3 running lights to warn him.”

An aside: “Jim, I believe you know Elk Mountain from your Antelope hunts. My cousins own four 30K acre cattle ranches in Elk Mountain area. My uncle is still alive. The ranchers in Wyoming are strong people and will go out of their way to help someone, and have helped me a few times. My grandfather’s dad, my great grandfather, was killed in a 1902 gunfight in Medicine Bow, Wyoming. The fight was over a woman. We recently cleaned up that great grandfather’s grave in Medicine Bow.” Lee Bates


Jack O’Connor, His Legacy, and the Wild Sheep of Today

Written by Jim Huckabay on February 9, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

A couple weeks back, we found ourselves in Reno, Nevada. A senior family member had passed on after a long illness, and Diane needed to help her brother get a few Veterans Affairs and other details managed. You gotta love a happy coincidence. Somehow, that just happened to be the same week that the North American Wild Sheep Foundation Convention was held in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. It also just happened that my South African buddies, Richard and Ruth Lemmer, had their Safari Afrika booth there. And – Lo and Behold! – Less than 30 booths away were folks from the Lewiston, Idaho, Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage & Education Center – a critical part of protecting and sharing an important writer’s legacy.

Born in Arizona in 1902, O’Connor grew up in the Sonora Desert country, nuts about the outdoors and wildlife – and desert bighorn sheep. After stints in the Navy, and several southern universities, he settled into teaching English. In 1934, he joined the University of Arizona as its first professor of journalism.

He wrote widely and well about wildlife, natural history and hunting, and sold a number of fictional short stories. His work was published in virtually every magazine of the time, from Redbook and the Saturday Evening Post to Sports Afield, Field and Stream and Outdoor Life. In 1939, he became a regular columnist and editor for Outdoor Life. He left academia in 1945 and moved to Lewiston in ‘48.

Honored as the “Dean of Outdoor Writers,” Jack O’Connor was a cornerstone of Outdoor Life, the most popular sportsman’s read during his long tenure. With humor and personal anecdotes, he could help the average guy master most any technical idea. He could pack more information, entertainment and excitement into one sentence than any writer I’ve ever read. In addition to decades of monthly columns, he wrote dozens of books and publications about experiences with firearms, hunting and natural history. Much of it was about his beloved wild sheep.

Huge numbers of us learned to read with his monthly columns and books – with flashlights under the covers – after we’d been put to bed and told to sleep. (I have long thought we were learning to write, too, at the same time we were messing up our young eyes.) Jack O’Connor changed the way we thought about firearms, hunting and wildlife and the ethics of dealing with all of them. He retired from Outdoor Life in 1972, and on to his Happy Hunting Ground in 1978.

At the Wild Sheep Show, I helped Richard and Ruth move a few souvenirs and invite a few folks to an adventure of a lifetime in South Africa. Somewhere in those days, I also found time with volunteers and a board member or two from the O’Connor Center.

The Center is focused on Jack’s legacy, with outdoor education and activities to help ensure that our grandchildren’s children still have an outdoor legacy to support – and keep. It is also a museum, housing a sizeable part of his wildlife and big game collection, and several favorite firearms. Youngsters are always a focus of education efforts; it is now sponsoring a Youth Hunter Education Challenge Program for youngsters 11- 18 in eight events (check it out at www.jack-oconnor.org.) My conversations with folks in the booth centered on our proposed Washington Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, getting kids into outdoor adventures, and then recording – writing – them. We discussed several ideas about getting kids excited about writing up their own great adventures. Can it be done these days? What will it take?  Standby…

We also enjoyed some “supposings” and “wonderings” about how O’Connor might have reacted to the incredible diversity of booths, perspectives and possibilities at the convention. In the hall were many hundreds of booths and thousands upon thousands of visitors. Among the booths were several groups or businesses promoting extreme long range shooting (taking animals from more than 1,000 yards, for example). Scattered across the acres of booths were somewhere around 1,000 mounted wild sheep – maybe a couple dozen different species. Wander enough and you could find anything from Mexican desert bighorns to European mouflon to any of the various subspecies of the giant argali of Mongolia, Central Asia and the Himalayas. O’Connor preached careful long stalks and good shooting from reasonable distances – he was a wild sheep nut of the first order. He was a crusty about these things, and did not suffer fools gladly. Those of us who knew him personally, or from his writing, could only imagine his reaction to the preaching of ultra-long range shots and the stunning number and variety of sheep on display.

You probably owe it to yourself and the hunters and sportsmen who come after you to appreciate Jack O’Connor and his work. Check out the Jack O’Connor Center at www.jack-oconnor.org/ (208-743-5043). Then, take a drive to the Center at Hell’s Gate State Park in Lewiston.

How will we lay out a sustainable outdoor future without understanding how we got here?