Wild Sheep and RMBS

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 5, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Bighorn sheep have been on my mind the last month or so. Could be that reminiscing with Brian Talbot about the ram he took down The Yakima River Canyon in November. Maybe it’s the conference call Joe Zbylski and I will have with some of the sheep biologists and pros in Washington to discuss current and future plans for dealing with die-offs and health issues affecting the wild sheep of Paradise. Perhaps, it is my struggle to decide where I will throw my large number of preference points this month as I (with thousands of others) submit my application for a Washington state bighorn sheep special hunt permit. Be that as it may, Edward (last of the Hucklings) and I were in Denver a week ago at the annual meeting of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society (RMBS).

Joe and I, with Max Tallent, Marv Clyncke and a handful of other bighorn sheep nuts, founded the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society in Denver in 1975. Bighorns across much of the West were on the losing side of interactions with domestic sheep and habitat loss, and we thought maybe we could do something to help these icons of our wild places. Then, as now, the Society’s mission was “to promote the science-based management of the bighorn sheep, educate the public about their life and habitat, and assure the sportsman’s rights in proper opportunities.”

In those early years, we raised money for research programs and brought together folks with ideas. Over a few years, we were able to get nearly a hundred people at annual meetings, and raise a few thousand bucks for important work.

When I moved back to the Northwest, I lost track of many of my sheep-nut colleagues. In March of 2000, on a perfect early spring morning, I got a call at my office in Central’s Lind Hall. “This Jim Huckabay?” “Uh… Yeah…” “Man…” the guy said, “You don’t know what I’ve gone through to find you! Finally got your numbers from Max Tallent, down in Colorado Springs. Anyhow, I’m Bud Henderson, president of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, and we’re having our 25th Annual Banquet in April.”

“25th Annual? 25 years? How could it be 25 years?” My head was spinning.

“So the membership and board selected a handful of people who did the most in the early years to keep the Society going, and we have an award of recognition for you. We’d love it if you could be at the banquet. A lot of the other old-timers will be there…” “Early years? …Other old-timers?” I sat down.

Edward and I went to that 2000 banquet.

Since the turn of the Century, I have renewed many of those sheep-nut relationships and continue to write, talk and think about bighorn sheep and their ongoing issues. 2017 seemed like a good year to take in another RMBS banquet.

It is generally agreed that wild sheep evolved in Asia during the early Pleistocene, within the last couple million years. They probably developed their distinctive characteristics while isolated in ice-free periods during the latter part of the Pleistocene. In those times, when the continental and cordilleran glaciers melted sufficiently, ancestors of our modern wild sheep migrated southward into what is today western Canada and the USA. The isolation of various bighorn bands in those areas during later glaciations resulted in the different subspecies of bighorn sheep.

In Washington we have Rocky Mountain bighorns (Ovis canadensis) and California bighorns (Ovis canadensis californiana). The sheep of Paradise are California bighorns – slightly smaller than the Rocky Mountain sheep.

You are likely well aware of the sheep die-offs in Paradise and around the West. More is learned each year about how these things spread, along with how much – or little – patience must be practiced when wild sheep start dying.

In 1995-96, pneumonia almost wiped out wild bighorn herds in the Blue Mountains and in the Hells Canyon area of Idaho and Oregon along the Snake River. Many herds are still rebuilding. In 2007 and again in ’15 we had outbreaks in our Yakima Canyon Umtanum herd. Tests at Washington State University confirmed infections with Mycoplasma and Pasteurella, along with a variety of other genetically-distinct bacteria which trigger several pneumonias with widely varying outcomes.

Sheep in The Canyon are important; of our state’s 1,500 wild bighorns – 18 herds in central and eastern Washington – more than half are along the Yakima River. Bighorn sheep ewes that survive a pneumonia outbreak often cannot produce surviving offspring for up to ten years (most lambs die in their first six months).

Several of the states around us deal with similar situations. All have developed strict rules about the intermingling of wild sheep and their domestic relatives (unaffected by Pasteurella and Mycoplasma). The risk to wild sheep is very high – almost any nose to nose greeting will infect a wild sheep with enough bacteria to spread like wildfire through its entire herd. Some states have followed Colorado’s lead in giving carte blanche to the killing of any bighorn found near domestic sheep. A die-off is never easy to watch or manage.

Last week’s 2017 banquet? We had a great time. RMBS has grown over the decades. There were 370 men, women and children at the banquet. Money raised with raffles and auctions still goes to support wild sheep, but it now adds up to $100,000 or more annually.

About Lazy Shooters and Trash on Our Ground

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 28, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

I was planning to write about something else this week. That was before our Homey Powwow on Durr Road off Umtanum last Saturday. The Kittitas County Field and Stream Club carried out its 16th annual pick-up and clean-up of the casual shooting areas along the road. Our clean-up day always happens around Earth Day (April 22, since 1970). This year, a bit more than four dozen volunteers came to play.

The reason we Homeys get together to play outdoors on this day each year is our commitment to protecting our public ground. In this case, our ground is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). We do it because a number of irresponsible shooters and idiots can’t control their urges to leave evidence of their ability to mess up the countryside. (One year, the fools were literally dropping trash behind us – some sort of anti-outdoor-clean-up behavior, I supposed.)

We picked up empty rifle and pistol brass, bag upon bag of spent shotgun shells, paper, cardboard, shot up computers, shattered glass building blocks, tires, cans and plastic bottles, countless broken beer, wine and champagne bottles, and pickup loads of almost anything else a fool could carry to the hill, shoot up and leave behind. This year, we even found a very large flat screen TV which had, apparently, been used to test shot shell patterns. Official numbers aren’t in yet, but we pretty much filled the 30-yard dumpster provided by Waste Management, to the tune of somewhere around two tons of shooters’ irresponsibility. This year’s messes were more disheartening than any year I have been in on the cleanup. There are, apparently, more and more people who just can’t play nice on our public ground. It turned my gut, frankly, and you know I have a pretty strong stomach.

I know a dozens of folks who go out to the wildlife ground along Durr Road to sight in firearms and have a little fun with clay pigeons or shooting in general. To a person, they pick up after themselves and probably carry home more than the targets and gear they took with. So where on earth do those 30 cubic yards of shooting trash come from? It turns there are hundreds of people who avail themselves of the opportunity to go shoot on this public wildlife area (and other areas, too, I hear).

This “Durr Road” shooting area is within the Wenas Wildlife Area, managed primarily by DFW. The wildlife area contains about 115,000 acres of state and federal public lands in Kittitas and Yakima counties.

For years, efforts have been made. We have reached out with education, and random visits/patrols to little avail. (I still see the face of the young man who explained to me that he and his friends didn’t have to pick up their shooting debris, because “they come out here every year and clean it all up!”) There are not enough wildlife enforcement agents to effectively cover all the public ground – and no funds to hire more. During fire season shooting hours have been curtailed over the past few years; that seems to have limited the occurrence of range fires, but trash still piles up.

Answers? Major scrums continue to occur as various organizations and DFW seek solutions. Amid long-standing trust issues are arguments over limiting all shooting to one or two established sites versus unfettered access to the public’s land. Even the legislative delegations from the counties involved have weighed in on the issues.

DFW has now contracted with an outside group to put together an advisory committee to address target shooting issues within the Wenas. It is to include 15 to 20 members, chosen from among those of us who submitted applications over the past few weeks. The committee is to represent the interests of neighbors, hunters, target shooters, horseback riders, mountain bike riders, motorized vehicle users, hikers, wildlife watchers, bird dog trainers, and other stakeholders. This Target Shooting Committee is to meet in Selah at least monthly through next winter. Members of the committee will also participate in public meetings and workshops.

Time will tell how the committee works out. I’m already hearing concerns about the selection process itself and worries about shooters being intentionally kept off the committee. Then there are the frets about this simply being a way for DFW to codify limiting shooters’ access to their public lands, and creating a model to be use on other wildlife areas across the state. I’m hoping this turns into a genuine collaborative effort to solve the user issues. There certainly will be a lot of folks watching the process.

In the meantime, a number of us who’ve taken the Eyes in the Woods Training are talking about regular monitoring of the Durr Road shooting areas. Carefully kept notes and observations passed along to law enforcement could lead to much more effective care of our ground.

The next Eyes in Woods class is Saturday, May 6, 10 a.m. at the Wild Horse Wind Farm. Show up and take the training. You will enjoy it. Then find a time to help us watch our ground.

This is our ground. If we don’t start seeing it that way – and caring for it accordingly – I expect we will see a continuation of this “business as usual” mess on our wildlife areas.

About Sacred Food

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 21, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

When I was a smart-mouthed youngster (as opposed to a smart-mouthed elder, I suppose), on a hillside on Uncle Ed’s ranch up the Little Chumstick out of Leavenworth, Washington, The Old Man said something that has never left my mind.

It was the first deer hunt I’d been invited to tag along and observe. I was ten. My father had just taken a nice fat doe – meat much needed by our three-growing-boys family. He was starting to field dress the deer – with which he was demonstrably pleased – when I uttered some inane off-the-cuff comment.

He turned to me and tried to hand me the knife. “Maybe you’d like to do this very important job, Jimmy.” I hastily demurred, suddenly wishing I knew how to keep my mouth shut. “No… Sorry,” was about all I could manage.

The Old Man looked at me with his patented, somehow-all-at-once angry, patient, kind and loving, look and said, “This is sacred meat, son. Any meat taken with respect and prayer and prepared with love and offered as life-giving food is sacred. No different from the plants we grow and take from our gardens and the orchards. Sacred.” As he turned back to the deer, clearly about to demonstrate a process I had best never forget, he said, “Now, we can laugh and have a little fun, but we damn sure hafta treat this beautiful animal as if we were going to feed it to your mother and brothers and our friends.”

Over the years, many foods became sacred in my family, along with certain “sacred and traditional” meals. As son-in-law Chris and I headed to Denver from Rochester, Texas, “sacred food” was bouncing around my mind. We had about 2/3 of the meat from the two wild hogs son James had taken at the very last possible moment of our long-anticipated hog hunt (thus, saving our bacon – and our hunt). We had discussed how those pigs would become sacred meat.

We had ribs and loins and shoulders. We had meat for chops and BBQ and sausage. And we each had at least one hind quarter – one ham. Those hams were fodder for anticipation.

James, once he returned home to Paris, Texas, would take the meat to Detroit Processing, a nearby small-town company, owned for more than two decades by a Mennonite family. The family has an outstanding reputation for game cutting and wrapping, sausage making and ham curing/smoking. James had tried several of their products, and they would prepare the hog meat for him and Candy and family.

Chris had found a cure he intended to use for the ham his family would enjoy for Easter.

I had made arrangements for Eric Burvee (he and wife Shannon are Cascade Mountain Grilling) to play with whatever ham(s) I might somehow bring home from Texas. I’ve enjoyed any meat Eric has cured and smoked, and we thought it might be a kick to see what could be done with a wild hog ham.

Chris and I hit Denver Friday evening and sorted out pig meat. Saturday morning, before I pointed my rig back toward Paradise, Central Washington, daughter Tena prepared the traditional sacred family hunters breakfast: sourdough waffles, game sausage patties, eggs.

We have made the game sausage for many decades. The sourdough starter we treasure is at least 150 years old. I got it from mom and my Dad Ray more than four decades ago, and it now resides with a handful of us “sourdough keepers.” An old Alaska gentleman brought the starter to Seattle “sometime around 1900.” He passed some of the culture on to a young couple there in about 1915, telling them he had no idea how long it had been since an old “sourdough” handed him a crock of it back in his youth. My folks got it in 1960, and passed some on to me in 1965.

This is sacred stuff. Odes and essays have been written to celebrate the wonders of sourdough (including some to my own). Brad Johnson, editor of the south-of-Denver daily rag for which I first wrote this weekly column back in the 1980s, once wrote a remarkable piece, “The Sourdough That Took over Castle Rock.” Impromptu poems written in celebration of my high-country elk-camp sourdough pancakes, while inappropriate for a family paper, were creative, reverent and exuberant. Now and then, in the midst of such a breakfast, there are spontaneous outbursts returning us directly to the timeless joy and nurturing of our parents.

Oh yeah, those hams. James reports his ham steaks are delicious. Tena told me that their Easter dinner was built around the ham Chris cured. How was it? “Awesome!” The wild hog ham Eric Burvee cured here in Paradise? It is exactly as I hoped it would be – perfect.

We are all making plans for how we will deal with the wild hog meat to be collected on our next trip. Given what we have learned from this first hunt, we will have a lot more meat next time. It will all be exactly what we wish to use in sustaining ourselves and our communities – after all, this is sacred food.

Nature, Adults, Healing

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 14, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

How many times over the past few years (or, for that matter, the 18 years and four months of our Friday moments with this column in the Ellensburg Daily Record) have we tossed around the importance of getting kids – those emissaries we send into a time we will never see – connected with the earth and Mother Nature? Study after study has reminded us of the physical and emotional benefits of those strong connections.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of the benefits of those connections to adults, too. It takes little digging to find a fair amount of information. Have you seen Gerald G. May’s book, The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature? Maybe you stumbled across the March 1998 article “Nature as medicine: the healing power of the wilderness,” by D. Cumes, in the bimonthly peer-reviewed medical journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. More likely you saw last summer’s Time Magazine piece, “The Healing Power of Nature,” which reported on the work of Japanese and other researchers on the important health benefits of humans being surrounded by nature. You can support work on these connections, yourself.

Let me introduce you to Erin Cooper – and her story.

“Warm Greetings… I am a veteran who served 3 tours in Iraq and 1 in Afghanistan. I have been blown up a few times and fell 40 feet off a mountain while in Afghanistan. I was in the hospital for 30 days after the fall and sustained a moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI). After I was released, from the hospital, I started hiking to my ability and over time could go out for days of hiking. My memory, perception and concentration were poor at best, but I began to notice my cognition improved with every long distance hike. I improved so much that I was dropped from a medical review board that would have medically retired me from the Army, and I deployed to Iraq again. In 2013, I was honorably discharged from the Army. I started having PTSD-like symptoms, so I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail to see if hiking would help with those symptoms as well; it did. I was a new person afterwards and began college at Washington State University as a neuroscience major. I will graduate this year with a Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience.

“I am now at a point where I can use science to understand what physiological changes are happening in the body during long distance hiking that helps to alleviate PTSD and TBI. This summer I am taking a group of combat veterans with me on the Pacific Crest Trail. I would like to collect saliva to monitor hormone levels and how they change along the way. This is a simple, noninvasive technique. The tests, however, are $300 each and I would need one for each person (4 subjects and 4 controls) and one for each type (2 – cortisol and melatonin) of hormone tested. The total cost for just the tests is $3300 for the assays and an as-yet-to-be-determined fee for the analysis. Any amount that you might be able to contribute to this endeavor would be very much appreciated.

“There is still a lot that science and medical personnel do not know about these debilitating disorders; people who served their country honorably are given medications created for people with schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder and severe depression to mask their symptoms. Often times, this makes the disorder worse and mentally unhinges the person to the point of suicide or institutionalization. This study is geared toward understanding how the body regulates itself by being back in nature and exercising for an extended period of time. Hormone regulation is essential to moods, brain function, and protein synthesis; by showing that these levels change as symptoms are alleviated, new therapies may be developed to treat PTSD and TBI specifically.

“Thank you for your time, Erin Cooper”

Erin and the folks who will help her are not looking for some sort of magic cure. Yet, we know that our brains evolved during eons of hiking, walking and gathering. Perhaps this long-distance hiking will get folks back to fundamentals and allow bodies to begin a return to what they have done naturally for countless centuries in natural environments.

If you want to be part of this interesting and important “experiment” with nature, check out Erin’s GoFundMe page and support her work to help our combat vets be as healthy as we all want them to be. The link is: gofundme.com/veterans-walking-for-science

A critical part of rearing kids who will fight for our wild places in generations to come, it seems to me, is making the most of those wild places today. You can be part of something important.

The Could-Have-Been Great Texas Wild Hog Hunt

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 7, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Son-in-law Chris and I have been talking for several years about an early spring trip to Texas to help them deal with what has become a plague in much of the Lone Star State – wild hogs. When Diane and I spent time in Paris, Texas, last fall reconnecting with eldest son James, it became obvious that the time had arrived. I agreed to find us a wild hog hunt.

Homey Wes Clogston, retired commander from Texas Parks & Wildlife, was able to get me background info on Texas hogs, private vs public land rules, and some starting places for my search. I made a couple dozen phone calls, studied maps (given that Chris and I would be driving down from Denver, we wanted to stay in the top half of the state), and sent a number of emails.

Turns out there are hundreds of opportunities to hunt hogs – after all, there are a million and a half trouble-making feral hogs in Texas. Since they are non-game animals, there are almost no rules about when or how to hunt them – or how many you can take. One does need a license, and our five-day nonresident special hunt permit ran us less than fifty bucks.

I found innumerable hunt opportunities. Hunt hogs on one ranch for a couple days and get another hunt for free within a couple years. There were lodging, food and hunt packages and any number of two or three-day hog hunts where we would be on our own for food and lodging in some nearby town. Almost no matter how we cut it, the costs would add up about the same.  Major differences were in the methods of hunting. Most everyone started with first and last light hunting from stands overseeing favored, or baited, food plots. Then, given that these are highly nocturnal animals, some had nighttime hunts under lights. Others had mid-day dune buggy drives or dog hunts or spot and stalk hunts. A helicopter hunt was optional. The standard among the hunts seemed to be three “meat” hogs (to 150 pounds) or a mix of a big boar and meat pigs.

I narrowed it down, and we discussed three possible hunts. I made another couple calls, trying to get a sense of the likelihood of actually getting three hogs apiece during our hunt. The standard answer was “You just have to choose which pigs you want.” Through a Colorado booking agent, I arranged a hunt on a ranch near Rochester, north of Abilene.

I got a four-page contract from the folks handling the booking (one disclaimer after another). This was a new one for me, and I figured I’d best take another look at the web page for the guy owning the outfit with which we would hunt. There was plenty of info about deer, turkey, quail and big-time waterfowl hunts, and the hog hunt page had pictures of nighttime hunts, day hunts, and dog hunts. When I called him for more details, the owner reminded me that we could get three hogs apiece and should pick the ones we wanted. Fine. We started arranging our meeting places and seriously planning a hog hunt.

Two Sundays ago, I pointed my rig toward Denver. A couple days later, Tuesday, Chris and I were headed south to Rochester. James would drive west from Paris and we would convene at the hunting lodge that evening. Even with torrential rain and wind most of the way, Chris and I arrived early evening – just in time for tornado warnings and a hailstorm. We met guide Jared, learned the morning plan, and turned in. A bit before James arrived at 10, we listened to a tornado roaring past a quarter-mile away – flashing me back to my tornado chasing days in the ‘70s at the University of Kansas.

By first light the next morning, the weather had settled, the country was wet and muddy, and we were in our blinds waiting for hogs at spots with plenty of fresh sign of overnight digging and rooting. That evening, we did it again. Chris saw two small pigs and had a shot from his blind, but the pig scurried onto neighboring ground and we found no sign of it.

The second morning at dark-thirty we were again in our blinds – and no pigs. By mid-morning, it was obvious that our only hunting would be from first and last light blinds. Despite the web page suggestions, there was apparently no availability of other ways of finding hogs. Right after lunch, we headed to another property and a new set of ‘til-dark blinds.

That evening, our last, James was finally in a spot with moving pigs. By sunset he had a boar and a sow – both meat hogs in the 140 pound range – and two empty ’06 cases. We would have a little meat, after all.

During our 70+ man-hours of blind occupation, we saw deer, turkeys, coyotes, bobcats, quail, roadrunners and sundry other critters. Chris and James saw a combined handful of hogs, but I never saw a pig. Jared, with good humor and optimism, did his very best with our one-trick pony hunt. Somewhere in there, we came to the conclusion that the owner of the operation didn’t really take hog hunts very seriously; it seemed to us that his business was waterfowl, deer and turkeys. We found out later that three hunters in daylight blinds could expect to take a total of a pig or two a day – not really a “choose which hogs you want” hunt.

This was on me; even after booking hunting and fishing trips across North America, Europe and South Africa over decades, I just somehow missed asking the right questions – or the right follow up questions – in the right way.

We had three goals: spend some quality armed time together; have a great adventure; and get a pile of wild hog meat. Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess. Overall, I called it a successful trip.

James is now researching outfits with multi-trick hog-hunting ponies. I guess we like the meat we did get so much, we’re going back.

[Photos: James & boar (above) and James & sow (right) by Jared Ritter]