28 November 2008

Superfund News from Deer Lodge and Butte, Montana

[This is a modified version of a Montana Public Radio commentary that I wrote & delivered for the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee.]

It’s elk season, and we dedicated hunters are working this second job until the weekend after Thanksgiving. Cut us a little slack if we doze off at work or have trouble concentrating during early morning meetings. On my hunting trips, I drive past the Silver Bow Creek Superfund cleanup work in the Fairmont area. Though the weather has been lousy for elk hunting, it’s been very good for the extended construction/environmental restoration season.

Good news again this year from Silver Bow Creek: long nose suckers and slimy sculpins have colonized remediated reaches near Butte, Rocker, and Ramsay. As in recent years, a few trout also turned up near the confluence with German Gulch Creek. The ongoing improvement in aquatic habitat highlights the need for a permanent fish barrier [this link is about a permanent barrier on German Gulch Creek, similar to what is needed on Silver Bow Creek] to halt the upstream migration of exotic rainbow trout. Several tributaries hold populations of native westslope cutthroat trout, and we don’t want to lose native populations to hybridization. Currently, a temporary barrier is in place on Silver Bow Creek, but the state needs to design, fund, and build a permanent barrier.

Back in September, Butte hosted the National Summit of Mining Communities. Hundreds of mining community residents, agency personnel, and corporate representatives shared their experience of the boom and bust cycles of mining. The Clark Fork watershed communities of Butte, Anaconda, Opportunity, Deer Lodge, and Milltown have grown in our capacity to cooperate in the struggle for environmental clean up and restoration.

Talking with folks from Rico, Colorado was like meeting up with long-lost cousins. You see, Rico is also home to an Arco-BP Superfund site. The strategies Arco-BP implemented in Rico will sound very familiar to Clark Fork residents: take it or leave it; divide and conquer; buy off local government with “cover up” remedies disguised as community amenities such as parks or golf courses; and “Oh, we’re just a poor corporation unfairly tagged with Superfund liability, doing the best we can.”

Maybe we should organize a national summit of communities that cope with Arco-BP Superfund. This “Arco World” includes: Brunswick, Georgia; Bald Mountain, California; Buffalo, New York; Liberty, Texas; Yerington, Nevada; the Washoe Tribe of California; and Harbor Island, Washington.

In other Butte news, CFRTAC’s sister Superfund Technical Assistance Group – the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee or CTEC for short – is in its fourth incarnation. It’s interesting how the group has come and gone over the past twenty years, changing its membership and focus as local Superfund went through different phases. Currently, the group seems to be focusing on post-remedy restoration issues, but there are still some remedies to be hashed out around the Butte Hill, so stay posted for more news.

Downstream a piece, CFRTAC recently hosted a meeting in Deer Lodge about implementing clean up on the Clark Fork River. Montana has the lead in the 123 million dollar project, and work is to begin next year and take about ten years. Clean up will focus on tailings and streambanks, with a range of site-specific actions from no treatment to major removal and revegetation.

Two areas are of special interest. One is near the trestle on the south edge of Deer Lodge. Preliminary testing indicates extremely high arsenic levels that could pose a serious human health hazard. The current action levels for arsenic removal are 150 parts per million for residential and 680 parts per million for recreational areas such as Arrowstone Park. In Butte, Opportunity, and Anaconda, levels were set at 250 for residential and 500 for recreational land. The large difference in these levels is yet another instance of the inconsistencies in applying Superfund at various sites in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.

A thorough sampling plan is underway around the trestle. Once results are in, a remedy will be developed that could include everything up to major removal and trestle reconstruction.

The other area of special interest is East Side Road south of Deer Lodge. Ten years ago, EPA directed ARCO to remove or treat contaminated soils on a number of properties. Apparently, no follow up occurred, so the state will sample and evaluate the previous actions. Where necessary, the state will implement additional clean up or treatment.

CFRTAC collected a number of questions following the meeting, and answers are pending.

For more news about the Deer Lodge meeting, Milltown, and related Superfund issues, please go to CFRTAC’s website at http://www.cfrtac.org.

From Butte to Missoula, we deserve a clean, healthy, and accessible Clark Fork River. It’s your river. Wade in, and help make the future.

Matt's Mulie Buck

Matt Hamon taught with me several years in Butte, Montana, before moving on to a position with Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He's an interesting guy (former Olympic cyclist, great cross country skier, superb mixed media photographer/artist) who has kept some ties to Butte, so I was happy to hear he would visit over Thanksgiving and had a mule deer tag. I offered to join the hunt for Matt's good companionship and to get a day's break from elk hunting.

Early morning found us on a ridge near Dave's Deer Mine:

Sadly, the place seems to be over-hunted these days, with mule deer (especially bucks) getting a little scarce. This is what happens when a few people tell others about a good hunting spot, and then those few find success and tell a few more... It is a chain reaction of "kiss & tell." There are also the deer wounded & lost, and found & eaten by coyotes--a lesson for all of us to shoot more carefully:

After chasing a few mulies from one end of the ridge to the other, we hiked back to the truck and headed to a "secret" spot in the lower Big Hole. It's a place that Dave Carter and I have camped & hiked though I never hunted mule deer there. But there was always a herd or two hanging around, especially up on a remote little Butte ringed by a rocky ridge.

Sure enough, we hiked & glassed the area and eventually spotted a few does. We kept glassing and more deer appeared out their cryptic camouflage in the sagebrush. Matt spotted a fat forkhorn from a half-mile away and made a long stalk around the back side of the ridge to get close enough for a shot. I was getting cold and hiked back to the truck for my jacket. Just as I was returning, I heard the crack of a rifle and saw Matt walk down the ridge to a fine mule deer buck:

Mule deer hunting is not heaven, but you can see it from there. Walking the hills with a friend, locating deer in habitat that at first glance seems like a vast empty wasteland, and tasty venison for the table. Life is good. Praise be to mule deer.

Elk Hunting 2008

I've been an avid hunter since I received a corkgun for my birthday at age 3. A hunter lives close to the earth, knows the ways of animals and the places they live, and feels comfortable out in harsh weather in remote places. This is especially true of elk hunters, given the wide range of habitat and their tendency to move several miles between feeding and bedding grounds each day. The rugged mountains along the Continental Divide near Butte, Montana, also make for physically demanding hunting. And physically demanding driving if you get stuck:

Still, elk hunting leads you to beautiful and strange places you would have no reason to visit otherwise:

I carry a military canteen with metal cup that Dave Carter gave me. It's great for boiling a cup of tea:

And once you've got a fire going, on slow days when you have yet to cut a fresh track, why not a nap?

Some mornings, the valley below is blanketed in fog:

On another day, there is a glorious mountain sunrise:

The aspen leaves have fallen and turned glossy black:

Most of this season was relatively warm with little or no snow, and so the fungi were still fruiting:

Although elk are the quarry, there are bears to watch out for:

The barking serenade of migrating geese to listen to:

And moose to play peek-a-boo with:

If you are hunting slowly enough, you will not disturb the pine squirrels:

But don't mess with their caches of pine cones, or they will get mad and "buzz" at you. If they were 10 pounds bigger, you wouldn't stand a chance!

Check out this squirrel's cornucopia:

Don't ignore the whiskey jacks (gray jays) either. Oftentimes, they will let you know when elk are nearby (they know that hunters leave them a gutpile to feed on):

Though I prefer to hunt elk alone, there is the occasional comraderie of Little Brother A.J. Puckett or friend Dave Carter, here with his daughter Chelsea Carter (we saw no fresh elk sign, but it was a great fall day for a hike):

There are also favorite places to visit, such as the petrified wood place:

And the jasper mine used by aboriginal peoples:

My preferred hunting method: cut a fresh track at first light:

Follow it to and observe the elk's behavior (such as this fresh rub):

Sometimes, the tracks lead you to bedded elk. I found this mature bull with strangely deformed/missing antlers after 3&1/2 hours of tracking. Then I forgot to take my glove off before shooting (it was a near-zero morning), and shot over its back--a clean miss. So I tracked him another mile along a north slope strewn with deadfall and steep as a cow's face until he bedded again. After smelling him, carefully stalking within sight, and a careful shot (took my glove off that time) he was dead:

Field-dressed, I carefully laid aside the liver, heart, tenderloins, and tongue to cool on the snow:

Then I rolled him over, removed the backstraps, and used my little hatchet to remove the spine & split the carcass into two long halves:

Matt Hamon (see my separate post about his deer hunt) and A.J. returned with me the following day for the three-mile drag down nearly 2,000 feet of mountain side to the nearest road. We saw two large sets of wolf tracks on our way out, letting us know that we are not the only predators of elk in these mountains. Sorry my camera battery was dead.

Here are the bull's ivories, along with the perfectly mushroomed Barnes all-copper bullet (it entered just behind the shoulder, angled through the elk, and stopped under the hide just ahead of the opposite hindquarter):

EcoRover wants a new game sled for Christmas:

Another day or two of butchering, and it'll be time for cross country skiing.

05 November 2008

Deer Hunting 2008 (elk intermezzo) near Butte Montana

Deer hunting -- both white tailed deer hunting and mule deer hunting -- functions as a pleasant break to the rigors of elk hunting. All three species are numerous in the Butte America region. Part of being a good hunter is knowing good places where each is found. Furthermore, part of good hunting is enjoying the act of hunting in certain places because of things like memory, friendship, and the unique local environment.

The midseason break from elk hunting began with a white-tailed deer hunt in a nearby river valley. White-tails lack natural predators on Montana's agricultural river bottoms and have bred themselves into super-abundance. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks manages the population by selling "doe tags," though obtaining permission to hunt on private ranch land can be difficult.

I hunt a ranch that has meaning to me for several important reasons. First of all, it is an incredibly beautiful and well-managed property. Seriously overgrazed and mismanaged by previous owners, it is now a remarkable example of environmental restoration thanks to the good work of consultants such as Chris Boyer. Secondly, it is a place where my daughter, Emily Munday, and Little Brother "AJ" both shot their first deer. I am deeply grateful to the ranch owners for sharing this special place with the public:

AJ with white-tailed doe:

Emily with white-tailed doe:

On the hunting scale, my white-tailed deer hunts are a walk in the park. It's a matter of hiding behind a fallen cottonwood between a marsh and a hayfield, watching wild turkeys feed, listening to pheasant cackle, glassing a distant ridge for elk, examining the raccoon scat on the log... If all goes well, within an hour or so, the deer come out to feed. At first, it's a few fawns, orphaned by coyotes or other (human) predators:

More Mickey Mouse ears poke out of the brush along the field's edge, perhaps a rutting buck dashes past. Then the other does and fawns come out to feed. Shooting white-tailed does is a matter of comparison shopping--looking at an isolated deer, I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish a mature doe from an older fawn. But when they are present as a group, it is a much more certain. I usually purchase two doe tags, and have found that after killing the first doe the other deer settle down very quickly. Sometimes, they barely pause from their feeding. So long as they see no human walking around, the crack of the rifle shot and the sight of a dead herd member does not disturb them very much. Driving home with two deer in the back of the truck, I looked forward to another day off from elk hunting--a day to butcher and wrap meat for the coming year.

Remember that scale? Mule deer hunting is a hike on a pleasant and only occasionally rugged trail. It's a matter of parking at the foot of a low ridge along the river at dawn, hiking up a draw through the sagebrush, and then climbing toward the ridge. Meanwhile, I pause to survey every likely spot that might hide a deer -- rocky outcrops, stands of mountain mahogany, small pine trees in the otherwise wide-open prairie, grassy swales, and even open areas that provide bedded deer a good vantage point:

Usually, we are home by noon with one or more mule deer bucks. Personally, I like smaller mule deer bucks to eat because they are much less gamey than a larger, dominant, rutty buck. A 2-year old forkhorn is perfect. The hunt culminates in the drag: transporting the carcass from where it was shot to the truck, typically a distance of a half-mile to well over a mile. Occasionally that includes transporting the carcass on a mountain bike along the railroad tracks, or fording it across the river to the nearest road:

For mule deer, I hunt a low, rocky, barren-looking ridge along the river. The place has many happy memories. My friend and now-retired colleage, Dave Carter, shared this place with me soon after I moved to Montana. It's also a favorite family hiking spot, the first time mule deer place for Little Brother "AJ" and other hunting novice friends, and a nice backdrop to some of the best fishing spots on the river. AJ and a friend already visited "Dave's Deer Mine" for their mule deer bucks, so I was happy when Dave called me up and set a date for a hunt. Though he no longer hunts, Dave still likes to join me for the occasional hunt. There's no one I'd rather spend a rainy day with on a mule deer hunt:

Once I've got the rest of the mule deer buck butchered and wrapped and in the freezer, it'll be back to elk hunting. On the walk in the park/hike on a pleasant trail scale, elk hunting is a backpack trip in a rugged wilderness. But that's another story. Stay posted.