Of Feral Hogs, Feral Cats, and Other Western Invaders

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 30, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Funny how things converge at odd moments. Three or four weeks back, I was reviewing arrangements for the trip son-in-law Chris Kolakowski and I have been putting together for a Texas feral hog hunt. The TV news story at that moment was about the just-released Western Governors’ Association (WGA) list of the top 50 invasive species in the West.

The Association is headquartered in Denver, and includes the governors of 19 western states and three U.S. territories in the Pacific. This invasive species stuff is a big – and growing – deal; The Nature Conservancy estimates that management of invasive species in the U.S. exceeds $120 billion annually and impacts an area the size of California. The West’s forests, rangeland, water and cropland are under siege by seemingly limitless numbers of invading species. Most all of the states have invasive species councils. To get an overall assessment, the Association surveyed coordinators in each member state and territory. The resulting composite list of the top 50 species (25 aquatic and 25 terrestrial) is intended to help state managers better understand regional risks and improve cross-boundary management strategies.

The aquatic species list starts with 1) Eurasian Watermilfoil, 2) Quagga and Zebra Mussels, then works its way down through 7) Northern Pike, 10) Whirling Disease, 19) Nutria, 21) Grass Carp, and ends at 25) Western Mosquitofish. The terrestrial species at topped by 1) Salt cedar, 2) Cheatgrass, 3) Canada thistle, then down through 6) Feral Hog, 13) Feral (or spay-neuter-release) Cat, 16) Yellow starthistle, and ending at 25) Little fire ant. (The whole list and more information can be found by googling “WGA Top 50 Invasive Species.)

This report provides an interesting look at issues facing the West as a region, but from state to state, and county to county, of course, the rankings will vary greatly.

For example, feral cats are at the middle (#13) of the list of 25 regional invasive terrestrial species, but in Hawaii they are at or near the top of the Hawaii Invasive Species Council’s list. They are identified as major instinctive predators of native birds and insects – even if well-fed. The Council notes that “feral cats on islands have contributed to the extinction of 33 species and are the principle threat to 8% of critically endangered birds, mammals, and reptiles.”

The risks of feral cat damage in the West are a reflection of national trends. The American Bird Conservancy notes that the number of domestic cats in the U.S. has tripled in the last four decades. It has long labeled the “feral and outdoor” portion of that growing population an invasive species, killing well over a billion birds annually – an unsustainable predation level for many already-declining species. (See abcbirds.org/threat/cats-and-other-invasives/.) According to a 2010 University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Report, “Feral Cats and Their Management,” the outdoor and “ownerless” cats account for $17 billion in economic loss from annual predation on U.S. birds alone. (Losses related to small mammals, reptiles and amphibians are calculated separately.)

Feral hogs are slightly higher on the WGA list (#9), but their damage to economies is far more obvious to most observers. In Texas, the million and a half wild hogs are near the top of the list. Here alone, the hogs cause an average of $52 million damage annually to the agricultural industry. This damage includes rooting of pastures and rangeland, consumption of native vegetation, negative impacts on water quality, predation on other wildlife, and more.

In California, at least 45 counties report wild boar or feral hog damage, with estimates of up to and beyond 100,000 animals. Costs of agricultural damage range up to a billion dollars annually, with a much higher potential as the critters continue to increase. Oregon estimates wild pig numbers in the 5,000 range, is seeing agricultural economic damage, and has instigated an aggressive effort to eradicate the animals. While Washington has yet to see an established population of feral hogs, the Washington Invasive Species Council considers them a serious threat to the state’s agriculture, livestock, and natural resources, with many billions of dollars at risk. In early January of this year, the Council held a public meeting to share and assess the feral hog threat. (Learn more at www.invasivespecies.wa.gov/feral-swine-information.shtml.)

None of the 50 species identified by the WGA are to be taken lightly. They pose grave threats of one type or another to our livelihoods, our recreation, and our future. We must all do our part as new ways of managing the risks are developed.

In the meantime, if you are reading this the evening it posts, hits the newsstand or your delivery box, know that Chris and I are sitting in the dark somewhere outside Wichita Falls, with the intention of trimming Texas’ feral hog population. Amazing, isn’t it, to have a red flashlight that reaches out to 200 yards? We are doing our best to help. I will be filing a report.

 

Special Hunt Permits – Luck of the Draw (or NOT?)

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

Drawing a special big game hunt permit in Washington (or most states) isn’t quite as simple and straightforward as it seems – or as a good many of us think it ought to be. How is it that homeys with well over a dozen preference points in each year’s permit drawing seem to have diminishing odds rather than increasing odds of being drawn? The weighted draw system is honest, but it appears that we complicate it ourselves. How? Come to the Hal Holmes Center in Ellensburg on 9 April – the monthly meeting of the 99-year-old Kittitas County Field and Stream Club – and find out why the system fails some of us and what we might be able to do about it as we move ahead.

Times have changed. While a hunter can still purchase an over-the-counter general big game license in most states, there will be some sort of lottery for high-demand hunting permits. The pros operating those lotteries are working to make or keep their systems fair and honest. Yes, in some states, there will be leftover licenses after the draw. (For example, we still buy “leftover after the draw” licenses for our annual Wyoming deer and antelope safaris. And decades ago in Colorado, after the draw, we would line up outside the Division of Wildlife gate the night before leftover licenses were handed out on a “first come-first served” basis.) Today, such opportunities are ever fewer and farther between, or just gone. Alas, in Washington, as in most states, there are no leftover permits – simply too many applicants.

This is a sacred thing. During the weeks before late May, a good many of us who hunt begin seriously weighing possibilities. We think about hunting some critter we have long dreamed of pursuing, in some season or place we have long dreamed of hunting. Getting a license for one of these “dream” hunts is like winning the lottery, and chasing those almost impossible permits can drag across decades. We chuckle through the frustration and ask each other questions like “So, what are the odds this year?”

Here’s the process. In April, the Washington Big Game Hunting Seasons & Regulations booklet shows up online and at license outlets. In it are the dates and conditions under which we can purchase a license for big game in one of the “general” seasons. In that same booklet, however, are nearly one thousand “special” hunts – those areas with limited access (by age or ability or training or…) and limited numbers of deer, elk, sheep, or so on. On the row for each special hunt in the booklet will be a) the number of permits available this year, b) the number of applications for those permits last year and c) the average number of “preference” points used by last year’s successful applicants. (One gets an additional preference point for each year one is not drawn – a sort of additional “ticket” in the drawing for each point – thus, a “weighted draw” system.)

One purchases an application, for the specific hunt(s) chosen from the many hundreds mentioned above, and submits it online by late May – a date set by the State Wildlife Commission. Once each application is submitted, with preference points, one may offer a series of prayers, perform a traditional ritual, prepare a lucky meal, and/or wait. The drawing results are released by the end of June. A similar scenario plays out, pretty much, across the US.

We are optimists, and this is sacred stuff. Most of us already know that 2018 is the year we have enough points to finally have a great adventure hunting moose, or bighorn sheep or a big bull elk, or a big buck, or… This is all in spite of rather long odds. Let me give you a couple examples; I now have 17 preference points for moose, and last year more than 14,000 hopefuls applied for twenty-some permits; my 15 points for a bighorn permit are iffy, given last year’s 5,000+ applications for the four permits in my dream area. We live with long odds, and cling to the notion that NOT being drawn for a treasured hunt simply means that our number will come up next year.

Reality is a stern master, however. Washington Fish and Wildlife pros are working very hard to keep our weighted (preference point) draw system fair. While an applicant with many points has better odds of being drawn than one with less points, the simple fact is that in many of the draws fewer of the available permits are drawn by those of us with a large number of points than by those with only a few points. The system is legit, but it suffers increasingly from its popularity.

It is a complicated issue. If you want to better understand “the draw,” your odds, and how it all fits together, be at the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club presentation at the Ellensburg, Washington, Hal Holmes Center at 7 p.m. on 9 April. That evening will also be an early step in putting together the public conversations needed to find solutions to a system suffering from the weight of its huge number of users. Your thinking could help find fixes along the path ahead.

Oh, yeah. Good luck in this year’s draw!

The James Gang at Cooke Canyon

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

Last Saturday, we held the Eighth Annual James Groseclose Memorial Pheasant Hunt out at the Cooke Canyon Hunt Club.

You may recall that our buddy Jim Groseclose (aka J1) suddenly went home just about eight years ago – March 21, 2010 – during the Sweet Sixteen. Two weeks before that day, Jim Davis (J2) and I (J3) joined him on a James Gang Pheasant Adventure on some of the Cooke Canyon Hunt Club ground. We enjoyed an armed walk, through good pheasant cover, on a nearly perfect almost-spring day. His beloved Labs were in top form. We still miss him, and each year, during the NCAA Tournament, we take an armed walk at Cooke Canyon in his memory. Whenever we were around J1, a sense of impending adventure hung in the air – no doubt yet another reason for our annual memorial hunts.

Groseclose, of course, was founder and leader of the James Gang, with Jim Davis and me being J2 and J3, respectively. At 7:30 a.m. on a crisp November ‘07 day, we were driving up I-82 over Manastash. As licensed HAM radio operators, we had checked in to the Kittitas County round robin network. Groseclose checked the three of us out from his truck’s mobile radio, rattling off our three legal names and call signs. He had noted that we were heading to the Yakama Rez to chase birds with shotguns. Without hesitation, Gloria Sharp said, “Oh my God. The James Gang is armed and heading out of the valley!” And so it was.

J3 and a rooster (Gloria Sharp photo)

Being part of the James Gang, chasing pheasants, ducks, quail and chukars with two great Labs and two true gentlemen added a richness to my life I had been missing since my grad school days with Freebe the Wonder Dog – a black lab who happened to be the best four-legged human I ever knew, with an unmatched sense of humor. (I first heard Freebe chuckle after I missed a bird at the North Star Game Bird Farm in Colorado. But, I digress…)

This year’s memorial hunt fell on another near-perfect almost-spring day. J2 and I were joined by his grandson, Doren Berg, and Gloria Sharp, Official James Gang photographer. Classic German shorthair Maisy brought her human, Homey Bill Boyum, to manage our bird-finding. We had arranged for the release of a mix of roosters and hens in our hunting unit.

Maisy waits on Doren and J3 (Gloria Sharp photo)

None of us had been busting cover for some months, but Bill, Maisy, and the rest of us quickly found our hunting rhythm. There is something magical – almost breathtaking – about watching a dog work the cover and the breeze, finding bird after bird as he or she was born to do. Maisy was near-perfection, and, with the exception of that one hasty and (mostly) unchallenged departure of a rooster, we did our part, too.

The last bird up was one of the hens. Maisy pointed it, I made the shot, and it hit the water (Water!?) 30 yards out. Maisy, who had flawlessly retrieved all our birds, danced back and forth along the edge of the cattails, put a foot of two in the water and looked at the bird floating in the middle of the pond in a skim of ice. “C’mon, Maisy,” I kept thinking, “get the bird! Freebe would already be back with it!” She just looked at me with those big soft brown eyes. I swear I could hear her thinking “Well, I’m not that ‘Freebe Whatever.’ I don’t do ice. Let me know how this works out for you…”

Human retriever in ice water (Gloria Sharp photo)

What could I do? Bill handed me the dog towel from the truck. Then he, Doren and Maisy went looking for that bird we had missed. Okay… Fine. Off with the boots, off with the pants, into the chest-deep ice water. As I grabbed the bird, I’m sure I heard J1 and Freebe cheering.

Just after Noon, following a few final pictures, a round of thanks to Maisy and Bill, and words on behalf of our absent and always-missed James Gang leader, we retired to the Cooke Canyon Clubhouse. Following cleaning of the birds to be shared with family and community, a couple possibly-true hunting stories, and a few so longs, we took our leave.

I know Freebe would approve of Doug and Alice Burnett and their Cooke Canyon Hunt Club. Members pay an annual membership. Add in a handful of released birds and it still runs less than what it would cost to find a couple limits somewhere else in the state. Hunters choose a unit (a field), make a reservation, bring friends and dog (some are available) and take an armed walk. You can find more at www.cookecanyon.com or 509-933-1372. (A membership and bird package will be on the block at next week’s Chukar Run banquet, by the way.)

The Eighth Annual James Groseclose Memorial Pheasant Hunt was a success, in all the ways we had hoped it might be – even if it was a little wet and cold for one of us. “Now,” J1 would say after our final hunt of the season, “it’s time to think about salmon fishing.”

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.