Our Ground and Our Responsibilites to Guard It

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 15, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Some of my fellows think those of us who keep pushing to maintain and protect public access to our public ground are simply wasting our time.

Case in point: the last First Friday Art Walk, and a conversation I had with a couple homeys.  Somewhere in there, I no doubt mentioned our current public lands access battles.  Given that more than 70 percent of the ground in Kittitas County is publicly owned, and more than half of Fish and Wildlife managed land is in our county—access is critical for us and those who will follow us.  I mentioned the Senate Committee work session three of us attended in Mount Vernon, a couple of the recent sudden closings of long-used roads and their equally sudden reopening after questioning, and I started to mention the game of Whack-a-Mole we’ve been playing around the county—with one road reopened and another suddenly set for closure.

At that point, one of them touched my arm and said something like, “Whoa…  Relax…  Don’t drive your blood pressure up over this silliness.  You’re dealing with a bureaucracy here—just like we did at the university—you can’t win this. .. Give it up.”

Another outdoor nut, who’d overheard part of our conversation, confessed that he didn’t really care much about access issues over on the Quilomene end of the county, since his play was mostly around the Manastash ground.  While Fish & Wildlife probably had good reasons for closing roads in the Quilomene, he reasoned, he would get very cranky about access changes in his part of the county.  “Besides,” he almost whispered as we finished our confab “if you guys keep pushing this road stuff, Fish & Wildlife may just start losing your license applications—those guys could create some problems for you.  Who needs that?”

We humans are funny.  I walked away thinking about what our Lake Baikal guide and driver, Ivan, had to say about Russians pulled out of their homes and villages a couple generations ago and sent off to work camps.  Ivan had close family stories of a well-respected man who disappeared.  When I asked him about the responses of other villagers and friends, he explained that no one would speak up.  His grandmother told him that the family became isolated, and even though the man had been a good leader, people whispered that he must have done something bad or the government wouldn’t have taken him.  And so it was.

The whole conversation left me thinking about how we get more people to speak up in the face of these aggressive road and access closures.  Clearly, we have to work together.

As outdoor citizens of Paradise, our interests run the gamut from fishing, hunting, trapping and shooting to hiking, biking, riding, snowmobiling, wildlife watching and photography.  I’m certain that there are at least 10,000 of us in the county who proudly call ourselves “outdoors people.”  Yet, relatively few of us are active in local outdoor clubs or organizations.  I would, and often do, argue that there has never been a greater need for a common voice.

I always hate to see anyone discounting another who doesn’t “recreate” in the same way, or on the same ground, or one simply holding silence about others’ rights and needs.  I often think about something Shari Fraker used to say.  A few decades back, I was executive director of the United Sportsmen Council of Colorado—some fifty different organizations—and she was representing one of the bow hunting outfits.  Over and over, as trappers and target shooters and trout fishermen and duck hunters and big game hunters haggled over an appropriate position to take on some proposed rule or regulation, she would remind us that we got together to support each other.  “Together,” she would say, “we can ensure the future of our various outdoor enterprises for our descendants.  Alone, fighting only for our own specific perspectives, we end up eating our young—and tomorrow won’t matter.”

It will take all of us—no matter our access “interest”—to ensure that we have open and responsible access to our lands for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.  The county commissioners are about to take a big step in that direction.  On Monday’s commission agenda is a resolution to create the “Kittitas County Public Lands Advisory Committee.”  This committee will have broad representation from public land users countywide, and will advise the commission directly about things happening or proposed on our lands.  It’s a great start.

I often think about this poem, attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoeller, about the intellectuals’ lack of protest over the rise of Nazi power.

“First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist.

“Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out—I was not a trade unionist.

“Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Shade Grown and Our Neotropical Song Birds

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 8, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

The Old Man called it “mud.”  To Uncle Ed it was “Joe,” and to Aunt Evy, it was Java.  They all agreed, however, on the use of “cuppa,” and about as close as any of them got to its origins was “Hawaiian,” “Columbian” or “mountain grown.”  Today, we enjoy our “coffee” in one or more of a hundred flavors and roasts, and often with a nod to where and how the beans were grown.

As we wrapped up our Wednesday morning Rodeo City Radio Club coffee klatch, heading outside, we surveyed the weather.  Someone mourned our mostly gone birds, and expressed a gratitude for hot, dark coffee on ever cooling mornings.  I started thinking about connections among our birds and our coffee and our ability to live well in Paradise.

A decade or so ago, over breakfast at Jay and Carol Reed=s home in Denver, we found ourselves deeply into just that conversation.  Jay and Carol owned a Wild Bird Center, making them official bird pros.  We were lost in the aroma and flavor of one of the Rainforest Coffees they hawked in their store—Nicaraguan, as I recall—and Jay was regaling its “shade grown” qualities.

Feeling the need to prod him a bit, on that sunny early summer morning, I asked Jay about why the homeys of Paradise should care about shade grown coffee.  He looked at me as though I’d lost my mind.  “You are a geographer, right?  That=s ag land, right?  Don=t they irrigate hay and other crops up there?  And don=t you have a ton of horse people worried about West Nile?  Well, Neotropical birds are up there right now singing, making babies and eating insects like crazy.  The more they eat, the less insect damage there will be to crops and the fewer mosquitos will be looking for someone to infect with West Nile…”  He was right, of course.

“Neotropical” means New World tropics—the tropical areas of North, Central and South America.  More than 100 species of these birds spent the last five or six months in Washington making and growing more birds, many of them here in Paradise.  They are now heading back to ag land and rainforests in Mexico and points south.

Our more common Neotropicals include the vireos, warblers (Wilson’s, Audubon’s, Townsend=s and MacGillivray’s), golden‑ and ruby‑crowned kinglets, flycatchers, nighthawks, hermit and Swainson=s thrushes, violet‑green swallow and several sparrows (Lincoln’s, fox and   white‑crowned).  You probably watched one or more of them regularly.

Anyhow, they arrived in May, scattered to favored nesting habitat (primarily in mountainous and riparian areas), and started devouring our insects—literally tons of them.  Consider, for example, that just one swallow may consume 2,000 mosquitos in a night.  Add it up.  They help us in countless ways.

One of Jay’s points was that Neotropicals continue to decline in much of their range.  The fragmenting and cutting of riparian and forest habitat here creates stress for nesting birds and, often, loss of broods.  As in much of the West, development across Washington causes the regular loss of breeding bird habitat.  Still, the primary cause of the decline is loss of wintering habitat.  In tropical America (Mexico and Central and South America), huge tracts of forest are cleared for agriculture.  Since Neotropicals use only ten percent as much habitat in winter as summer, loss of those tropical forests is critical.

Right at a third of our breeding migratory birds winter in the coffee growing regions of tropical America.  Coffee grown the traditional way, or close to it, leaves rainforest and mixed forests intact for birds.  Coffee grown in full sun, with fertilizers and insecticides, produces much larger yields for the two-thirds of farmers who have cut their forests, but leaves little food or habitat for the birds we depend upon here.

There are obviously deep and many underlying cultural and economic reasons for deforestation, and a number of national, UN and privately‑sponsored education and research programs are underway.  So far, success has been limited.  A terrific source for information about birds, coffee and habitat will be found at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo page, at www.nationalzoo.si.edu/.  Under “Science Centers” click migratory birds and you will find out more than you ever imagined about our Neotropicals and their future.

Over the last decade, “bird friendly” coffee sales have reached more than 10 million pounds worldwide—still a small percentage of the brews we savor, but significant.  Jay would make the argument that every time we go to a coffee shop and order shade-grown coffee, we are actually aiding the horse owners and ag economy of our beloved valley.

Our insects are settling into their overwintering forms.  Our Neotropical song birds are hanging out in the tropics, waiting for spring and another chance to come north and make more birds.  We are sipping our hot, dark, rich coffee, and looking through the cold gray of winter toward a successful 2014.  The coffee that gets us there is worth a serious thought.

All about the Mule Deer of Paradise

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 1, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Deborah Essman, Arvilla Ohlde and I spent Tuesday in a hearing room in Mount Vernon, with a hundred of our new best friends.  Senator Kirk Pearson was chairing a Senate Natural Resources & Parks Committee work/study session on subjects near and dear to our hearts and most of us in the room had something to say.  The three agenda items were: Washington’s Hunter Education Program; Access and Road Closures on Public Land, and; The Skagit Valley Elk Herd.

Our comments were focused on issues with the Hunter Ed program and access to the public lands of Paradise.  I’ve written a handful of columns about these things over the last couple years, and it looks as if access and road closures will be long-term grist for this mill.  We have much to discuss about maintaining the public nature of our public ground—and access to it.  Much ado is stirring in Paradise at all levels, from you and me and local movers and shakers to our Legislative Delegation.  You and I will consider such issues over coming weeks…but not today.

Let us today consider the mule deer around us.  The guy who planted the question in my mind moved his family to Paradise in September a big city in the Midwest.  He knew a bit about white-tailed deer, but wanted to know the deer here.  His goal, he said, was to know enough about our native deer that he could drive his wife and kids around the valley, and they would think he knew some things.

Under by-laws and several resolutions of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA), I was duty-bound to answer his questions, and assuage his concerns.  I am passing along the gist of our confab to you, just in case you find a need to empower a newbie of your own.

You know about the deer of Washington, but things are rarely as simple as they seem.  Amidst conflicting points of view, we all mostly agree on three species of deer.

White-tailed deer (named for the white underside of their large tails) are largely in east and northeast counties, and down along the Columbia.  Columbian black-tailed deer (for the black upper side of their tails) are generally along the coast, and a range extending over the Cascade crest in a few spots.  Rocky Mountain mule deer, or muleys (for their huge ears), cover most everything east of the Cascades, and are the primary deer we see here in Paradise.  And it is not that simple.

Blacktails were long considered to be descendants of some mule deer and whitetail deer cross.  A decade and more ago, however, biologists apparently identified mitochondrial DNA (tracing mothers) suggesting that mule deer may have actually sprung from a blacktail/whitetail cross.  A very interesting introduction to this, and a reference to Valerius Geist’s book on muley life history, will be found at http://www.blacktailcountry.com/html/blkpage.htm.  On the other hand, our Department of Fish and Wildlife continues to identify muleys and whitetails as species, and blacktails as subspecies (http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/deer.html), within a thorough discussion of deer foods and habitats.  Other subspecies and crosses are there, too.  It is generally agreed that mule deer are the largest and black-tailed deer the smallest of the three.

Given that ours are mostly muleys, the RCRGWD&OTTBA Science Education Committee requires the following.  The mule deer’s scientific name is Odocoileus hemionus.  It is a medium‑sized mammal, from 36 to 40+ inches at the shoulder, weighing 100 to 250 pounds (bucks are largest, of course).  Its summer color is reddish, becoming brown‑gray with its longer winter coat.  Look for the large ears, scrawny black‑tipped tail and white rump, and the trademark “bounce” when escaping.  Favored foods include shrubs, forbs, alfalfa and fruits.

Over the past 100 years, mule deer populations have suffered wide swings in population, with harsh winters, habitat loss and shifting climates.  While populations are relatively stable, many western biologists are studying what they see as a continuing slide in mule deer numbers.  A good summary of these issues is found at http://www.muledeer.org/hunting/mule-deer-facts.  In Washington, we have well over a hundred thousand muleys.

Locally, we see a couple interesting variations.  First are probably the “pinto” deer, with large white patches resulting from some sort of genetic mutation.  They are occasionally seen in a couple areas of the Yakima Canyon, and rarely up the Taneum.  Then there are the “striped‑tails,” on the west side of the valley, up the Taneum, Manastash and a few other areas.  These deer look just like muleys except for a black stripe running the length of their narrow tails, resulting from a blacktail‑muley cross.

In general, deer will be out foraging from dusk to dawn, but at this time of year we may see them feeding any time of day, putting on fat for winter.  You’ll see mule deer most anywhere.  Check out the Yakima Canyon, or drive the back roads up the Taneum, Cle Elum or Teanaway.

There’s something about finding and watching deer that can change the light in a fall sky.

Try it.

About Ethics, Perseverence and Getting Help

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 25, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

I enjoy a good hunting story.  That generally involves a fair amount of hunter effort, a deep respect for the quarry, a clean shot and meat made for a family.  Under five percent of the time, in my experience, something in there goes awry, and we get to see how well we have taken our training and responsibilities to heart.  “Gone awry” can make a good story, too.

This is what triggered the story I just got from friend Stan Wills, out Sprague way.  We have both coached a lot of new and experienced hunters, and have brought a fair number of youngsters along.  We teach them to shoot and hunt, make clean kills and respect the critters they will eat.  And, as Stan says, “We preach ethics to our children, but you never know how it will turn out.”

“It has been a good deer season so far…4 does and 3 bucks with 10 hunters.  Two of them harvested their first bucks.  My son Troy did the ethical thing when he finished off and tagged a buck that someone else had wounded and lost, despite losing some of a hind quarter.  He had to go back to work, and my daughter-in-law Charity & grandson Toby stayed for the rest of the season. Toby and I spent a lot of time together while his Mom & Dad hunted.

“Yesterday after cutting and wrapping Troy’s deer I started cooking dinner.  Charity was out hunting.  She has become a good hunter, and hunted by herself on many occasions.  I knew she would be fine.  Dinner was just about finished when the phone rang.  It was Charity.

“‘Help…  Big Buck…  I am at…  Meet me…  Boom!’  Intermittent cell signals and being on the run resulted in her being hard to understand.  ‘Charity slow down. I can’t understand you.’ I said.  She blurted out again, ‘Big…  State… Help…’  Click.  Dial tone…

“Charity had a big buck somewhere and needed help.  She was on her cell phone with little or no reception.  She had been headed to the neighbor’s, walking across his property to hunt the public land next to his.  Two miles as a crow flies but a lot longer walking.  We had two other hunters, Joe & Chris, that were still staying, but were nowhere to be found.

“Everyone asks for help when all else has failed.  Some ask God, some a Guardian Angel and some a deceased relative.  When I need help I talk to my Dad.

“I loaded up Toby and we headed to where Charity might be.  6:00 P.M…  Driving down the road, we could see her hunter orange vest—about 3 miles.  I found Joe’s truck and left a note.  Toby & I headed down into the neighbor’s hay field and parked. Charity was out in the middle of scab rock country.  We would need packs.  I loaded up two packs and Toby & I headed towards her.  It was dark now.  Toby had his own little flashlight.  There was a full moon out and I did not need a flashlight.  That changed when I had to carry him.  We spotted Charity’s flashlight.  It took us 30 minutes to reach her.

“‘I just shot the biggest whitetail buck ever.  He is huge!’ she said.  ‘The last time I saw him was over there.  He jumped the fence and ran up that draw.  You can’t miss it, there are parts of him on the fence.’ I knew then she had hit him too far back.  We would be out there all night. We found the blood trail and followed it ‘til we lost it.  It was in the low 30’s, and Toby was cold.  I told them to go to the truck and wait.  Charity started crying.  I told her I would find it.  I worried that it was a mistake to let them go alone.  She would have to carry Toby.  I watched as they disappeared.

“I reached out for help.  ‘Dad I’m going to need your help tonight.  I have a wounded buck out here, somewhere.’

“Charity had given me some bread tie wraps to mark the blood trail, and I marked the last spot we found blood.  A wounded deer will travel the easiest way, most of the time. I took the easy fork of the trail for 400 yards and no blood.  I followed the other one for 400 yards, nothing.  I went back to the marker and started walking in a circle out front.  On the sky line was a draw I hadn’t seen.  I found a blood trail, easy to follow for 200 yards.  Then it disappeared.  Another circle search…  8:00 P.M…  Nothing.  I returned to the last trail marker, glad I had put new batteries in my flashlight.  I searched.  Nothing.  9:00 P.M…

“‘Dad I need your help here.  Should I quit?  Okay, I’ll search a little longer.’  Joe & Chris were suddenly on the sky line.  We couldn’t believe we found each other.  We each took a direction.  We returned to the marker and searched on hands and knees for blood, we each found nothing. I returned to the last trail marker and got down on my hands and knees and searched.  A spot of blood, and then another.  We followed the trail.  Charity & Toby returned to the house to wait.  We continued on the trail…  At 200 yards it disappeared.  He had to be close.  Another circle search, nothing.  Back to the last trail marker on my hands and knees again.  A speck of blood; he changed directions again.  This trail was easy to follow, but we were down to two flashlights.

“100, 200, 300 yards…  10:00 P.M. and the trail ended.  Again.  We started a grid search by moonlight.  We each took a direction.  Again, nothing.  Another hands & knees search.  Nothing.  We marked our last sign.

“At Midnight, we called Charity.  We walked the mile out to the road and met her at 12:30.  She started crying, ‘He deserved better.’  I told her we would take up the trail again tomorrow—even though I had a Tri Cities meeting.  No one slept that night.

“The next morning I woke at 6:00.  Charity was already up, no sleep and sore from carrying Toby out of the scab rock.  I left hoping they would find the buck before I returned.  ‘Dad we need your help on this one.’

“Charity called the land owner for permission to search for the wounded animal.  The owner said that it would be fine.  Then she put in a call to the neighbor’s daughter to watch Toby.  Chris and Joe were already out, headed toward the trail, and Charity sped down the road to catch up.

“That afternoon, as I pulled into the house, Charity was outside smiling.  They’d found our markers and tracked for 4 hours over another mile.  We’d have never found the buck last night.  The coyotes had.  A perfect 5X5 whitetail head, with antlers and bones.  Of course, she tagged it despite not having any meat to recover.  It became the most memorable hunt of her life so far.

“Thanks Dad.

“Jim, my son and his wife did the right thing. I wish more hunters would do that. That is why I wrote the story.  Good hunting.  Stan Wills—Hunter”

Something about Pheasants and Pheasant Hunting

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 21, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

There is something about being afield with pheasants that changes us—that gives us a new sense of ourselves and the world around us.

Tomorrow, 19 October, is our pheasant opener.  I shall not partake in this one, but look forward to the opener the James Gang celebrated for too few years.  James 2 and I (James 3) will open our Washington pheasant season in a short few weeks in pheasant habitat in the Basin.  The late James 1—Jim Groseclose—gathered us there each year on a specific date which we continue to honor.

Still, the approach of this statewide opener floods my mind with rich memories of pheasants and the gift of time spent in pursuit of them.

When I was a kid in East Wenatchee, I don’t think the Old Man and I ever missed a pheasant and quail opener around various Wenatchee orchards.  Once permissions were gained, the anticipation built.  I could rarely sleep the night before, and we always had an opening day that ended with us delivering my mother enough cleaned birds for a few highly treasured family meals.

I grew up with opening day excitement.  In the mid-60s, Air Force Buddy Rick and I decided to open the Colorado pheasant season on a full section of public ground near Fort Collins.  We were pretty excited, and headed out in time for the 12:00 Noon starting gun.  By 11:30, there were easily 50 of us surrounding that square mile, counting the minutes.  By 12:30 we were surrounding a patch of cover in the middle of that big field.  Not a shot had yet been fired.  When all hope was lost, a few hens and one lone rooster blasted from the cover.  More than a dozen shots were fired.  As several people loudly argued over the carcass of the rooster, we took our leave.  Until grad school in Kansas, and after, I rarely hunted a pheasant opener.

In mid fall of 1971, I opened my first Kansas pheasant season with young Freebe the Wonder Dog.  At 9:05 a.m. he breathed in his first legal snootful of pheasant scent, and put a brilliantly colored rooster into the air 10 yards out.  At my shot, he smoothly retrieved the bird.  With an obvious pride in his Labrador heritage, he came to heel, sat down, and handed me the first of many birds we would find together.

In 2001, I drove to Spokane and caught a November flight to Watertown, South Dakota.  There, I hooked up with Brad Johnson.  Brad got me writing this Inside the Outdoors column in the Denver area 25 years ago, and remains one of my favorite people on the planet.  We would chase birds.

Over a couple days, we swept cornfields and other cover, and managed a few birds.  On my last day, we hooked up with several of Brad’s buddies and kids.  We had a big enough crew to adequately cover several miles of prime pheasant habitat—in a 30 mile-per-hour north wind.  After several hours of pheasants sailing off on that wind, we had no birds to show for our trouble.  No one whined, of course, since it was a perfect day afield in typical November weather in South Dakota.  I still smile over the pleasure of walking cornfields, fence rows and windbreaks with a small group of upland birders.  I can still hear the joyful shouts of “Hen!” or “Rooster!” at a flushing bird, and the laughter about parentage or shooting skill.

I mentioned that the Old Man and I never missed an opener.  That is not quite true

I was eleven.  It was a beautiful early November Saturday.

After work and on weekends, for something over a year, The Old Man had been building a small house.  Somehow, he and mom had managed to scratch together money to buy some ground with a burned‑out basement next to an orchard in East Wenatchee.  For that year or so, we had lived in the capped‑off basement.  Now, he’d pretty much finished the small house, and we were on the roof, nailing down shingles.

Pheasant season was open, but we hadn’t been out for our normal opener.  Watching him choose work and chores over hunting, I was thinking that maybe he wasn’t much of a hunter after all—and probably wouldn’t be much of a dad to me.

Sometime in the morning, a rooster pheasant started calling from the neighbor’s apple orchard.  Each time that old cock would crow his pheasant challenge, the Old Man would stop tacking down shingles for a moment.

Something very deep and far away was tugging at him.  He’d tack another shingle down, the bird would cackle, and he’d hang his head for a moment.  I could feel the struggle inside him.

Finally, he looked at me.  …Almost painfully.   He handed me his nail pouch and hammer.  “Wait here,” he said.  He slid over to the ladder and climbed down off the roof.  Moments later, I heard the front door close and watched him walk toward that orchard.  He was closing the bolt on his old Sears J.C. Higgins 12‑gauge.

I heard the cackle, the flush, and one shot.  My mother walked out into the back yard.  The Old Man said, “Thanks, Dorothy…” as he handed her the bird and the shotgun.  He climbed back onto the roof.  He tied on his nail pouch, asked for a shingle, and started tacking it down on our new roof.  He was smiling.

There is something about pheasants that changes us—that gives us a new sense of ourselves and the people around us…