Revisiting “A Sand County Almanac”

Read A Sand County Almanac for the first time about 32 years ago.

At that time I read it as a hunter, looking specifically for information that would be of value to me as a hunter. I shared the hunter’s lifestyle with Aldo Leopold and wanted to learn more about his philosophy.

I gleaned from the book what I wanted to find and that was it. For years I’ve considered re-reading the book and kept it on my book shelf. It is in very good condition, except for my recent dog ears.

img_6607 a sand county almanac

This time, I read this book as a conservationist and it had much more meaning. Now I have more in common with Aldo Leopold (especially at his age at the time he wrote the book) than I did 32 years ago.

Now I understand why his book was so full of meaning and why it is appropriately called a “classic of conservation” by many people.

Leopold’s views on wilderness, land use and recreation are expressed in great detail in the book. He was spot on.

I’m sure I’ll be reading it again, and again.

Highly recommended.

Afterthoughts about My Inyo Mule Deer

While hunting the Goodale Buck Hunt, I met several people who said that the mule deer in the Inyo National Forest were a distinct subspecies of mule deer, separate from the Rocky Mountain mule deer found further north along the Eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

As I watched deer, it did appear to me that the deer were slightly smaller, on average, than the Rocky Mountain Mule Deer I’d been hunting in Modoc and Lassen Counties, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I’d killed my buck and returned home.

Rich with buck IMG_6485

He’s not a big deer. His width is 21 inches, and height just under 18 inches. He has all four points on each side and also nice eye guards. Everybody who hunts Goodale wants a monster buck, but the truth is that they are hard to find. I am very happy with this buck.

That’s when I remembered editing a piece for Mule Deer Magazine 1995. Dr. Valerius Geist was the author and he spoke of four or more distinct subspecies of mule deer in California. One of those is the Inyo mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus inyoensis. The other primary species being the Columbian black-tailed deer, the California mule deer,  and Rocky Mountain mule deer.

Readings within recent issues of MDF magazine reminded me that another mule deer expert, Jim Heffelfinger, has studied and researched this topic. His views appear to be similar to Dr. Geist’s, but also divergent.  A significant issue is whether the variations in  mule deer characteristics within California deer are created by evolution or hybridization.

In their 1999 book, A Sportsman’s Guide to Improving Deer Habitat in California, Kenneth Mayer and Tomas Kucera, recognized six sub-species of deer in California. They expanded the listing to include the southern mule deer and the burro mule deer. Here’s what they said about the Inyo mule deer.

The Inyo mule deer occurs only in California, ranging east of the Sierra Nevada in Mono and Inyo counties. Like the Rocky Mountain subspecies, it is migratory, with low-elevation Great Basin winter ranges and higher-elevation summer ranges, often on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. Although a bit smaller it closely resembles the Rocky Mountain mule deer. Most wildlife biologists believe the Inyo mule deer is simply a southern form of the Rocky Mountain mule deer.

Possibly the most heavily researched issue with regards to differences between blacktailed deer and  mule deer has taken place along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, primarily in the Shasta Cascade Region. Based upon conversations with Dr. Geist, it is clear to me that when he wrote the article in 1995 he considered the variations in the deer in that area were primarily related to evolution. He labeled the mule deer in the Shasta Cascade region as California mule deer.

Many sportsmen consider deer in that area to be either Columbian blacktail, mule deer or hybrids.

As I reread the article written by Dr. Geist, my take away was that he believed that the primary differences between the deer species living in different regions of California was primarily due to adaptation to differing habitats (evolution).

The fact that these various sub-species of deer live in adjacent habitats supports the concept of hybridization. It is logical that the sub-species variations would be blurred by cross breeding. Jim Heffelfinger’s recent articles in MDF magazine and also Fair Chase magazine, Fall 2005,  discuss DNA sampling done for the Boone and Crockett Club. Addressing species boundaries has been an issue with record-keeping groups for years and the Boone and Crockett Club has made progress entering the arena of DNA sampling. Decisions about the species identity of an individual trophy can be made using DNA sampling technology instead of geographical location.

Since I’m not a scientist, I don’t want to go any deeper into the weeds, but I will say that my observations while hunting mule deer in the Owens Valley support the notion that the deer there are different from Rocky Mountain mule deer of Lassen and Modoc Counties in Northern California.

Here is a photo of a of an interesting illustration taken from the Winter 1995 issue of Mule Deer Magazine. In that article, Dr. Geist explains that a “cline” is a “…geographic line-up of forms that vary directionally in their characteristics… ” The sub-species of deer in the illustration fit that definition.

cline illustration from Mule Deer Magaine

This is a photo of an illustration provided to Mule Deer Magazine in 1995 by Dr. Valerius Geist – a recognized expert on mule deer taxonomy.

 

Rough Year for CTS

Yes, California Tiger Salamander (CTS) larvae were scarce this year. About three weeks ago we seined 13 ponds and found CTS larvae in two of them. In one pond, we netted only one larvae. The other had 40.

We went back to the pond with 40 larvae today and seined 39. They are now much larger, but not showing signs of morphing.

Here’s a couple photos.

pond 26-2 on June 13, 2018 Reaching for a couple larvae DSC_0595

Grabbing for two at once. They’re slippery.

One in the hand - pond 26-2 June 13, 2018 DSC_0590

Here’s one in the hand.

We’ll go back in about three weeks and these guys should be ready to morph and leave the pond.

The (MDF) Caribou

caribou resized

My first outfitted big-game hunt was an Alaska barren ground caribou hunt that took place about 20 years ago. Bought the hunt at the Mule Deer Foundation Convention in Sacramento that took place in 1998. The caribou tag says 1998, so that validates the year.

The donation to MDF was set up by Gary Williams, MDF Chairman of the Board. At the time Gary was working for Leupold-Stevens and Leupold paid some of the trip costs as a donation from them.

The hunt went to sale at auction and I was the high bidder for $1700. The hunt took place in September and the caribou we hunted were part of the Mulchatna herd.

Camp was on the Nushagak River and we hunted up and down the river by boat. We found this caribou along the King Salmon River, a Nushagak tributary.

Although the Mulchatna herd was supposedly at an all-time high, I believe it may have already been in decline. We didn’t see many caribou and the one on my wall was probably the largest that my guide, Robert Nelson, or I sighted. Today the Mulchatna herd has still not regained the stature it had during the early 1990’s.

Robert and I stalked to within 60 yards of a small band of caribou and the I shot was the largest bull in the group. We killed him about two miles from the boat and the boat was about 30 miles from camp. The next day we brought a meat packer back with us to make the pack out a little easier.

I had two caribou tags and could have shot another smaller bull, but decided to pass. It was a good decision because I ended up using my second caribou tag on a Sitka blacktail deer on Kodiak Island about a week later.

I killed the bull with a Browning Automatic Rifle in 7mm. It was the first hunting rifle I owned with which I bagged a big game animal. Prior to that time, I hunted big game with bow and arrow only. The rifle was a raffle prize a San Jose MDF banquet in 1995 and it has an inscription on it: CENTRAL COAST CHAPTER, 1995, Fifth Annual Banquet, The Mule Deer Foundation. It was the model and caliber used by John Leonti the original chapter chairman of the San Jose Chapter. He was a nice man who passed away some time during the year before the banquet.

I purchased only one raffle ticket that night because I didn’t want to stay for the end of the banquet. I handed my ticket to David and Rose Stevens before I left and asked them to watch over it. David called me the next day and told me I had won.

I tanned the original cape from my caribou, but never mounted it, probably because I couldn’t afford the price of taxidermy work in those days. Last year I decided to find capes for a few of the animals taken on some of my past hunts. This is the only caribou I’ve killed so it is definitely a trophy to me even though just another caribou to anybody else.

My taxidermist and MDF supporter, Taff Vidalles, searched for a proper cape. Early season capes were available, but they did not properly represent the bull I had killed. Eventually he found a cape with characteristics of the bull I killed and purchased it for $650 wet-tanned.

I ended up paying $1,250 for the mount. $900 was Taff’s normal price. He added $350 (of the $650 cost of the cape) to his regular price and estimated that the $300 credit was appropriate because he normally would have had a preparation and tanning cost of about that much. I agreed.

Here’s me and the bull the way we looked in 1998.

Rich and Caribou

 

The Foot Doctor

At the age of 67, I learned that Podiatrists have value. With a really bad ankle that I broke in a car accident 46 years prior, an occasional cortisone shot sometimes makes life bearable. A rub down of athlete’s foot cream doesn’t hurt and cutting rock hard toenails is a real benefit.

My doctor is not an outdoorsman, but he likes to ask me questions. Often he asks about mountain lions. I suppose he asks because I’m the only person he knows who has ever seen a mountain lion.

I’m now 68 and still going, he is of similar age to me and he has asked me lots of outdoor questions about hunting and mountain lions, in fact they are one of his favorite subjects.

He lives on the edge of town and there has been mountain lion activity in his neighborhood.

On my visit today, we talked about my toenail fungus, possible ankle surgery and mountain lions.

His first mountain lion question was fairly well-developed.

“Do you think that there will ever be a change to the law that makes mountain lions endangered?” he asked.

“Mountain lions are not endangered in California, just fully protected,” I responded. “Lions are extremely sneaky. When they hear a person coming, they hide and peak from behind a bush or rock. The public knows nothing about lions,”

What I didn’t say is that a lion will hide until the person is gone, or obviously sees them, which seldom happens. If a lion catches your eye at close range, it will stare at you fearlessly or run to the nearest bush. If it stares at you, you will look for something to shoot it with, in self-defense.

“OK, do you think public pressure will cause them to be hunted again?”

“The public knows nothing about mountain lions,” I responded. “The issue is purely political. The public knows nothing.”

Then he said something vague about the public being mislead.

Atwoods trip 041

Nice house guest.

I told him that even people who spend a lot of time in the woods almost never see a lion. Very few people know anything substantial about lions. The fully protected status of California lions only makes the problem worse.

There is no management of lions in our state. There is no money to manage lions. It’s as if lions don’t exist. That’s the way it will be until something changes and that is not likely to happen.

If you want to see a mountain lion, go somewhere where they’re hunted.

 

Looking Ahead to the “Open Zone” 2018 Hunt

2016 is over now. I got my buck and it is hanging next to me on the wall. The minute I saw it step into the open it was a shooter. The finish of the 2016 hunt took place on opening day of the Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle hunt. You can read all about it on previous blog posts.

The decisions I’ll make for 2018 will be similar to 2016, but probably a bit different as well. In 2016, I didn’t hunt seriously during any of the early hunts. I just scouted, but I did carry a bow or firearm most of the time. This year I may hunt the Devil’s Garden archery hunt, A4, as I drew a tag for that hunt last year and really enjoyed it. I also saw some big bucks.

Assuming I’m still with tag during the Devil’s Garden muzzleloading rifle season, I’ll probably have to do that hunt again. Last year’s hunt was cut short when my dad became ill. I went home and was present for his recovery. I have some unfinished business in Modoc.

The Doyle hunt is a tough one. There are several hunts going on at that same time. I’ll have to think hard about the Round Valley hunt has a high probability of seeing a big buck. Anderson Flat is also a hunt that conflicts with the Doyle hunt and there are often  big bucks that migrate from Yosemite Park. Right next to Doyle is the Bass Hill Archery Hunt in X6A and it takes place during peak rut time.

But before I make definite plans, I’ll follow my own advise and check the Big Game Digest from 2017 and also 2018 when it comes out. There will probably be some information there that will influence my thinking.

Whether I follow a path similar to 2016 and enjoy revisiting the great places I hunted previously or invite new adventure by hunting some of the remaining places I’ve not seen, the 2018 hunts are likely to reveal another impressive mule deer with an outsize rack. When I see the right one, I’ll know it’s time to shoot.

Anticipation is half the hunt.

 

Conservation Versus Conservation

 

mayberry-feb3-026-mallard-flock-cropped

This great mallard habitat on Sherman Island is no more.

Our duck club, on Sherman Island in the California Delta, was some of the greatest seasonal marsh on earth. In winter, ducks, geese, shore birds, raptors, river otters, beavers, muskrats and many more critters thrived in that habitat.

It was great hunting.

After the California Department of Water Resources purchased the duck club from us, we continued to manage the property as a seasonal marsh. Then California decided that the property needed to be turned into a conservation experiment.

The primary goals were to reduce subsidence and sequester carbon. This was a prototype project. Unfortunately, the goals of the experiment conflicted with the existing use.

In order to test the hypothesis, the existing seasonal marsh would have to be replaced by permanent ponds.

DSC_0056 ducks

Our Sherman Island duck club was converted from seasonal to permanent marsh. It is no longer managed for waterfowl.

Having sold the property to the State, we were in no position to oppose the program. The rest is history. Although ducks and geese still migrate to Sherman Island, they avoid the permanent marsh in favor of the remaining shallow-flooded pasture that surrounds the property we used to own.

It’s easy to see the effects to waterfowl when you observe our property. It’s more difficult to quantify the effects this change had on the California waterfowl population, but when combined with other similar projects, it could be substantial. We’ll never know.

This was a situation where one form of conservation conflicted directly with another.

Conservation comes in many forms and we see conservation activities frequently, but underlying conflicts are usually invisible except to specialists who manage wildlife or wildlife habitat.

Ongoing are changes to wildlife preserves and refuges on public lands. Where lands are dedicated simply to wildlife, there is competition between thriving species and threatened species. Should endangered or threatened status always trump thriving or common?

Where land is purchased for and dedicated to a certain species or group of species, one would expect management of that land to be managed for that species. Is that always the case?

Take, for example, land purchased with Federal or State Duck Stamp money. Duck stamp funds are raised by our government agencies specifically to purchase habitat for migratory waterfowl. Hunters purchase these stamps with hopes that there will always be waterfowl to hunt.

California has a long list of threatened, endangered and special-concern plants and animals. What is the ultimate “trump” species? Can habitat for a threatened species displace waterfowl habitat on dedicated land?

garter snake on log

Sometimes habitat is designed by the forces of nature. Other times man redesigns land to favor one species or another.

Habitat can be converted by applying water. Timing of the water application is crucial. When water floods fields in winter and is left to dry during the spring, the habitat favors migratory birds. When farmers use water to irrigate, farming can create food for many species including waterfowl.

When land is flooded and water covers the land during spring and/or summer, it is beneficial for numerous species and sometimes waterfowl can nest there, but usually not.

When land is permanently flooded, it favors primarily fish species but there is little food to attract waterfowl, especially dabbling ducks.

We must not kid ourselves about permanent marsh. It may attract golf course Canada geese, but it is not important to migratory waterfowl.

It would be nice to think that conservation always benefits all things, but it’s not that simple.