Archive for October, 2014

Something about Coyotes

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 31, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

At the beginning of the week, several of us were gathered around the kitchen table of a couple outdoor nut homeys who take their responsibilities to future generations very seriously. In this case, we were reviewing the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) document for the Naneum Ridge to Columbia River Recreation Plan, and preparing responses for the imminent deadline.

Frankly, we are of the opinion that a recent action of one of the “sister agencies” involved in the two years and thousands of hours of planning may have derailed the entire SEPA process. Be that as it may, we continue to take our public responsibility seriously and submit our concerns.

This whole business of looking after the future of public (our) lands access and use is not unlike a game of Whack a Mole – you get one issue put away and another one pops up. We were having a time finding the humor in the game, until it suddenly dawned on us that one of our favorite mammals was pretty much missing from mention in the SEPA document.

In the lists of species living on the ground covered by the recreation plan, the missing animal – certainly one of the most common and one of our favorites – was the coyote. While there may be reasons for its lack of acknowledgement in the Naneum Ridge to Columbia SEPA document, we at least had something worth a chuckle.

To honor this clever animal, which will likely still be here long after humans are gone from the planet, I offer a tribute.

I can still laugh at the young, awkward and confused pups trying to navigate our Colorado foothills driveway. And marvel at the milk-laden females on the hillside behind our house turning rocks for grubs and digging for rodents to feed their babies.

On a wintry afternoon a decade and a half ago, I was driving the old Roslyn Cemetery-Ronald Road, when I saw coyotes across a pasture. Through my old spotting scope, I watched three of them dancing for field mice or voles – oblivious to my presence. Each caught at least one small rodent with that amazing and funny stalk in the snow. First, the little wild dog would freeze, ears cocked toward the ground. It would tip-toe a few inches, leap stiff-legged into the air, pin its prey to the ground, snatch it, toss it overhead and catch it. Why not? Coyote has ears to match most any animal, a nose almost as good as a bloodhound and outstanding eyesight.

There seemed some rich satisfaction as it then crunched its fresh entree. At the time, they seemed somehow joyful, to me. I still picture it that way. After all, animal behaviorists use fondness for play as a measure of animal intelligence, and coyotes have been widely observed playing with each other as well as other birds and animals. Who can doubt their intelligence?

Then, too, it is no wonder we homeys around that table enjoy coyotes. Ancient stories and traditions weave coyote into the entire tapestry of human history. Coyote, once fully human and paving the way for the rest of us, figures in virtually all Native cultures. His name (the one we use anyhow) comes from the Aztec “coyotl,” or “barking dog.” To the Yakamas, he is “Spilyi.”

In most Native American traditions, coyote is the trickster; almost guaranteed to make us laugh, even as we are made the fool. In these traditions, he challenges us to learn, to grow, as he exemplifies our good and bad qualities – maybe even in our Euro-American way of seeing.

From 1915 to date, in the United States, bounties have been paid on estimates of well beyond 2,000,000 coyotes. A couple states still have coyote bounties on the books. We have shot, poisoned, buried, drowned, blown up and trapped coyotes. Yet their numbers and range have grown; find them in New York City’s Central Park, in the alleys of Los Angeles, and from North Dakota to south of the fence line between us and Mexico.

In keeping with the guidelines of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association Science Education Committee, I am bound to tell you that coyote may reach 40 pounds and 26 inches at the shoulder, and live for 20 years in the wild. Mostly nocturnal, coyotes are still often seen in full daylight. Coyote’s scientific name is Canis latrans.

In wildlife communities, there are specialists and there are generalists. Coyote is the quintessential generalist: surviving (thriving?) virtually anywhere. Coyote makes his home in every habitat type in our state: living on mice and snowshoe hares in the mountains; rodents and birds in the marshes of the Columbia Basin; jackrabbits and voles in the sage and ag lands; and trash and small pets in downtown Seattle or Spokane. At various times and places, add fruit, berries, melons, tomatoes and carrots. An opportunist, coyote will eat almost anything.

I love watching coyotes. I am delighted when I see pups playing and learning to be coyotes. I=ve also seen what a couple can do to a flock of new lambs. And I always wanted a bedspread of full-winter coyote hides, with a pattern of red fox in the middle. I admit to mixed feelings.

Odd Pieces of Those Who Shape Us

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 24, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

A couple of us who’ve been on the planet for more than a few decades were joking around – at least in the beginning. Then, we got serious for a while. At the end of it all, there was naught to do but enjoy a good chuckle and a little appreciation for those who shaped us.

The conversation started with our increasingly-common Sometimer’s Disease, and the things which magically slip from our minds at odd moments, and pop back up at equally odd moments. From there, we began counting our outdoor buddies and family with Alzheimer’s Disease, and it was a little harder to find humor. It sort of sneaks up, I think; we get so caught up in the big-name diseases and disasters of the world, that we let this one settle into some kind of “normal.”

A fall quarter or two before I retired, I found myself in one of those hunting seasons that kept Dad (my stepdad Ray Fontes) in my mind. At the end of one of my final large freshman geography classes, I asked, “How many of you have someone you love – someone in your family – with Alzheimer’s?” Fifteen of the 80 students in that class raised a hand, most of them looking suddenly very sad. My head was swimming with memories of Dad, but for the first time I had a sense of how many others were also in that strange and unanticipated boat.

Ray Fontes was my dad from my last year at Boise High School. A skilled diesel mechanic and madly in love with my mother, he loved the outdoors. He said the first time he took a week-long wagon ride to the family gold mine deep in Idaho=s central mountains, he was barely walking. He’d made meat with his “chickens” (blue grouse around the home place) and deer since boyhood. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, you could feel his need for wild places.

I showed him Wyoming antelope and Colorado elk hunting. He showed me humor, strength and love. I got the best of the deal; I’ve loved few people as I loved Dad.

He was off-the-cuff funny. And generous and kind beyond any man I ever knew. He=d pass food at a meal with a “Here, have the rest of this…” Food would be “Good enough for any dog,” or “Mighty fine kye kye!” Once, a friend thanked him for fixing his family’s car for nothing. Dad just looked at him, smiled, and said, “Keep the change.”

One day, heart problems caught up with him, and he quit the woods. More and more of his time was spent in some wild place of his mind. Suddenly, somewhere in there, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

For a time, he was still easy-going, and funny. He might awaken in the middle of the night begging mom to go check on the horses he=d just seen running into the bathroom, or to shoot the rats off the bed. We might be talking and laughing about an antelope trip, and, right in the middle of a sentence, he’d go there by himself. He’d stand up to go grab his rifle and gear for the hunt, take two steps, and have no idea what, why, where or when. Eventually, my mom was unable to handle his wanderings. It broke her heart, but she found a nearby nursing home for him.

Not long before he went home in 2001, he and I spent the better part of an evening staring at a nature show on the big-screen TV in his nursing home. Not much got through to him, it seemed. Still, every time a deer or elk or antelope wandered across that screen, he’d get animated. And he always chuckled at my wisecracks. I don’t think this is how Alzheimer’s really works, but it seemed to me that there were little pieces of Dad’s mind still in place. Every now and again we would stumble onto one of those pieces.

Years later, as we sons were digging through decades of our folks’ life, physical pieces of dad were everywhere. In one drawer was a full clip from his old pump-action Remington .270, from when he tossed it in there after a long-gone hunt. In Wyoming once, he showed Huckling Michelle how the clip worked, and she showed him the antelope eyeballs she collected to pay off her middle-school biology teacher for a week on the family hunt.

In another drawer was one of my old Wyoming antelope tags. Dad and mom loved antelope meat and I kept them supplied when Dad could no longer hunt. After his Alzheimer’s kicked in, he begged me for a license so he could go. All I had was that tag, but he grabbed it and thanked me.

On the wall of the bedroom was a plaque with the horns of dad=s first antelope. I had mounted them with a picture of him and the buck. Next to it was the mounted head of his biggest buck. I kept hearing mom laugh about how she spent the first month after that hunt pulling cactus spines out of places one doesn’t mention in polite company. Dad had stalked and crawled the better part of a mile for that buck. I took those pieces.

Thinking about Dad and his Alzheimer’s – and how we get no warning for that stuff – is always sad and joyful. He helped me become who I am. and I still wonder if he really knew what he meant to me.

What have you said, lately, to those who made you who you are today?


Why You Want to Vote Against Initiative 594

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 17, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

JIM’s NOTE: In 819 Friday columns for the Ellensburg Daily Record (the last couple years of which are posted here weekly), this is the first one of my tomes that had to be on the editorial/opinion page, as opposed to the outdoor section – can’t imagine why…

In nearly five decades of considering issues and and casting ballots, the most misleading ballot title I have yet seen is the one for Initiative 594, found on your just-received 2014 ballot:

“This measure would apply currently used criminal and public safety background checks by licensed dealers to all firearm sales and transfers, including gun show and online sales, with specific exceptions.

“Should this measure be enacted into law? Yes [ ] No [ ]”

The final three words of the title, “with specific exceptions,” hide broad definitions of “transfers,” and exceptions so narrow that virtually every time a firearm changes hands—even a loan between friends and family members—it is subject to background checks, paperwork, fees and, in the case of handguns, government registration. The complete text of the initiative is found on pages 65 through 70 in your new voter’s pamphlet. You will see why the 6,500 members of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs oppose it. You will also find that this initiative criminalizes behaviors which have been accepted as ethical and honorable for hundreds of years.

Proponents will tell you that Initiative 594 closes “loopholes” for criminals purchasing or transferring firearms at gun shows or flea markets and through online sales. Just who are the people using these “loopholes?” According to a U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, dated November 2001 and revised in 2002, fewer than 2% of criminals purchased firearms at a gun show or flea market. A much earlier study placed that number as high as 6%. That same report indicated that only 12% of convicted felons had acquired firearms from dealers. Currently, by the way, virtually all online (internet) sales and trades of firearms require that the firearm be physically delivered through a licensed dealer—with a standard background check. Where are the loopholes?

Under 594, virtually all sales and transfers (including gifts) of handguns will be reported to the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL), and entered into its database. Make no mistake, 594 is a universal handgun registration initiative. (It is not expected, however, that those illegally possessing or transferring handguns will comply with the new reporting rules.)

My father, The Old Man, would be shaking his head now, still asking his favorite questions: “What is the real problem here, and how in hell will this brilliant solution solve it?” Haven’t we seen over lifetimes of working our Constitution and Bill of Rights that we will never change criminal behavior by criminalizing lawful behavior?

We keep our children safe around cars by training them from infancy to adulthood about how to behave in the presence of vehicles. If we expect our kids to grow up to be safe around firearms, we must spend an equivalent amount of time exposing them to firearms safety training. In truth, there is an exception for firearms coaching and training for kids under age 18. 594 allows a firearms transfer (hand-off) to a youngster for “educational purposes…while under the direct supervision and control of a responsible adult…” In the case of competitive and recreational shooting, however, Initiative 594, may effectively kill the shooting programs of 4-H, FFA, Boy Scouts and others. What does future safety look like then?

Significant numbers of adults take firearms handling classes before deciding on the best fit handgun or other firearm to purchase for themselves. At a recent meeting at Hal Holmes, one of the instructors explained how 594 would affect his classes. “Do the math,” he said. “I have eight students, each of whom is to handle at least four different handguns of mine, and maybe a long gun or two. Each time I hand a gun to someone, a transfer—with fees and paperwork—would have to happen. And the same would have to happen when they handed it back to me or on to another student. We would be looking at up to 80 transfers, at somewhere around $30 to $50 a pop. Who’s going to pay that? The first time I ignored the rules, I would be guilty of a misdemeanor. After that, each violation would be a class C felony. How does that make the citizens of Washington safer?”

There is an exception for such adult instruction, actually. It requires that the “firearm be kept at all times at an established shooting range authorized by the governing body of the jurisdiction in which such range is located.” To my knowledge (depending upon how that phrase is interpreted) there may be one such range in Kittitas County, only a couple in Yakima County, and maybe one in the Wenatchee area. So, where will the much-needed adult instruction take place?

Ballot Inititiative 594 is a Trojan Horse. It is not a measure to make us safer; it is a measure to make many of our firearms traditions difficult and/or illegal. It will alter the way we law-abiding citizens use and enjoy our firearms. And, in my view, it will seriously impact our ability to keep and bear arms. Contact every person you know—especially on the West Side—and ask them to read the whole text. Then ask if that is the future they truly would like to see. If not, they must vote against Initiative 594.

All About Our Forest Grouses

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 10, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

Forest grouse season opened the first of September. Several homeys have reported seeimg more birds in more places than usual. This is cause for excitement for several reasons: grouse are yummy galliformes (“chicken-like” partridges); bag limits are generous (four a day and 12 in possession); and the long season runs through the end of the year—across all the other hunts which take us into the woods. I love grouse for all these reasons.

We have three (technically, four) forest grouse in Washington. Their numbers have stayed pretty stable over the last century or so, but population are cyclic. This seems to be an “up” year.

Spruce grouse, Falcipennis Canadensis, (aka “fool hens,” since they often sit tight even in the face of danger) are associated with lodgepole pines, from which they seldom wander. Spruce grouse are found all across northern North America, but Paradise is at the southern edge of their range, and limited habitat makes them our least common grouse. The smallest of our grouse, an average fool hen may weigh a bit over a pound and be 17 inches long from tip to tip.

Ruffed grouse habitat also crosses the continent, but a bit farther south than the lodgepole turf of their northern cousins. Ruff’s preference for riparian areas (willows, cottonwoods, dogwood and so on) with nearby forests means that we have plenty of habitat and generally good numbers. The ruffed grouse, Bonasa umbellus, is just a bit larger than our fool hen, with lengths to 20 inches and weights to a pound and a half or more. This is the grouse which five-year-old Huckling Tena once called “a chicken dressed up like a turkey!”

Our third (and fourth) forest grouse is (are) the “blue” grouse, Dendragapus obscurus. At 20 inches in length and weights up to nearly three pounds, this is our largest grouse. These birds range from the Yukon to New Mexico. They were among the very first western birds recorded, in August of 1776, by the the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition. As its members sought a route from Santa Fe to the California colonies, they developed a taste for the delicious wild chickens.

Blue grouse have been my favorites since I was nine or ten. Uncle Ed took me out on his place up the Little Chumstick, north of Leavenworth, to meet his blues—his “chickens.” I learned why I’d been given my uncle Van’s ancient .22 Winchester Model 67, and how tasty those birds were. Decades later, they were the centerpiece of one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life, but that’s another story.

Males have a bluish-gray plumage, and “combs” above their eyes which often change color from yellow to red when they become excited or disturbed. The females have a mottled-brown plumage, and blend in with their surroundings when hiding or on the nest.

Now, about that “third (and fourth)” business. After studying DNA evidence, The American Ornithologists’ Union separated blue grouse into two separate species in 2006. We now have the sooty grouse, Dendragapus fuliginosus, and the dusky grouse, Dendragapus obscurus. Similar in most ways, the defining characteristics are subtle, but noticeable. In mating display, the fleshy air-sac patches at the neck are reddish-purple in the dusky and yellow in the sooty. In the field, the most useful distinguishing marks are on their tails; the dusky has all dark tail feathers with occasional gray tips, while the sooty has a broad gray terminal band. Everything else you want to know is available online at Cornell University’s bird guide at

The sooty grouse ranges from Alaska to California, and is fairly common in the western part of our state. The dusky grouse, aka “dusky blue grouse” or “interior blue grouse” occupies the rest of what we have long called the range of the blue grouse. Washington is the only state where the ranges of the two species overlap.

A few wildlife agencies have bought into the species separation. Montana continues to use blue grouse for one of its forest species. Oregon calls them blues, but locates the sooty through most of its forest grouse range, and the dusky in the northeast. Idaho and Colorado regs now refer only to the dusky grouse. In Washington, we still hunt “blue grouse,” without discrimination.

This fall, the dusky/sooty/blue grouse will be in brushy and open transition zones around the firs and pines.

Given that we generally use firearms to hunt grouse, given that grouse hunting is an activity in which we often include youngsters, given my oft-expressed concerns about Initiative 594, and given that ballots arrive in a few days, next week’s column will be about youngsters and that initiative. Given my strong opposition to 594, expect to see this column on next Friday’s Daily Record editorial page.

All About Opening Days & Food Traditions

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 3, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

It’s time. A week from tomorrow, general deer season opens. It’s a big deal; we are immersed in family traditions around openers from the first moment we show a spark of interest.

As families, we review safe handling rules for the tools we will take afield. We make sure they are clean and sharp and ready to go. We sort our gear and clothing, and talk about how the weather will affect the season ahead. We purchase our licenses and permits according to prevailing rules and family-favored businesses. All the while, we anticipate the meal or food which sends us out the door knowing that the critter we seek will give itself this day. Oh, yeah, we gather foods and snacks and drinks for our packs; sustenance for luck and alertness out there.

I was fourteen when I was first invited to hunt deer on Uncle Ed’s place, up the Little Chumstick out of Leavenworth. I remember having a tough time sleeping, with visions of the buck deer which would give itself to me so that I could help feed my struggling family. I remember being terrified that I might somehow screw up in front of my father, The Old Man, and my uncle. More than anything, though, I remember the breakfast Aunt Evy fixed before we headed out for each opening day from that one on—ham and eggs and pancakes. I loved the pancakes and savored them long enough for The Old Man to get cranky and remind me we were burning daylight. I don’t remember that we got so many deer, but I remember many great family times.

I was twenty-one when my mom and step-dad Ray handed me the sourdough starter I still use today. I made breads and rolls that went with me on every hunt for decades. At mid-day, I’d find a watching spot and sit. Slices of that sourdough, chunks of salami I made from last year’s deer or antelope, a slab of sharp cheddar cheese, and a handful of pear or cherry tomatoes—all washed down with fresh cold water—made every hike in wild country worth the walk. It is still a great tradition.

I think each family has its small rituals and traditions for season openers, but there is more. Beyond special hunting/pursuing openers, we have traditions to identify specific times of year or the state of our lives. We can and freeze vegetables and fruit to hold the coming winter at bay. We count other moments or stages as incomplete without a specific location or person. Our rituals evolve as we grow and change, but they are always important.

Buddy Rick Doell and I were barely voting when we fell into the most compelling tradition of our outdoor lives. In the fall of 1964, a year after we met at Lowry AFB, we stumbled across an old man’s diner. We had partnered up for our hunting and fishing, and were on a dark-thirty drive to deer hunting in Colorado’s South Park. Full of ourselves and thoughts of big bucks and successful hunts, looking for a quick bite, we rounded a bend and saw the lights of the diner.

The old wood-slab diner sat alone on the outside of a carved-out turn on the west side of the road down Crow Hill. It had a clean, well-worn linoleum counter smoothed by the sliding of a million plates of eggs and sausage and flapjacks. The tall, lean old-timer behind the counter had cooked every plateful. Somehow, he cooked while a hand-rolled smoke stayed lit, hanging in the farthest possible corner of his mouth. “Well, what’ll it be boys?”

And so it was for years; our place, our tradition, our own “Now yer fed, boys, so go get ‘em!” The diner was a required stop for every fishing and hunting adventure we had. In 1969, things changed. The old man went to his reward, Rick split his helmet in a motorcycle accident, I went off to grad school and they built a bank on the diner’s hallowed ground. We were never the same after that, but any mention of the old timer put us back in a safe and sacred time.

This whole thing has me thinking about openers and food traditions…and pancakes. Violet Burke’s husband and boys were avid hunters, and they always had friends joining them for opening day of deer season. She told me once that she fixed breakfast for whoever showed up—she just expected it. Then, somewhere around 27 years ago, the Swauk-Teanaway Grange was struggling for a future and she suggested a big breakfast on the opening day of deer season. The rest is history, as they say.

A week from tomorrow, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. the social event of the season happens at the Grange Hall, 1361 Ballard Road West, off highway 970. Follow the signs, pay your eight bucks (half that for kids) and celebrate a real opening-day tradition.

I look forward to The Hunters Breakfast. The ham and eggs will be great, but I love the pancakes. With every bite, I’ll be hearing The Old Man growling, “C’mon kid, eat your #%&?! pancakes. We’re burning daylight here.”

It’ll be opening day.