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.


Commission approves new regs, no griz hunt

Regs for 2018-19 were OK'd Thursday. The new rules include a permit-only hunt area near the Fisher River east of Libby. In part of Hunting District 103 only five buck permits will be available in the area. Applications for the permits are due March 15.

The commission also decided against holding griz hunt this year following the delisting of the bear under the Endangered Species Act. Commissioners expressed concern that allowing a hunt might fuel legal efforts to overturn the delisting decision. Wyoming will likely approve a hunt this year. It's unclear what Idaho will do.

The formula approved by the feds for Montana griz hunting would have allowed for one female and six male grizzly bears to be killed. Commissioner Shane Cotton suggested other states were "tilting at windmills" by pursuing hunts.

Griz hunting in windy Wyoming remains a contentious topic. Human-griz encounters in Park County (Wyo.) seem to be on the rise and building a bear-proof fence at the county dump has become a source of friction for hunting advocates and opponents.

Montana goes slow on griz hunt

It looks as though Montana will hold off on grizzly hunting in 2018, despite the recent delisting of the bears under the Endangered Species Act.

Montana grizzly bears are reclaiming territory — such as the Sweet Grass Hills — where they haven’t been seen in decades. Griz roamed the Hills in the summer of 2016, and residents of towns such as Valier along the Rocky Mountain Front are reacquainting themselves with the day-to-day precautions of living in bear country.

That’s what happens when you recover an endangered species — it’s no longer endangered. As bear numbers grow youngsters will wander, searching for suitable habitat unoccupied by adult bears who may not appreciate their presence. And as the bears wander, inevitably their explorations will lead them to trouble. The bears that trekked across 100 miles of prairie to the Hills were likely responsible for killing 13 sheep.

We can expect incidents such as this as Montana grizzly bears expand their range. We’ll need to respond promptly to such problems, trapping and relocating bears, or removing them from the wild altogether if they can’t stay out of trouble.

It’s great that grizzlies no longer endangered. Montanans may soon learn that managing a recovered population of large, dangerous predators is more challenging than recovering them in the first place, however.

World record bighorn

The skull of a bighorn ram that died of natural causes on Wild Horse Island in Flathead Lake has shattered the Boone and Crockett world record. The horn’s measured 216-3/8 inches, besting the previous top ram by almost seven inches.

The herd on Wild Horse isn’t hunted, and has been carefully managed by Montana FWP to provide source population for bighorn restoration efforts in the region. There are about 100 sheep in the Wild Horse herd. The island measures 2,160 acres and since it’s a Montana State Park, these public lands are available for wildlife watching for anyone with a boat.

The Flathead Beacon has a nice wrap-up here.

Winter snowpack above average

Montana's snowpack looks good across the state, but it's still just early February. As we learned in 2017's dismal fire season, winter snow doesn't always survive through summer.

Still, this is good news for Montana river users. Keep your fingers crossed that our rafts won't be dragging in August.

Montana Dems, Repubs agree: We support conservation

Montana is a classic purple state, albeit one that leans red. We elect Republican majorities to our legislature, and Democrats as governor. Our congressional delegation in D.C. has long been a mix of both parties.

But on the issue of conservation and our love of the outdoors, there is no divide. Montanans stand in unity behind conservation of the Treasure State's unparalleled natural resources. That was reconfirmed again by Colorado College's annual Conservation in the West survey.

Among other things, the survey showed that 82 percent of Montanans consider themselves conservationists, and 87 percent say they are outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Hopefully, that's a reality pols seeking state office won't soon forget.

Protect it, and make sure we can access it.

Elk herd rebounds

My latest "Out of Bounds" column discusses some interesting developments from the wolf/elk war front in Montana. There's the news that the Northern Yellowstone elk herd is up 42 percent in 2018 as compared to the 2017. It's unlikely the herd nearly doubled in just a year. More likely, biologists speculate, the count just missed some animals last year. Still, the numbers are encouraging for a herd that is still less than half the size in was before wolves were reintroduced in 1998.

Just days before the elk numbers were released, news broke that a striking coal black wolf was killed by a hunter near Joliet, not too far from Yellowstone's northeast corner. The wolf is probably the same one that had been filmed wandering near a road in the region a few days before that. Wolf numbers in Montana are stable, or declining slightly, probably a result of hunter success and aggressive management of problem packs.