Category Archives: Conservation and legacy

Worn

The sun is dropping to the southwest as we slog 200, 500, 800 feet up. The dog ranges ahead while I put one foot in front of the other, sometimes searching for a footing, sometimes skidding and sliding, clawing at the scree and the grass.

At the top, sweating and panting, my fingernails caked with dirt, I take a drink and feel the wind instantly turn the sweat of the climb into an uncomfortable liability. I look west and see the sinking sun against the backdrop of the Snake River Canyon. I know we may find a covey of birds before sundown. Or we may not. There are no guarantees. There are no planted birds, no mowed pathways. Flat ground is a rarity and birds, when you find them, are always uphill.

GregMcReynoldsBootsOct2014 (1)

What brings me to this place is the rawness of it. The opportunity to go where I wish without the burden of “posted” signs and knocking on doors begging for permission. There is no freedom like the freedom to Go. Miles to cross, mountains to climb, spaces to camp or hunt or hike, places to push ourselves and stretch against the bounds of modern convenience, here are the last places where we are unrestricted. Truly Free.

So I find it particularly galling that a few greedy bastards want to try and take it from us. For many of us, the loss of our public lands would be akin to a prison sentence. We can’t afford to buy access and we have no desire to take up golf or play video games.

For the most part, the public lands we hold so tightly are not the verdant lowlands, those were snapped up by settlers 100 years ago. They are hard, wild places and what we do is a hard scramble. There are days where I don’t even fire my gun. This is miles of hiking, climbing and pushing to find the secret spot – the one place so difficult that no one else has hunted it. The spot where the price of admission is so steep and daunting that only we would dare to chase birds in this place. Some days my dog gets one solitary point and all I have to show for it are sore legs and worn boots. Those are good days. Out here, It is not about killing birds, it’s about earning birds. In this crowd, people rarely even say the word “limit.”

A lot of other folks don’t understand. They tell me they gave up hunting when the bird population dropped, or that there is nowhere left to hunt. And if we talk about the flat-ground fence rows that used to hold hundreds of roosters for the price of asking, they’re right. Those places are gone, tilled up or simply sold off to folks richer than us.

And that’s the beauty of what we do. There are millions of acres open to hunting. All it takes is a good pair of boots. A good old American-made leather pair with heel counters and high tops, laces and spares, toe caps and Air Bob soles. The price of admission is what you’re are willing to put in and how much are you willing to sweat, not just in October, but in April and July.

I spend three times more money on boots than I do annually on shotgun shells – because I wear boots out.

The greedy bastards who want to sell my lands – the ones who want to carve the choicest parcels for themselves while selling the bulk of it to the multinational corporations to pillage and plunder – they have not earned that right. No one who has worn out a pair of American made hunting boots thinks we should sell our public lands. No one who has climbed to the top of Giffy Butte or Nowhere Ridge looking for chukar or elk or muleys thinks we should sell off those places to a bunch of rich, foreign bastards with Land Rovers and jacked-up golf carts.

My boots are worn and cracked, but I have paid the price of admission and my heart is full. The new robber barons who are calling for the sale of our hunting lands under the guise of “states rights” have not paid the price of admission. They have never worn out a pair of hunting boots in their lives.

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Filed under Conservation and legacy, Giving thanks, Open country, Public Land Rocks, Talegate

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers – 2013 Rendezvous

The BHA 2013 Rendezvous will be held in Boise, ID – March 22nd to the 24th.

It will be another great weekend rich in how-to and DIY backcountry hunting and fishing seminars, information on advocating for your favorite piece of backcountry, excellent food, exciting auction and raffle items, and of course, time to visit with other members.

Jason Hairston of KUIU

Jason Hairston of KUIU

Jason Hairston, the former NFL linebacker turned revolutionary gear manufacturer (co-founder of Sitka Gear and more recently founder of KUIU) will be this year’s Keynote Speaker.

BHA works hard to protect the backcountry integrity of our public lands and our hunting and fishing opportunities. Please show your support, and attend if you can!

For a full schedule of events, click here.

To register,  click here.

Please note that the registration deadline is March 4th.

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Marking time

In this country, a bird is irrelevant.
This land of basalt and dry earth always been hard. The flush times have come and then been winnowed by the lean years that must always follow.
Here, a mere season of abundance cannot be meaningful. Only a covey, persistent for a thousand generations begins to be something.
Over the decades, if we are fortunate we may come to know this place or one like it.
A spot where over a few dozen seasons we will watch the coveys rise and fall, see the roads come and the fauna that marks shorter time spans than our own go.
But we will never really see the place change. This land marks time only through its own weathering. The decay of boulders chronicles the ages like a giant geological metronome, and we can last no more than a single pulse of the pendulum.
And though we shall wink out, the covey may live on.
A single entity – the first covey no different then the 1,000th – the birds will read their history on the face of basalt and in the dried earth.
Though the logical truth of it all cannot be changed, for us it is different.
A single bird, a single moment of perfection will leave a mark on the boulder that is my center, marking a time of geologic importance.

GM

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Filed under Conservation and legacy, Fodder, Giving thanks, Talegate

Burden of legacy

Where chickens boom in golden grass
A faithful friend and I hold mass
Set out to hunt and death impart
We find not endings, but only starts
From us, this place soon shall pass

Alone, not I, nor would I be
My dog, a friend to cherish me
In this church that is the land
I give thanks for where I stand
My companion too, a gift from thee

My thanks is required, but sufficient it is not
Life’s passion needs more than allegiance to a plot
We are called to seize our endowment, and labor
Gratitude is fair, but wild lands need our sabre
It is up to we, else this temple shall rot

Not from night, the darkness will arrive
Taking not freedom nor profit, but lives
All is not well, the chickens grow quiet
For them the end approaches, but who will riot?
Grass, bird and church, cringe from steely knives

Set it right we could, if we’d only try
Stop the rush to destruction and ourselves defy
Gather the arms and raise the guard
Hunters must rally to protect the yard
Should we not, I won’t hunt. And the dog would die

SFRED

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Filed under Bobwhites, Conservation and legacy, Giving thanks

King of the Big Empty: Our generation’s Heath Hen

Consider the sage chicken. Take your time at it. He is a mighty bird, his pointed tail, his black-feathered breast, his mottled and muted yet beautiful hues, his huge feet. Many writers, attempting to describe his flight have penned imagery of Air Force bombers, kites, sails. Indeed, the pet name for the big ones, the old ones, is “bomber.” Others have sneered at the big grouse as a game bird, shuddered at the thought of eating his dark breast, laughed when talking about the sporting dog aspect of hunting “chickens.”

Yet I submit that those who turn their noses up at Mr. Chicken might in fact be deeply saddened if those big beautiful birds no longer dotted our sagebrush steppe, no longer flew our wide Western skies.

There are those among us who have grown up hunting chickens. Here, on the broad ocean that is the sagebrush sea, are a few of us whose first shotgunning experience was sage grouse, whose family reunions were on the high prairies of states like Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana. I love how the names of those states sound on the tongue, and when I think of sage grouse and of those places, I think of old Willys jeeps and Ford Broncos covered in alkali dust, of big heavy Labs panting in the shade of a September wall tent, of Winchester pump guns, of windy Labor Days in the middle of nowhere, of grape soda in a tub of ice–and when I was deemed old enough–Hamm’s, Oly and Coors. I remember listening to the Wyoming Cowboys or the Colorado Buffaloes or the Denver Broncos on AM radio, and I remember those big birds taking wing and my shotgun on my shoulder and that huge, huge target, and I remember missing. They were deceptively fast and the shotgun sometimes swung as if it were twenty feet long. Sometimes, I remember hitting. Always, sage chicken season was about family and laughter and the music of loved ones.

Not too many people have family reunions around sage chicken season any more. Perhaps it is a function of a fattening society, of lard-assed kids who would rather play video games or text-message their pals. But the real reason, I think, is because we’ve failed as a society to appreciate this bird, failed as a people to treasure the wide open sagebrush flanks of our land–the very openness that defines the West–and failed, ultimately to be good stewards. Lyrical ground like Sweetwater, Oregon Buttes, Vinegar Hill, Horse Prairie, Choke-A-Man Draw . . . I can’t even think of those places without sage grouse. Without them, they are truly empty.

Six dogs and one wife ago, I was the cocky young editor of a small town western Colorado newspaper. Back then, I hunted with a beat-up Remington autoloader that  jammed often, and a mutt named after my favorite beverage at the time. JD had been born under a house in Carbondale the year I dropped out of college to spend a season ski bumming in Aspen. The bastard child of a Springer mother and a Lab father, she was black and white, just like the Jack Daniels’ label.

Eventually, I went back to college, finished up that degree, put a few years of Arizona quail hunting and Colorado pheasant hunting in front of JD’s eager nose, and then found myself in the Gunnison Basin. I was editing a newspaper with an absentee owner and given free reign over the editorial pages. The pay was light, but the benefits were fantastic. The newspaper’s owner also had claim to a few miles of the Taylor River to which I had access, and there was wild country right out the door.

JD and the chickens

And there were chickens. The high country held blue grouse, but if you were a serious bird hunter (and with JD, I thought I was a terror to the game birds of the basin), you had to be a chicken hunter. They were everywhere. You could hunt chickens on the sage-blanketed sweep of the rising mountains and have a staggering Colorado mountain view as a backdrop.

It was pretty tall cotton then and I didn’t even know it. I must have killed dozens in my time in Gunnison and I cooked their meat to medium rare over aspen coals and savored every bit of it. Cooked beyond medium rare and their flesh was as palatable as an old shoe, but medium-rare and you were in business. A friend would gather a large group of us–a banker, a professor at the local college, a PR man, a county assessor, a county manager, and the young punk newspaper editor with his mutt and clunker gun–and we’d head out to Flattop and hunt for a day behind his Brits and my Splab. We’d laugh and drink beer at the end and admire our chicken harvest. The hunts were about friendships, about sharing a passion and were an annual ritual.

No one has killed a Gunnison sage chicken in a decade. The season clamped shut in 2000 and those kinds of hunts on the sagebrush shoulders of a big mountain, that music of laughter and mutual joy is a thing of the past. Just like those family reunions. In those ten years of no hunting, the population of Gunnison chickens has not rebounded and it remains a species in trouble. Hunting was not the cause, not the problem and sadly, hunters do not have the solution.

Everywhere, in every Western state, the story is the same. South Dakota has a silly two-day season with a one bird limit. Why even have it? Eastern Oregon has a permit draw system much like we have with big game. Nevada–with its mighty, tossing ocean of sage–has a two week season and most of the state is closed to nonresidents. And Wyoming–Wyoming, the state that defines sagebrush, the state that is antelope and sage chickens and wide open–has a two-week season with a two-bird limit, four in possession. It used to run a month and you could sack up three birds a day with nine in possession. Sad times. While we have built our Pheasants Forevers and our Quail Unlimiteds, and our Ruffed Grouse Societys, the very symbol of the West for the upland gunner has dwindled, lost ground and died.

Oil and gas development, predation, range fire, intentional sagebrush eradication funded by the feds and states, the looming shadow of renewable energy and its transmission lines, livestock grazing, “wild” horses, even West Nile virus . . . the sage chicken is in trouble. It is teetering close to being put on the endangered species list and if it ends up there, we hunter-conservationists should be deeply ashamed of ourselves. Sick. And it happened in finger-snap time; unless you are younger than 8, this has happened in your lifetime.

In my living room, mounted in a place of honor, is a big old bomber chicken. Whenever I look at him, I am back on the Big Empty. The memory of a girlfriend after the broken marriage, of a beautiful September Wyoming day, of golden aspen leaves and soft breezes scented by sage, of a talented dog on solid point, of swing and trigger pull, and retrieve to hand all come back to me. But there’s more. There’s a symbol. Of the West. Of families that got together in the outdoors and walked hallowed ground. Of simpler times? Perhaps. But we had problems back then. We just knew how to stick together, how to laugh, what family felt like, how to appreciate nature without motors and batteries and games . . . Our people seem to have lost those things.

Consider the sage chicken.                  –TR

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Filed under Conservation and legacy, Open country

In search of the empty

Damn the red lines.

They crisscross the green and yellow areas on the map like bloody cracks.
On the ground, they are uglier and more numerous.
These are not the access routes that bring us to the edges. No, these are far from the rural route roads-the gravel arteries-that deliver us from here to “out there.”
Dusty, rutted trails, crosshatch the landscape. Parallel routes that go nowhere, achieve nothing except to reduce habitat and lessen the experience.
The ungulates see them as warning signs, for the quail they are deathtraps.
The red lines often begin and end at the same places. On the ground, they simply wander as if an unmanned machine had prowled the landscape at random, leaving ruts that will last a hundred years.
On the map, I search for an area devoid of the red lines. A place I can’t walk from one road to the next in the time it takes to smoke a decent cigar.
There are few.

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Filed under Conservation and legacy, Open country