23 October 2010

AJ's Antelope Hunt

"Little Brother" AJ found a day to hunt pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) in his busy schedule. He is working hard to complete high school classes and a 300-hour job training program with a local animal shelter. I greatly enjoy my days afield with him, and was happy for the chance to hunt. It was a beautiful day--frosty morning, cloudless sky, far enough into the season so that the roadhunters ("hunters" that drive around hoping to shoot something from their truck) stayed home on the couch to watch TV.

For us, antelope hunting is all about spot & stalk: using binoculars to locate a herd at long range, then planning & executing the stalk. We typically spot them 2 or 3 miles away in the open country of the lower Big Hole River valley (a half-hour south of where we live in Butte, Montana) and try to drive within a mile or so before beginning the stalk.

As so often happens, the first stalk of the morning fizzled. After hiking well over a mile along a circuitous route, AJ peeked around a rocky ledge to find that the antelope had moved. They were, in fact, watching him from a half-mile down the broad, tilting valley--sort of like Roadrunner sneaking up behind Wile E. Coyote. I watched this from my vantage point on a small hill where I stayed behind, and it was hard not to laugh aloud (image from cartoonspot.net):

We hiked back to the truck, ate our well-earned sandwiches, and sharp-eyed AJ spotted another herd far up and across the sagebrush plain. We drove to a point within a mile or so but on the opposite side of a ridge from them. Again, a long circuitous route with a climb up the back of a butte to get above the bedded pronghorns:

Then a careful stalk around the butte to within range of where they were bedded below. Here is AJ, ready to shoot (good stalking technique: he's keeping his silhouette lower than the sagebrush):

Success this time thanks to a good stalk, a good shot, and the prey staying put. Thank you antelope. Thank you prairie. Thank you sky:

And then the work begins. With the antelope slung across his shoulders, it was steep carry up a wash:

A long hump over the ridge:

And then (finally) down to the truck:

Gramps said, "A deer tastes better with every step as you drag it back to the truck." Packing an antelope over this rugged terrain gives new meaning to that phrase.

13 October 2010

Guest Post: The Antelope Hunt (a friend's view)

My friend Matt Hamon sent me an account of our recent antelope hunt from this perspective, along with some great pics. Matt recently moved back to Montana after several years absence. Here is his story, as a (slightly edited) guest blog:


Hello all,

Thought I'd report in from the wild frontier. [Warning: dead animal photos and anatomy below.]

I was over visiting my beloved Butte the other day and stopped in the local pub to enjoy a pint with my good friend Pat Munday [aka EcoRover]. Everything I know about hunting comes from Pat, as he introduced me to hunting and the Big Hole River valley. Pat wasn't planning to hunt that Saturday but made an exception when I inquired about it. I've been lamenting the fact that I can't legally hunt or fish in Montana until February. I really enjoy these adventures and was happy that Pat was up for it.

I got up at six--generally late by traditional hunting standards, but Pat knows his antelope. I couldn't find oatmeal at Cam's so I settled for a bowl of grits before Pat came by to get me at 7:00. We drove down into the Big Hole valley, a majestic and largely pristine expanse of land with barren sage brush hills leading to timbered peaks. The coffee colored Big Hole River meandered below. After venturing a ways off the beaten path (along a BLM road), we set out on foot, glassing (looking through binoculars) the hills for antelope:

We each immediately spotted two separate herds. Considering topography, wind direction, and antelope behavior, Pat established a strategy that would get us close enough for a clean, sure shot. These animals are quite fast, skittish, and have vision that is suggested to be the equivalent of 10 power binoculars. In order to take one swiftly and humanely, it's important to get at least within 200 yards of them... easier said than done:

Pat's intended route was almost immediately foiled when the herd we were approaching suddenly spooked and darted uphill. Shortly after we noticed the problem, as two pumpkin orange clad hunters, practically stumbled over this herd as they ambled over the hill behind them. As we turned our attention to another herd further north and higher up, we were reminded that this was opening day as a massive, red Suburban (driving illegally off trail) made an effort to drive right up to the herd as though the hunters were expecting a take-out meal. Shortly after, the bullets started to fly... take your pick, battle, or western, it's nearly comedy to listen to folks blindly shooting at unreasonably long distances... hopefully missing cleanly rather than wounding.

One of the first lessons I learned from Pat is to move slow and be patient. We continued to listen to the fireworks for awhile as the antelope scattered and moved over the landscape like flowing water. Eventually it was time to move to another spot, albeit slowly and quietly. As I noticed a small group rounding the knoll below and to our left, Pat had already crouched out of sight, silently encouraging me to follow. I guess we were lucky not to be seen. The rest is illustrated in the photos below.

Pat patiently moving within sight and shooting distance of the animals (about 200 yards):

Steadying his rifle with shooting sticks and swiftly taking the animal with a single and immediately lethal shot:

Pat always spends some quiet moments with the animal after he shoots:

Offering a last bite of sage and thanking the antelope and the landscape for providing food:

It really is a blessing to have this relationship to the food we eat. It does take a moment to rationalize, but there seems to be more integrity in this relationship than in simply selecting a plastic wrapped portion in styrofoam from the market. Plus, I'm pretty sure this is organic and free range.

In this case, Pat's tag was for a doe. The season allows for the mother antelope to get their young off to a good start (apparently they often have two, with an evolved strategy to sacrifice one to coyotes or eagles which then move off to hunt elsewhere). Wildlife biologists believe the hunting or "harvesting" of game animals is an effort at conservation, preventing over population, starvation, and disease, as much of the range land that used to be available has been encroached on by all of us [e.g. ranches and housing subdivisions].

Pat field dressed the antelope, removing the innards, saving the heart, and allowing the meat to cool:

It was a short walk back to the truck where we ate a bite of lunch as the day started to warm, then we returned to the animal and loaded it for the drive home.  Pat was generous enough to bring a hind-quarter around for Cam and me:

We deboned and wrapped the meat before depositing it in the freezer. I'm excited to be meeting Jennifer in Tonasket in a week for her deer hunt. We'll have antelope on the dinner table:

- Matt

12 October 2010

Pronghorn Antelope Hunt 2010

[Reader alert: there is a photo of a dead animal on this page.]

Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana) are one of our few truly native American megafaunal species. They evolved on this continent tens of million of years ago, along with now long extinct North American species such as horses, camels, and oreodonts. On the savanna, a sort of American Serengeti, there were many large fierce predators such as "North American cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani) and American lion (Panthera leo atrox), each larger than their modern African cousins; the giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), a creature larger—and faster—than a Kodiak brown bear; as well as other dangerous carnivores like the dire wolf (Canis dirus) and a ferocious hyena-like creature, Chasmaporthetes ossifragus" (Hawes 2001).

Short-faced Bear (left) and other megafauna by artist Karen Carr:

As the original array of North American megafauna went extinct, many newcomers came to the continent--including grizzly bears, mountain sheep, elk and other deer. But the pronghorn remains, running far faster than necessary given today's predators and living in a harsh, dry, high sagebrush prairie environment where few of the newcomers can thrive. Here's the landscape where we hunt antelope in the lower Big Hole River valley of southwest Montana:

I don't usually hunt the first week of antelope season. The worst sort of crazed hunters often turn out: shooting incompetently at long range and wounding animals; road-hunting and shooting from their vehicle; and driving 4WD trucks and ATVs illegally off-road. I was at the Quarry Brewpub on Friday, however, and met Matt Hamon--an old friend that used to teach at my college and who recently moved back after accepting a position with the University Mother Ship in Missoula. With very little arm-twisting and after only pint, I agreed to hunt opening day.

We parked on a low ridge and hiked along it through some places where antelope often feed and cross the plain from the higher ridges that frame the valley. As we sat in the morning sun glassing three separate herds of antelope from one to two miles away, we saw a group of hunters stalk one bunch and another group of hunters drive their rig up a hillside to get closer to another bunch. Many shots were fired seemingly to no avail, though we watched the herd to the west run across the head of the plain to the north, cross to the east, and drop out of sight behind a ridge. I speculated that they might circle back to their origin--which might bring them past us. We began hiking back to the truck, slowly and stopping to glass frequently. Sure enough, here came the herd. They stopped below us in a hidden swale and began feeding. I stalked within shooting position, careful to keep my hands & knees out of the prickly pear cactus. Using my shooting sticks (a simple bipod made with two old tent poles), I chose an adult doe and fired once:

 Like all animals we hunt, they are a beautiful part of the natural world. As a fruit of the earth, their flesh sustains us and we must use it well. Thank you:

We carried her to the truck and drove home, where I skinned and quartered the carcass, bringing one hindquarter to Matt, another to "Little Brother" AJ, and boning out the remainder for sausage. The following day, I accompanied AJ on a hunt. Here he is, stalking along a ridge to get within range of a herd that we had spotted from a mile away, then circled to approach from downwind and from above:

As so often happens, the antelope had moved during the stalk and we had no idea where they went. This is typical in antelope hunting, especially during the first week of season when the animals are skittish from the opening day madness. We'll return in a week or so, and typically the antelope are back to a settled routine while the crazies are in front of the TV with beer and chips.

07 October 2010

Skywatch Friday: Montana Golden Time

Golden Time, when the Alpine Larches (Larix lyalli) flame into color against the clear autumn sky:

It's a good time to be in the mountains. Here is Little Rainbow Mountain near Storm Lake in the Pintler Wilderness area:

MollyTheDog comes too and finds a cool patch of snow on a hot day, with Upper Seymour Lake far below in the valley reflecting the lapis lazuli sky:

04 October 2010

Golden Time in the Mountains

It's Golden Time and the Alpine Larches (Larix lyalli) are preparing for winter. Like hardwoods, they are a deciduous tree although still a conifer. As the tree pulls its sugars and chlorophyll back to the roots, remaining pigments cause the tree's needles to flame a golden color. Beautiful, whether or not you know the cause:

Alpine Larch grow near treeline, typically at c. 9,000 feet elevation here in the norther Rockies near Butte, Montana. Here on a harsh, windswept rocky ridge, they grow as krumholz with stunted whitepark pines:

Pure stands -- "Larch Parks" or well spaced trees with heather or other groundcover -- are common along the Continental Divide in the Pintler Wilderness of southwest Montana. Five hundred year old trees are common, and some are found to be thousand years old--young by Bristelcone Pine standards, but not a bad age for a tree. With growth rates of less than one inch per century, size is deceptive: even the largest Alpine Larches seldom exceed two feet in diamter or sixty feet in height. Their beauty and the harsh places they live make a Golden Time visit mandatory each late September:

My visit this year was Goat Flat via Storm Lake Pass (in the Pintler). It's a fairly easy day hike--two hours in and one hour out if I'm in a hurry (which I seldom am). It's a great old trail. Three cheers to the trail crews that built stretches like this by laying up rock walls:

In more settled areas of the West, a sheer cliff like this mountainside above Storm Lake would attract dozens of climbers each weekend. I wonder if you could find a single piton on the place:

The early morning light was bright and clear, making for great shots of backlit trees and other things, like this Elk Thistle (Cirsium scariosum):

Ah, the climb is over. Here we are at Storm Lake Pass looking to Goat Flat. The trail is cut from solid rock along the face of Mount Tiny (far right in the photo):

MollyTheDog walks the patterned ground (raked into waves by wind and weather) of Goat Flat:

We hiked over to the ridge that leads to Kurt Peak, a popular vision quest site for the many tribes that used this area over the past ten thousand years or so. Eating elk jerky and an apple, I took in the many colors and shapes of lichen growing on the rocks there:

After meditating for a spell, the croaks and quorks of ravens drew me back into Nature. Two adults and two juveniles flew acrobatics over me and even "dropped a pack" (rolled over in flight) for me when I quorked back:

Soon they were joined by two falcons about their size. The ravens and falcons vied to see who could gyre up the thermal the quickest. The falcons easily won, and once they were above the ravens, my totem bird wisely decided to find another place to play on the wind:

Time to head home, ready to accept Fall's cooler temperatures and the onset of Winter.

[For an earlier trip to Goat Flat when wildflowers were in full bloom and for more about the Vision Quest site, Kurt Peak, see http://ecorover.blogspot.com/2008/07/pintler-wilderness-vision-quest.html .]