Snowpack buries Montana

There's good news in all that white stuff covering the state: Montana has abundant snowpack.

It's still only March, and as we saw last year, conditions can change dramatically by summer, but for now it looks like there should be plenty of water for river users, trout and farmers in 2018.

The Upper Yellowstone watershed leads the way, sitting at 164 percent of average snowpack on March 9. Also above 150 percent of average are the upper Clarks Fork at 156, and the Sun-Teton-Maria drainage at 155.

The Flathead River, which drains into the Clarks Fork near Paradise, Montana, of course, is at 141 percent. All that snow has led flood warnings when temperatures rise. Smart investors in the western part of the state are already stocking up on sandbag futures.

The spring months generally provide the heaviest precipitation of the year in Montana, but that wasn't the case in 2017. Following a wet winter, Montana's spring was especially dry, and the the summer turned the state into a fire-scorched inferno.

If the state gets average spring precip, all that snow should keep rivers full, and habitat conditions healthy for trout.

Southwest Montana leads state in game violations

FWP regions 2 and 3, spread along Montana's southwest border from Missoula to Yellowstone National Park, had the highest number of FWP violations in the state, according to a report in the Great Falls Tribune.

There were 7,262 violations in Region 3 from 2010-18. Region 3 includes the Bozeman area, Butte and the Big Hole Valley. Region 2, which includes the Missoula area and the Bitterroot Valley, was second with 5,467 violations. South central Region 5, which includes Billings, was third with 4,503. Region 1 anchored by Kalispell had 4,119 violations, Region 4  had 2,842, Region 7, in eastern Montana, had 2,810.

Region 6, on the Hi-Line had the fewest violations with 1,526 from 2010-18.

Recreation, including off road vehicles, camping and boating, made up 29 percent of the citations. Hunting accounted for 25 percent, and licensing issues another 24 percent. Fines totaled $3.8 million. The money is split 50-50 between the state and the county where the incident occurred.

CWD infected deer concentrated along Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone

Two percent of deer killed and tested during the regular fall hunting season, as well as in a special hunt that ended Feb. 15, were infected with Chronic Wasting Disease. Ten deer had CWD, out of about 400 deer tested in the region south of Bridger, according to a release from Montana FWP.

Hunters killed 327 deer during the special hunt and all were tested. The 400 number includes deer killed during the regular hunt season, when hunters voluntarily submitted samples for CWD testing. Those voluntary tests showed two deer were positive for CWD. FWP then authorized the special winter hunt in which all deer were tested.

A 5 percent infection rate is the level at which biologists implement additional measures in an attempt to control a CWD outbreak. While the overall infection rate was below that level, in Hunt District 510 along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River between Belfry and Bridger, the infection rate was closer to 10 percent.

CWD is fatal to deer, elk and moose, but there are no documented cases of the disease being transmitted to animals or humans outside the deer family. Still, the Centers for Disease Control recommends testing for all deer killed in areas where the disease is known to exist, and that the meat from animals that test positive not be consumed.

Malformed proteins called prions cause CWD. The infection is similar to so-called Mad Cow Disease that can be transmitted to humans when they eat infected beef. The disease has killed more than 200 people, primarily in Great Britain, since an outbreak in 1996.

For more information about CWD in Montana, check Hook and Bullet's rundown of the issue here. The story provides links to past articles chronicling Montana's efforts to compact the fatal wildlife disease. Included is a map that shows the extent of the disease in North America.

The end of winter can’t come too soon

It's been a long, hard winter in Montana, but with a little ingenuity we'll get through it. In my latest column for the Flathead Beacon, I share my hope that spring will slowly give way to summer, unlike in 2017 when it got so hot so early we had one of the worst fire seasons in Montana history.

Unless you're on the Blackfeet Nation, however, the snow and cold is probably just an inconvenience.  Heart Butte and Browning have been hammered in recent weeks.

Montana bearish on griz hunting, for now

Montana will hold off on grizzly hunting, at least for now. That's a good decision, but as the bears recover, conflicts will become more frequent.  We ought to prepare for the reaction when something bad happens. Bears aren't wolves and when the victim of an attack is human rather than livestock, the blowback will be fierce.

My latest column about the future of grizzly bears and the inevitable hunting season in Montana's future.

#MeToo takes down a powerful anti-hunting advocate

Change sometimes comes slowly, but when it finally arrives the transformation can be sudden and dramatic.

Such is the recent transformations of American culture powered by the #MeToo movement and the outing of sexual harassers, or worse. These are people, mostly men, who have been protected for decades. Hopefully, society will dismantle the unseemly protections that long shielded these abusers from accountability, forever.

What does this have to do with Montana hunters and anglers? Only this: one of the latest abusers forced out into the market square of accountability is Wayne Pacelle, the now former CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society of the United States, by the way, isn’t that local organization with a similar name that helps deal with the problem of homeless pets. The Humane Society of the United States is a different organization, and it is one of the most strident and well organized anti-hunting organizations in the country. Pacelle, who was CEO for more than a decade, made it so.

Needless to say, I won’t shed a tear about Pacelle’s passing from the Humane Society. But I am still seeking the appropriate approach for dealing with other shamed public figures — and their work — that I have admired. I learned the fundamentals of preparing Italian food watching Mario Batali’s “Molto Mario” cooking show. Kevin Spacey has long been one of my favorite actors, and “American Beauty,” in which Spacey ironically plays a middle-age man with an inappropriate attraction for a girl still in high school, is an amazing film that ultimately reaffirms the unshakable power of love and family.

Do I get to continue watching on reruns, if they ever reappear? Should I stop making Batali’s Southern Italian recipes that became a family staple when my daughters turned vegetarian and I needed non-meat culinary inspiration?

While were on the subject, I still own a Jeff Smith cookbook. I watched Smith’s “Frugal Gourmet” religiously back in the pre-Food Network days. However, he was rightly driven from his PBS television show after reports of his history sexual assaults became public.

Do I keep the book? Will I ever again watch “American Beauty?” Do I make lentil pasta when my daughters visit on college break?

The lentil pasta is a yes. On the others, it’s probably a “yes,” but I’m still working it out.

Editor's Note: (1-27-18) If you're not ready to abandon Batali's work, here's the lentil pasta recipe.

In Montana, both GOP and Dems support conservation

The Eighth Annual Conservation in the West Survey by Colorado College shows that Montanans, regardless of political party, describe themselves as conservationists and consider open space and outdoor recreation an asset for the Treasure State.

The results aren’t much of a surprise. Montana may be the ultimate poverty-with-a-view state. But that commonality is something we can urge the leadership of both parties in Montana to embrace. In my latest column I suggest we make taking care of our public lands, and protecting our access to them, a priority for leaders of both parties.

It’s not that simple, of course. How a fly fishing guide defines conservation may differ from how a rancher defines it. That’s OK. We can’t and shouldn’t expect everyone to agree on every issue, but we should be able to agree to be respectful and work toward compromise whenever possible.

Hunters can shape the gun violence debate

Years ago, when I edited the outdoors section of a daily newspaper in Arizona, one of my columnists wrote about his opposition to gun control.

When my boss read it, he briefly demanded it should be pulled.

“The newspaper has already staked out its position on the editorial page,” he said to a suddenly quiet newsroom. “This issue doesn’t belong on the outdoors page.”

The newsroom remained eerily silent. In an odd way, it was the staff’s way of challenging our editor’s pronouncement.

It worked. After a moment, he relented.

“I guess it’s OK,” he said. “As long as we don’t do it all the time.”

He may have backed into it, but my former editor ultimately reached the right decision. The outdoors section is the right place to discuss firearms issues, in appropriate doses. I weigh in occasionally in my outdoors column at the Flathead Beacon. I wrote a three-part series following the Newtown school shooting in 2012 (linked here, here and here) and again in November following the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, shootings.

Sadly, it seems, columns like the one in November could be reprinted a couple of times a year. Change the location and the body count and republish, again and again and again.

It’s too early to tell, but there are signs the ground is beginning to move out from under the NRA and the firearms industry following the latest act of murder at a public school. Politicians who have collected big donations in the past have been able to fend off criticism, when the criticism was coming from feckless, mostly Democratic, politicians.

But now the calls for change are coming from the student survivors of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. And those students are calling out politicians, by name, followed by the size of the donations they have accepted from the NRA. That’s a message, and messenger, with power. If they sustain it, they may force gun folks off the “no compromises” position that has dominated this discussion for more than a decade.

Until that change comes, we’ll continue to have a dysfunctional debate about firearm regulation. A functional debate would include reasonable consideration of a variety of issues, including some of these:

— Gun Violence Protective or Restraining Orders. So called GVRO’s would create legal mechanisms through local courts for law enforcement to intervene when family or friends become concerned someone may be a threat to others. Gun rights could be temporarily suspended until the state of the individual is evaluated. We’ve all heard how calls to the FBI about the Parkland shooter were mishandled. Local law enforcement and courts are a better solution.

— Improve and make more thorough the background check system, and end private sale loopholes.

— End the ban that prevents the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence issues.

— Regulate and ban some of the low-hanging fruit such as bump stocks and high-capacity magazines. The bump stock is simply a technological end run around automatic weapons laws anyway.

— Consider creating classifications for different types of weapons. For simple sporting firearms, such as the double barrel 20 gauge shotgun that is my bird hunting weapon of choice, purchases could remain fairly routine. But if you want an AR-15, is it too much of an inconvenience if local law enforcement pays you a visit after you purchase, say, you’re sixth in a six month period?

We will also have to recognize that all the rules, regulations and good intentions cannot prevent all mass shootings. But regulations may prevent some. As hunters and gun owners we have rights, but we also have responsibilities. We need to exercise the latter in order to defend the former.

2 percent of deer in hunt had CWD

While the results of some tests are still to come in, preliminary figure show 2 percent, or eight of the 216 mule deer and 123 whitetails killed in the special hunt in Carbon County this winter tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease. CWD is a progressive, fatal neurological disease that effects deer, elk and moose.

The disease is similar to Mad Cow Disease, that jumped the species barrier from cattle to humans leading to deaths of more than 200. There are no known cases of CWD jumping the species barrier and infecting humans, but FWP recommends hunters take precautions when handling game to minimize risk.

Montana is surrounded by states — Wyoming and the Dakotas — where CWD is present. CWD is also present in Canadian provinces north of the border. The disease was first detected in mule deer killed in Carbon County near Bridger during the 2017 hunting season. The special hunt was approved in order to determine the extent of the disease in south-central Montana.

The Montana FWP commission has also called on Wyoming to close elk feeding grounds across that state. It's feared the feeding grounds will become hot spots for the disease, which is caused by abnormal proteins called prions. Prions are spread by body fluids such as urine, and can persist in the soil for years or maybe decades. The Bridger-area outbreak of CWD likely spread north from Wyoming.

There has also been a special hunt in northern Montana in Liberty County where mule deer killed in 2017 also tested positive for CWD. One deer killed in the special hunt tested positive for CWD.

CWD has been found in at least 23 states and two Canadian provinces. Only New York state appears to have prevented the establishment of the disease after it was detected in captive deer herds and a pair of wild whitetail.

The CWD Alliance is a good resource for info on CWD.