Archive for November, 2016

Planning Our Winter Wildlife Watch

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 25, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

You’ve been hearing it, too. The La Niña watch has been re-issued for our 2016-17 Pacific Northwest winter, and we are being told to prepare for higher than normal precipitation and normal to colder temperatures – depending on location in the state. At this point, the beginning of winter looks like one storm after another across much of the state. To me, this indicates a bit more wildlife than most years in the valley and in places where they can be easily seen. It also means (particularly early on) more snow on and along the roads with fewer places for critters (including the two-legged ones taking their own walks around Paradise) to step away from traffic.

No guarantees, of course, but we may have some of the best opportunities in some time to observe and watch wild things in semi-wild places. We may also feel a greater responsibility for caution.

A couple at-large members (Aren’t we all, really?) of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association have recently raised both those thoughts, and have asked that I again pass along the simple guidelines for safely watching wintering wildlife.  As chair of our little think tank’s Winter Wildlife Watch Subcommittee, I am duty bound. Thus, the following information.

Winter survival is everything, of course, to deer, elk and bighorns. Under the best of conditions, the stress of the cold season is the major controlling factor for their populations. Our responsibility, as we are out and about seeking in-person wildlife experiences to replenish nature connections in our lives, is simply to avoid adding to the normal stresses of winter.

Animals are certainly easier to find as they move onto their limited winter range. They will move around less, and seem “less wild.”

Through the fall, as they add fat reserves, our wild ungulates develop thicker, longer coats with many hollow, insulating hairs.  These heavier coats become even more protective and insulative with “piloerection,” the ability to make the hairs stand up and trap more air.

Warm protective coats and limited movement make it possible for deer, elk and sheep to slightly lower metabolic rates and caloric requirements. Even with a decent food supply, though, and a balance between energy in and energy expended, an average winter will likely cost a large ungulate 20 percent of its fall weight. Disturbed and spooked, a critter may double its rate of energy burn; burning away 30 percent of fall body weight will often cause death, even if food becomes available.

The bottom line of all this is that we have an obligation to observe critters from a distance comfortable to them, not us.  I often think that one of my favorite expressions—that “Facts are facts, but perceptions are reality!” handed me by DFW’s Okanogan Land Manager Dale Swedburg – applies to wild critters as much as to people. Thus, even if we think we pose no danger, what matters is what the animals perceive. Causing wildlife to stop feeding, or leave a feeding/resting area, will affect their health and well-being.

Every species and every individual will have its own “comfort zone.” Watch behavior, and you will identify that zone. If an animal I am watching looks at me, I avert my eyes. Staring is threatening to most wild critters, so I glance out of the corner of my eye. I might even mimic non-threatening activity, such as browsing bushes or imitate some grooming activity. A head‑up, ears‑forward posture, with obvious nervousness, is enough to make me sit still, or back off quietly. Final warning signs include skittishness; moving away; hairs on neck and shoulders standing up; snorting or slapping the ground with a foot or paw. Any more will cause flight…and the harm has been done.

Staying in your rig can be non-threatening. Binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses will let us get close enough for a good look without disrupting critter activities. If you opt to take a casual walk around wildlife, of course, you will want to leave pets in the car. Consider the comfort zones of fellow watchers, too.

Expect to find wild things all around the Kittitas Valley and down the Yakima Canyon this winter, on most any drive. Joe Watt Canyon is a favorite sledding area, often with a fair number of elk nearby.

For a more organized chance to observe bighorns, elk and deer (certainly by early January), head south. West out of Yakima you will find the Cleman Mountain Bighorn feeding area (just north of the intersection of Highways 12 and 410). Then go a couple miles south on Highway 12 to the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. Over a couple hours, you may see a hundred or more bighorns and deer, and a thousand or more bull, cow and calf elk.

Enjoy the wildlife which enriches our lives, and watch the winter roads looming before us. Hitting a deer or elk can mess up the whole day for both of you.

Your Best-ever Thanksgiving?

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 18, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

Homey’s question was simple. “What’s your best-ever Thanksgiving?”

I’ve long loved Thanksgiving. I like being thankful for the living beings which continue to sustain us. It’s pretty easy to honor the trees which provide some of our heat and furniture, and the plants which give themselves and their fruit to our winter’s cache. And the antelope and deer and pheasants and rabbits and fish which pass through our freezer. I’m thankful for how easily we are sustained today. I’m really thankful for big traditional Thanksgiving dinners. Finally, I had to give Homey two best-evers.

Thanksgiving first really settled over me during my first year in radio in Boise. 1961. I was a DJ at KATN, a small country and western station, and produced a daily few-minute program on “Idaho Outdoors.” I’d interview outdoor writers like Ted Trueblood, Game & Fish people, fishing guides – anybody who had a handle on fun stuff to do. Then I’d round up sponsors to help supplement my $1.10/hour pay. One of my regular sponsors was George Dovel, who flew people back into the Salmon River Wilderness – that “River of No Return” country.

George kept offering me a chance to go back onto the Middle Fork of the Salmon and stay at one of the camps for a couple days. Finally, in November, I got three or four days together for a wilderness deer hunt. Before we took off, George said, “By the way, if it snows, I may not be able to get you out of there for a few days, until the outfitter packs down the strip. Is that OK?” I said, “Of course,” knowing full well that there was no way I could be stranded. He flew me into the Mahoney Bar camp, run by a Swedish packer and his wife, Maude. They had six or eight tents set up.

There were three or four planes on the ground, including a classic old biplane flown in from California. The three women and seven men in the camp were friends of George and the Swede, and they soon made me welcome.

I had a good hunt, made some meat, and enjoyed a great couple days at the camp. I was getting my gear ready for George to pick me up, when it started snowing. “Happens almost every year,” they told me. “So what do we do?” I asked. “Well,” said Maude, “We start planning Thanksgiving dinner!” We all pitched in – firewood, gathering herbs, preparing food. On Thanksgiving day, we ate most of a deer, a small turkey stuffed with wild sage dressing, sourdough rolls and several pies – all prepared in or on a sheepherders’ sheet metal stove. After dinner, we played cards until the moon was up. And talked about being thankful.

After ten days, George got me back to Boise. As I climbed out of his Supercub, I could still smell that wilderness kitchen. Every Thanksgiving since, I smell those aromas and recall the simple pleasures shared by eleven thankful people.

September, a couple-plus decades later, I spent a few days in Grand Junction, Colorado, in “Adobe School.” At the time, I was planning to build a mud house the following spring. Anyhow, on my way back from the school, I stopped at an orchard to pick up some apples.

I grew up in East Wenatchee’s apple country, of course, and a lot of my early deer hunting was done in and around the apple orchards. For me, apple harvest and deer harvest are hopelessly intertwined, and I felt an old, sweet anticipation of fall as I stood in that orchard and paid the young woman for the apples and the freshly-pressed cider.

Those apples went home to the basement, as antelope, deer and elk seasons rolled by.  Carcasses came into the kitchen and off to the freezer. Tena and Anna pitched in as they “got littler and littler and disappeared into the freezer!” Two-year-old Last-of-the-Hucklings Edward (“Taco Eddie” he called himself then) would climb to the table and exclaim, “Gotum antgope!  Gotta deer!  Meat! Meat!” as we cut and processed.

One morning during the elk season, I heard a radio talk show host and his guest talking about how children learn that a place or a family or a situation is safe. They discussed the role of “mobile” traditions – those a family takes with, wherever it goes. I thought about it, but ours didn’t seem like all that much, really.

When the last deer of the fall was in the freezer, we had to move. Another fresh start on the way, hopefully, to our adobe on the hill. A bit unsettling for the kids, of course. And their parents.

The evening before Thanksgiving, the family settled down a little after I whipped up my renowned breaded game cutlets, with skin-on mashed potatoes and gravy. Still, we weren’t quite there.

In the moving furor, those Grand Junction apples were almost lost amid all the stuff piled in the basement. I dragged them into our new kitchen, found the knives, and set about making my famous chunky applesauce.

I was filling a couple large kettles with apple chunks, as the kids were herded toward bed.  “Abbosauch?” Taco Eddie asked, hands full of apple pieces. “Yup,” said Tena, “they’re going to put it in jars for us to eat for breakfast and stuff. It’s going to be a good winter!”

Best-ever Thanksgivings? I could add more, but I’ll take those two.

Becoming Wildfire Smart – Part II

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 11, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

In our last episode, I mentioned that valley native Dale Swedburg spent much of his land and habitat management career with DFW studying fire. He speaks of how regular, naturally-occurring forest fires benefit the lands and the plant communities which evolved with them. On the other hand, the raging, super-hot and impossible-to-control megafires tearing through the overgrown forests we have created by preventing fires are rarely friends of nature – or people.

Dale is a strong proponent of prescribed burning, as a way of re-creating the natural periodic burns which most of the world’s forest ecosystems have known for millennia. And there are many fighting tooth and nail against controlled burns.

I thought we might first look at some of the benefits of historic fire regimes – those that erupt every few years, burn themselves out, and leave a healthy mosaic of naturally-treated and ready-to-burn forest land. Certainly you are aware of many of these, but there are myriad surprises in every forest ecosystem.

One of the first mentioned benefits of a fire is the removal of all those crowded trees and ground cover – fuels reduction, it is commonly called. The mechanical clearing of forests and cleanup of flammable ground cover will accomplish fuels reduction; the value of that is seen in the surge of communities and homeowners turning to Firewise Programs to protect families and properties. An obvious problem is that there is unlikely enough money on the planet to hire enough loggers to beat the buildup of fuels in our forests. A controlled burn is faster and cheaper, but that is only the beginning; fire does things no amount of mechanical clearing can do.

(By the way, none of this discussion about the use or value of fire argues against logging, and the value of our timber resources. Few would argue about the need for wood in most cultures around the world. What more and more pros are arguing is about the thinning of overstocked and crowded forests. A well-treated forest (from fire or logging) allows healthy timber to grow to harvestable size as part of a multi-age stand of trees in a more natural ecosystem.)

A forest fire at the right place and time reduces dangerous fuel loading, of course, but that is just a start. In forest ecosystems, fire: reduces insect pests and disease; removes non-native species which often crowd out natives; increases forage for game and other wildlife; recycles soil nutrients; supports the growth of the trees, wildflowers, shrubs and other plants which make up a healthy ecosystem; provides better habitat for threatened and endangered species of all types; and proper or prescribed fire limits numbers of super-hot megafires.

Any chance you get, talk with Dale, or any of the other proponents of regular, natural, fire (and controlled or prescribed burns). Each will have a dozen or more relatively unknown, ways that fire benefits the varied ecosystems which evolved with them. I can almost guarantee that you will be surprised by what you learn.

Think about charcoal left behind a fire. We use it for moisture and pest control in the bottom of flower and houseplant pots. In the woods, it has been shown to greatly retard the growth of knapweed – one of the most aggressive and noxious weeds in the West. Long-term, charcoal remains stable in soils, even in areas with generally poor soil producing conditions. (You may know about the “terra preta” – Portuguese for black soil – of the Amazon. Centuries of adding charcoal, bone, manure, and ash to those infertile soils created a soil maintaining nutrients and value to such an extent that there is an active black market for the soil.)

You have likely heard a number of times about how the heat from fires opens lodgepole pine cones and increases germination for a natural first-stage reforestation. Other seeds and roots react as well.

Smoke is the source of most human complaints about forest fires. Still, in the forest, a wide range of native plant species need smoke (often with heat) to properly germinate and grow. Buckbrush (Ceanothus) is a very important wildlife forage plant that becomes more vigorous with smoke and moderate heat – indeed, there is said to be evidence of buckbrush seed lying dormant in soil for two hundred years before germinating post-fire.

The Forest Service has a great site for finding research on fire effects on plants and various regimes. Check out What you learn will change your image among friends and all those present at your next party.

As you may have gathered, there are large groups opposed to the use of prescribed fire. For prescribed fire to become a truly major tool in the battle against megafires, cultural attitudes will have to be changed. If you want a sense of the challenges ahead of that change, I recommend the website of Citizens Against Polluted Air, at

Any of the fire pros will admit that smoke is the big problem – and insist that “no fire” is not an option for our future. Dale points out that cost, timing, size and intensity are generally known with prescribed fire – we can prepare. Is it better to have small expected fires or unpredictable megafires?

There will be fires. We have choices.


Becoming Wildfire Smart – Part I

Written by Jim Huckabay on November 4, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

Maybe you made it to Dr. Paul Hessburg’s presentation “Living in the Era of Megafires,” a couple weeks ago in Central Washington University’s Science Building. The presentation and film – from The Wildfire Project – were presented by the Cascadia Hazards Institute. “Megafires” are those over 100,000 acres, and they are being widely seen as a growing threat to our way of life. Education is the answer, and Dr. Hessburg’s group is out to educate. I like their motto: “Through education, we firmly believe we can change the way we receive fire and smoke.”

If you missed that October meeting, the tour will move again through Oregon and Washington in March of 2017. (You will find details at

Wildfire has been on my mind lately. Some from the megafires talk. Part of it triggered as I talked with one of the folks still rebuilding from the 2012 Taylor Bridge Fire, which destroyed 61 homes and blackened three dozen square miles of our backyard. Another part of it, no doubt, is looking at this season and weather – time and conditions which might support prescribed fires, or controlled burns. Mostly, however, my mind lingers on what I saw up north.

A few weeks ago, a number of us took part in the Coordinated Resource Management Executive Tour – an annual meeting and field day in an area with a resource issue to which local folks and agency people seek solutions by working together (hence, “coordinated resource management”). This year, we headed north to Okanogan County and the area affected by the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014.

That fire began on July 14, 2014, as four separate lightning-caused fires. In a week it was one fire, burning over 390 square miles, destroying 322 houses and about 150 other structures in rural Okanogan County and at Pateros and Malott. One man died of a heart attack protecting his home. Fighting the Carlton Complex Fire cost the state an estimated $60 million (excluding property and infrastructure damage). With the help of a little rain, the fire was finally mostly contained by the end of July.

In August of 2015 came the Okanogan Complex Fires. Another blow to the people and government of the county – although not quite as devastating (partly, perhaps, because folks were more prepared after 2014).

As you might imagine, we saw and heard some pretty amazing stories. We talked with ranchers who lost rangeland and grass, and others who helped their fellows find supplies and grazing; we spent time with a rancher who lost most of his cattle herd – a herd he has selectively bred over decades. We talked with conservation district folks like Central grad Craig Nelson who helped pull together community and interagency teams to address the resource losses through both fires, and Department of Ecology agents whose nearly-impossible job was guiding the restoration of water and air resources. And we walked scorched ground with employees of the Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife, and Natural Resources, looking at plant communities and wildlife habitat.

The consistent message – after “look at what folks can do when they pull together through such devastation” – was “these fires are not ‘one and done’ events; they are our future if we don’t start now to prepare our forests to better handle wildfire.”

The Firewise Programs of thinning community forests to protect at-risk communities and homes is a great program. And it is not addressing the millions of acres of overstocked and ripe-for-devastating-fire forest lands. Prescribed fire does address over-stocked forests; it just has to be used, and it must become socially acceptable to a culture still attached to Smokey Bear and his message of stopping all forest fires.

At the edges of those places in Okanogan County where prescribed fires (controlled burns) had been used to thin dense forest and undergrowth, the raging wildfires sizzled out. In those places where controlled burns had taken place, with their more natural lower-intensity flames and thinning, native vegetation was recovering quickly and normally. The trees which had lost lower limbs and understory were less likely to flare up like those in the overstocked forests feeding the Carlton Complex wildfires. We saw the same thing with the Yakima Wild Rose fire of 2012. It was part of the Yakima Complex Fire in the Rimrock area; it pretty quickly came under control in areas previously treated with prescribed fire.

On our Okanogan tour, we spent some time with very passionate proponents of prescribed fire. One of them was Dale Swedburg. Dale grew up here in Paradise and just retired from his position as Okanogan Land Manager for DFW on Monday – Halloween. Over his career, he became a student of fire and its value to the public lands he devoted his life to protecting: lands which literally evolved as fire-dependent ecosystems.

Let’s consider these fire-dependent ecosystems – and how various publics look at their care and future – next week.

Happy fall…