Archive for September, 2015

Continuing Bighorn Sheep Die-Offs

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 25, 2015. Posted in Uncategorized

You may have seen Scott Sandsberry’s piece in last Saturday’s Ellensburg Daily Record, or somewhere picked up from a wire service. Scott reports for the Yakima Herald Republic, but our local paper occasionally picks up some of his work. We cross paths from time to time with our outdoor writing interests. The piece was about the California bighorn lambs dying by the numbers in the Yakima Canyon.

You recall that we’ve been here before. The last major die-off was in 2009 and 10, when a significant number of both adults and youngsters were dying of pneumonia. In spite of the hopes expressed a half-dozen years ago, this repeat is largely the pattern which biologists have come to expect over 60 or 70 years of study. Herd recovery can take decades, if it even happens.

These die-offs are hard for me to watch. In the latter part of the last Century, I was president, and a founder, of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, based in Denver. In the mid ‘80s, we were seeing the dreadful end of a worsening situation. The 125 or so bighorns in Waterton Canyon, in the foothills southwest of Denver, had formed a unique, low-elevation herd, representing a highly unique gene pool. They were dying of lungworm and pneumonia, under significant stress from construction activity in the Canyon. While we had been working long and hard to improve their habitat, it was still not up to snuff, and we were very concerned about the bighorns.

Many just died, and others were killed and removed for study. By the end, more habitat work had been done, and there were about 15 sheep. Numbers stayed near that for the better part of a decade, and then began growing a bit. Today, there may be three dozen sheep in Colorado’s Waterton Canyon. (You can take a look at some of the rams in the herd butting heads at

Biologists in each of the states with wild sheep have been researching the die-off issues. Mostly, it seems, they learned more about how these illnesses spread, and a bit more about how much – or little – patience ought to be practiced when wild sheep start dying.

In 1995-96, pneumonia almost wiped out wild bighorn herds (both California and Rocky Mountain subspecies) in the Blue Mountains and others in the Hell’s Canyon area of Idaho and Oregon along the Snake River. The Wenaha, Cottonwood Creek, and Black Butte or Joseph Creek herds are still rebuilding from that outbreak. The current outbreak here – several years after our big die-off – may take nearly all the lambs in our Umtanum herd. The pneumonia is apparently related to the Mycoplasma and Pasteurella bacteria confirmed in 2010 by Washington State University. Similar relationships have been found in nearby states.

This is a big concern for the health of the state’s overall bighorn sheep population. There are somewhere around 1,500 wild bighorns in Washington. They are found in 18 herds in central and eastern Washington – more than half of which are along the Yakima River. Other herds are at risk of – or experiencing – pneumonia outbreaks, as well.

It has been shown that bighorn sheep ewes surviving a pneumonia outbreak generally would not produce surviving offspring for up to ten years (most lambs would die in the first six months). For a few years, the sheep in the Canyon have seemed to be overcoming that pattern with lamb survival; now it appears that lamb die-offs may happen as often as two out of three years.

Jeff “Bernie” Bernatowicz is our DFW District Biologist, up to his elbows in the die-off. Genetic analysis of bacteria over the past few years has shed some light on the problem. It appears that the Mycoplasma bacteria sufficiently weaken immune defenses for Pasteurella (and now a variety of other genetically-identified bacteria) to trigger the pneumonia. Each of the various bacteria-caused pneumonias may lead to different outcomes. For example, sheep may survive one type, develop antibodies which last for only a year or two, and be re-infected. Or, some strains may kill so quickly that little evidence remains of the bacteria responsible. Some ewes are “shedders,” not unlike human “carriers” (unaffected by something like a strep throat they carry, but infecting others). Then, too, what if the lambs themselves which survived pneumonia are carrying the bacteria and infecting other lambs? Answers are coming, but it is complicated, and biologists are looking.

Various pneumonia bacteria can be easily transmitted from unaffected domestic sheep to wild sheep where they spread very rapidly. States around us have developed strict rules about the intermingling of domestic and wild sheep. The risk of disease is so great that some states have followed Colorado’s lead in giving carte blanche to the killing of any bighorn (ram, ewe or lamb) found near domestic sheep. Almost any nose contact (a common greeting) will infect a wild sheep with enough bacteria to spread like wildfire through a bighorn herd. DFW biologists have worked with both public and private land managers in the region to avoid interactions with domestic sheep and goats.

A die-off is never easy to watch. Keep a good thought for our icons of the West.

On Skunks and Skunk Trapping

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 18, 2015. Posted in Uncategorized

The conversation started at the campground in Ilwaco, over Tuna Weekend. One or more skunks found their way to food and company among the hundred or so campers on hand, and left calling cards on the moist evening air. Thus began conversations about past run-ins with Pepe LePew and his family.

An early story revolved around a new – and unskirted – deck, and a wife who could not enjoy her evening smoke in the presence of new black and white kitties which had taken residence under it. Somewhere in there, apparently, had been snide comments from the deck builder about her ability to smell skunks through all the “@!#%&? Smoke in her face.” Long story short, Homey called an exterminator to save his marriage. “And I skirted the deck,” he said, “but I still don’t know what you do with them. Do you shoot them?”

I mentioned trapping and moving or disposing. Given the look on his face, I allowed as how he might just call the exterminator again.

Back in Paradise, canning tomatoes (well, we seemed to be out of tuna) with Bruce and Michelle, our Eureka, California, pals, the subject wafted through the open back door again. I don’t mind the smell so much, but mentioned the boisterous fellow who once moved in under my Cle Elum deck. “How do you handle that?” Bruce laughed.

“You trap him,” I explained. “You go to an animal shelter which has one and pick up a live trap. Or you go to a rental place or you go buy one. Then, you listen carefully to what the person at the desk tells you, and you read the instructions. Then you follow them – carefully. Somewhere in the middle of all that, you pray that nothing goes sideways in your effort to ease the discomfort of your wife or friends… Then you figure out – in advance – what you will do with the trapped skunk.” Trapping skunks, by the way, is not for the faint of heart.

Our most common skunk is the striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, and this is a time of year it regularly reminds us of its presence.

I really don’t mind sharing my neighborhood with skunks (after all, they do lots of important things that I’m not willing to do for myself – like eating lots of mice), but when a skunk moves in under the porch or an outbuilding, I lose my appreciation for the tradeoff.

Right around the turn of the last Century, I had a large striped skunk under my deck in Cle Elum. Much as I appreciated the dearth of mice in and around the house and woodpile, I still wanted to sit on the deck from time to time.

One too many times, it exuberantly fumigated my deck. I explained over an evening or two that it would have to go. It did not listen. I then explained that if it played nice (get into the live trap and behave), I would release it into an area with an abundance of fat juicy rodents.

At that time, I was able to find a live trap at the Ellensburg Animal Shelter. As I explained my intention to release the skunk unharmed, rather than drown it in the trap, the woman chuckled, and handed me an instruction sheet. It occurred to me that there was likely a good reason the sheet warned AGAINST shooting a firearm into the trap. Fighting through a sudden vision of being run up a tree by a large, angry, smelly skunk, I signed for the trap.

I put several garbage bags around the trap (to make it dark, or maybe to seal off the skunk and his musk, or ?). I set the trap’s door, baited it with a piece of bread larded with peanut butter, and put it next to my deck.

The next morning, the skunk was resting peacefully in the shaded trap, licking peanut butter. After work, I carefully placed another plastic garbage bag around the trap, and carried on a calm heart to heart chat with the striper. Occasionally, the little fellow would press his pointy nose against the lift door at the release end of the trap that I might gaze into his beady little eyes. I explained to him that if he did not raise a stink during any phase of our relocation project, I would release him into a Promised Land of Rodents. If, on the other hand, he released any unnecessary, hard‑to‑remove odors into my little Cherokee, he would be swimming with the fishes.

That understood, we headed for the release site. As I cleared the plastic bag away from the release door, we continued our calm little chat. I took a few pictures and wished him a full, happy life, free of the encumbrances of people’s pets, yards, decks and city traffic. Once I’d tied the cord to the release door and looped it over a limb so that I could lift it from a respectful distance, I offered one more bit of advice: “Stay off the highway.”

As I raised the door, a man walked up to watch. After a moment of pondering alternatives, my striped friend nosed out of the trap and shuffled off into the brush. I took a couple more photos, and gathered up the bags and trap. The man who stopped to watch said, “Cool…,” walked back to his car, and drove away. He was smiling.

Happy fall days…

Tuna Fishing and the Weird Outdoor Year

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 11, 2015. Posted in Uncategorized

Last weekend – Labor Day Weekend – was “Ilwaco Tuna Weekend” for Hucklings, Homeys and former Homeys. We started planning it when I booked Captain Rob’s Katie Marie right after he returned us and our fish to port a year ago. 2015 was extra special: Last-of-the-Hucklings Edward and fiancé Anna drove up from Los Angeles; adopted Huckling Jonathan – Edward’s kid brother – flew in from Colorado; former Homeys Bruce and Michelle Seivertson arrived from Eureka, California; former Homeys and fishing nuts Brandon Rogers and Margo Aye drove from the Tri Cities; and Homey Lee Davis and I worked our way down from Paradise.

Monday – Labor Day – was calm and clear as we headed for the barn. Jonathan and I stopped in Clatskanie, Oregon, to catch up with salmon fishing buddy Steve Souvenir and wife Sue. I filled him in on our rather amazing weekend tuna adventure. When I finished, he stared at me with his trademark look – a look, no doubt, forged during way too many years spent inside a paper plant – and said, “Nobody died. Nobody got hurt. You’ve been saying all summer that this is a weird year for your outdoor stuff… So?”

A weird year for fishing and outdoor stuff? No question about it.

The long-anticipated February steelhead trip Homey Kirk Johnson and I had planned on the Quinault River with Chopper vaporized as unusual rain, water levels and weather all collided.

Our annual halibut and ling cod trip out of Westport came together as I hooked up with Kirk and his sons-in-law Ben and Morgan on The Rock and Roll. Missing was my Boyfriend-in-law Brian, who had injured his back. Brian’s agony over missing our annual chase of big flatfish was both physical and mental. As it turned out, that trip in rougher-than-expected seas cost Kirk a couple cracked vertebrae. We caught a lot of fish, but at a cost we really didn’t want to pay.

Kirk was up for river fishing, but every trip we planned or attempted was scuttled by warm rivers, low stream flows and stressed fish.

Homey Bill Boyum and I were invited to fly to Alaska and fish the Kenai for sockeye salmon – a sure-fire, limits-every-day fishery. You may recall that very low numbers of sockeye were making it into the river most of the days we were there. The refrain bounced from fisherman to fisherman and local to local: “Wow, this is just a really weird year…”

Then there was that Cascade Crest 100 Mile Run a couple weeks back; 150 runners battered by the worst recorded summer storm to hit the Northwest.

“Well,” I kept thinking, “we will have our great tuna adventure.” Our Labor Day Weekend tuna trip was looking better and better as the weeks, days, and finally hours, passed, even though Kirk’s slow-healing vertebrae and Brian’s sudden abdominal hernia caused them both to drop off our team. On each of the days leading up to our Sunday trip, the weather had been perfect: sunny, comfortable and calm. Each day, Captain Rob brought the Katie Marie back to port early, full to the gills with fat tuna up to 40 pounds. The forecast for Sunday – our day – was for light off and on rain, ending in mid-morning, and mild wind and wave action out where the tuna play. What a year!

As we rolled out of the campground toward the dock, a light rain began to fall. By 3:15 a.m. we were all aboard the Katie Marie, and the rain got serious. Cap gave us a rundown on the forecast and our safety reminders, loaded live anchovies for the big fat tuna awaiting us, and pointed the boat west.

By the time we were 12 choppy miles out, six of the ten fishers were chumming the ocean with whatever they had eaten over the previous 24 hours. I was relaxing and thinking about big tuna, when Captain Rob came into the cabin. “This is a lot rougher than forecast,” he said. “It does look as if it is getting better, but it is rough and sloppy and wet. What do you want to do?” At that point, we all chose optimism and on we went.

Half an hour or so later, Cap was back. “Look,” he said, “it’s not better out ahead. Some of the boats already there are heading back in heavy rains and pitching seas. It’s just too dangerous. A wet, slippery, tossing deck it just too dangerous. I’m not willing to get someone hurt or overboard for any fish, so I’m turning us back. Pacific Salmon Charters will refund your money, of course. I’m sorry folks.” And that was that.

So, now what? We got back to port, collected our refunds, bought a few tuna filets (Well, we were there, weren’t we?), and said a collective prayer of thanks for a captain keeping us safe. Then I booked the whole boat for Labor Day Weekend, 2016. (After all, what could go wrong?)

I’m still bummed about the fishing. But I’m deeply grateful for family and friends together. And, as Souvenir observed, nobody died and nobody got hurt.

So now, as Huntmaster Steve Kiesel and I head to Wyoming for the 19th Annual Antelope and Deer Safari, one regular has opted out. The forecast calls for mild, dry weather, with an abundance of game.

But it’s been a weird year…

Radios, Weather & 100 Mile Runners

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 4, 2015. Posted in Uncategorized

Last weekend the 17th annual Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run happened. Over the past some years, I’ve written a few columns about the runners and their connections with the outdoors and fresh air and the earth, and my admiration for anyone who stretches personal boundaries in an effort to understand what they might actually be able to accomplish.

I coordinate the hams, and Rich White coordinates the run itself and all associated volunteers. As with past years of this event, along with a couple hundred of Rich’s race and aid station volunteers, there were more than forty of us licensed ham radio operators helping track runners and avoid (or handle, if necessary) any emergencies. We all spend from six to 36 hours scattered in ham and aid station teams along the 100 miles of ridge and valley trail. We do this because it is always fun to play radio communications, and it is always an honor to support men and women determined to find their limits.

155 men and women were set to start the race. 99 of them completed 100 mile runs. This was the lowest percentage of finishers since the first year of the race. Once the last runner cleared our overnight Mineral Creek Aid Station (mile 74), Diane and I returned to work the last few hours of Net Control – at the Easton Fire Station. All Sunday afternoon, as runners found their way to the finish line, I couldn’t get “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” out of my head.

This, as you may know, is not an official creed for mail delivery folks, although it is often thought to be, since it is chiseled into stone at the Central Post Office in New York. Official or not, it seemed a perfect homily for this year’s runners.

The weekend was a perfect collision of runners, volunteers and unexpected weather. We anticipated rain and a bit of wind; we did not anticipate what UW’s meteorologist Cliff Mass identified as the worst summer storm to hit the Northwest in recorded history. At the center of the storm was the lowest pressure found to date on Tatoosh Island off the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. Winds reached as high as 78 knots (right around 90 mph) in one location in the Puget Sound. Trees were down, power was out, traffic was stalled and there was local flooding. At some locations in the Cascades, four inches of rain fell. The storm impacted runners and the ability of volunteers (both hams and race folks) to get out of the Seattle-Tacoma area and to Easton. (Learn much more at and check out Monday’s entry.)

By the time the runners hit the Keechelus Ridge Aid Station (mile 60 – sometime between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.) the weather was having its way. Temperatures had dropped into the upper 30s and strong winds were blowing rain and sleet sideways. Somewhere in there, a number of runners were reaching a point beyond what they had trained to handle. A quick coordinated effort among hams and race volunteers got a couple dozen of them safely into vehicles and back to Easton – urgent, but not emergency, actions. Runners who stayed on the course made it off the ridge, down to Kachess Lake, around to Mineral Creek and then up onto No Name Ridge and Thorp Mountain. At various times, even with cutting edge headlamps, they could not see beyond 20 feet.

Things eased up a bit with daylight. By 6 p.m. Sunday 99 of them had completed their 100 mile run. As one woman observed, “Other than the high wind and low wind chill, and the rain and sleet, and mud and poor visibility and fear of missing a turn… It was a perfect night for a long run.”

There is something of deep value in supporting men and women determined to go full out – determined to get past a personal breaking point and whatever might be in the way, to make some new connection with life.

I’m not a runner, but I can return to a long-ago goat hunt high in the Colorado Rockies, a final five mile trail, and a second 70-pound pack of goat hide, meat and gear. After sixteen miles of rock stair-steps and trail, there was no way I could make it, but somehow I did. I think of a single rope bridge over a terrifyingly-deep chasm I could not cross, yet did. I remember falling off that truck, returning from a blissful, peaceful place to excruciating physical pain, yet somehow joyfully completing my Big Afrika Adventure.

Each of us, at some point, breaks through something that resists us, to find and explore the limitations of our bodies and minds – to fully experience this physical existence. I have long believed that the most astounding breakthroughs take place outdoors. The Cascade Crest 100 Endurance Run certainly fits that vision.

To paraphrase: Neither rain, nor sleet, nor wind, nor cold, nor gloom of night shall keep these runners from the completion of their appointed 100 miles.