Apr 8th

The Rising Costs of Conservation

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Upland Habitat Loss

Wildlife held in the public trust: It’s a cornerstone of the North American Conservation Model. The phrase sounds good, but what does it actually mean in regards to upland birds and upland habitat? Simply put, it means that every wild Sharptail in Montana belongs to the citizens of this country. The Blue Racers of Oklahoma and Texas belong to everyone. We are responsible for the Ruffed Grouse of Maine and the Bobwhite of Louisiana. The public land on which they reside is in our care as well. It is our responsibility and our resource. Regardless of whether or not these birds are in our back yard or on public lands, if they are wild, they are our charge.

Hunters are an irreplaceable force for conservation. License fees, excise taxes on ammunition and firearms, and donations to hunting conservation organizations account for $1.6 billion in annual funds for wildlife and management of those resources. We are able to wear this contribution as a badge of honor – it’s something we use when talking to non-hunters to demonstrate our responsibility and stewardship of wildlife. The license fees and Pittman-Robertson funds account for over $1 billion being utilized by state wildlife agencies. But annual budgets for National Forest Service , National Parks, BLM and NWR alone exceed $10 billion a year and does not account for individual state budgets. A closer look at the numbers reveals a growing gap between our conservation ethic and our talking points.

Wildlife is a resource that both costs and generates money. Wildlife as public property is how state and federal agencies view the game they manage. The costs of conserving these resources are increasing. For upland birds, the effects are two-fold because the drivers of much of this cost increase – land and fuel – are the same things removing upland habitat from the landscape. An acre of residential land cost $84 in 1958. Today that same acre of land costs $6200 – 73 times more expensive. Gas, which cost 30¢ per gallon in 1958, has seen prices well north of $3 in recent years. An item that cost just $1 in 1958 costs $8.09 today.

It takes a lot of people-power to implement effective changes to habitat and manage wildlife resources. The average annual wage in 1958 was $3,674 compared to $44,880 now. To somehow believe that nature is wild, free or should be free is to be stuck in a centuries-old mentality where human activities were part of a self-sustaining ecosystem, not shaping it. Maintaining a resource is always less expensive than having to rebuild it. Unfortunately for upland habitat, rebuilding is the space we find ourselves in, where much has been destroyed, taken away. Decades have passed, and just now we’re awaking to the impacts on the broader ecosystem.

Hunters are faced with this reality: slight gains recruiting new hunters will not increase license sales and equipment sales to the point where conservation can be wholly funded by the sportsman, and it never has been. The reason we shoulder a disproportionate percentage of the cost of wildlife is because we’re passionate about it,  knowledgable and care enough to pay more. Working against hunter funding are the skyrocketing costs of conservation. Land prices driven upward by commodities and development, the cost of fuel, equipment and labor for habitat improvement, the ongoing costs to monitor and manage are all increasing with fewer hunters to foot the bill.

According to over 50 years of license sales data available from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1958 hunters comprised 8.08% of the US population. The highest number of individual license holders occurred in 1982, when there were 16,748,541 licenses sold, making up just 7.23% of the 231 million populace. Since 1982, license holders have decreased in number as well as a percentage of the total population. In 2013, there were 14,631,127 license holders representing 4.63% of the population. The 5% line was crossed in 2005, likely never to be seen again.

Number of Hunters

Hunters tend to be an obstinate bunch. We have a history and legacy of hunting that is woven into the fabric of this country. This tradition has led us to believe we hold the high ground and we preach as if it is unassailable. But ‘us vs. them’ just doesn’t work when faced with the math. We must be conservationists first, caretakers of wildlife and wild places for all. That is the high ground.  Hunting is not an entitlement, it is a privilege and responsibility.

On the bright side 70% of Americans still support hunting. That means there are over 200 million people who are not hunters yet still approve of the activity. Anti-hunters aren’t the growing force, the bump in the night. Sportsmen should not be lecturing about what divides us from the non-hunting public. We should be reaching out to the 200 million people in our corner, encouraging participation and talking about our love of the land and love for the birds. We should be the ones raising awareness for conservation issues and calling for a solution.

Upland bird hunters have an advantage  many other hunting disciplines lack. We don’t cloak ourselves in camo or hide in trees or blinds. We hunt openly, putting ourselves out there. We cherish our bird dogs that are stoic, loyal and inspiring – ideals everyone longs for in people. We raise puppies as family members and they warm the coldest hearts and demonstrate our compassion for animals. We often hunt with the shotguns hung over fireplaces and admired by family members, passed down from grandfathers. We create beautiful scenes of pointing dogs and flushing birds. Upland hunters epitomize a tradition and legacy that non-hunters can witness and respect.

It’s time for new ideas and honest conversation about our roles as stewards of the outdoors. We need non-hunters as much as they need us. We need to talk about hunting in a new way that is inspiring, not divisive. It’s time to talk about conservation in an honest way. If we want to continue upholding the North American Conservation Model then it will take more than hunters to maintain the resources.

As we wrestle with the realities of conservation and participation, the downward trend for upland species continues the decades-long slide. The plight of upland birds and hunters are following the same path. Do we care enough about hunting traditions to take the steps necessary to see them continue? Are upland birds important enough to fight for their existence, even in far off places where we may ourselves never hunt? Debating our role does nothing to change the decline. In truth, the longer we wait to address it, the longer it takes hunters to unite and embrace our responsibility, the cost of replacing the lost resources climbs exponentially. Those who believe now is not a good time are ceding that they prefer longer odds and spending more later.

For more about the Upland Stamp or to sign the petition, visit www.uplandstamp.org

Oct 10th

Whitetailed Demons

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Something is wrong with me.

Any other sane bird hunter would have packed up and moved to the interior where the bird numbers and density are greater. But I’m entrenched in the Kenai and I can’t get away from it.

I’ve shot a Whitetailed Ptarmigan already. I’ve seen where they live. I know their confounding habits. I know that if I want to bring another one to hand on the peninsula it will require I burn legs and dogs on hikes as high as I can go without rope to assist.

I came to Alaska with grand ideas of multi-species game bags. Designs of days afield where I could just break open the shotgun and stroll back to the truck while letting birds fly free because enough powder had been burnt.

Those plans are long gone. Replaced with obsession and insecurity.

Though I want this to be about the upland birds and what it takes to hunt them, it’s become apparent it’s as much about me.

Whitetail Ptarmigan play dirty. It’s definitely part of what makes them so maddening. It feels like the hike to get to them, to fractured rock in the cavernous back rooms of a mountain should be enough of a challenge. But if you find these pale ghosts, that’s when the fun really starts.

The dogs and I had hiked to an amazing lake, one of so many with the clearest of water that takes on a turquoise glow when it congregates after falling from the snowpack above. It seems all these bowls hide similar jewels from those unwilling to make the ascent. The scene opens before us at the final few steps after climbing through the saddle. The lake appears and the peaks surrender a token of their scale. But arriving here as a bird hunter, it’s tough to be fully taken with the view. There’s always somewhere higher, a distraction.

And these Whitetail live at the farthest reaches, not one step below, at least not this time of year, not here.

Why can’t I just go inland where the birds abound? I guess I don’t want to be lucky. Anyone can be lucky. My first ptarmigan could have been a fluke, and I need to know it wasn’t. I’d rather hike my legs off than be left feeling I can’t make it happen. Insane.

The rest by this lake and the view grows stale because I can see the next ridge line. I know that if there are birds on this mountain, they are up there. Or they are on the precipice above that one. Or the next. It doesn’t really matter at this point. I’m going and the dogs stretch their legs in agreement. They feed the madness, but at least they are just bird crazy.

We hike onward. Upward. Agonizing exertion. And it feels good.

The route to the next ridge narrows to a goat path snaking between a sharp wall and a 100′ drop. I reign in the dogs. It’s just one of the many places on these peaks where the possibility for mishap creeps from back of mind into reality. It conjures the rarest of thoughts… please, don’t let there be birds here.

As if on command, Rio the setter freezes at the bend above Wyatt the lab and I. Her head is craned into the breeze, tail high.

They are here.

A plan. I need a plan to get out of this with everyone in one piece.

But the birds read my thoughts and flush wild. This covey of 10 have no interest in a plan. Rio bales off the cliff in pursuit, and Wyatt runs to join. He shoots me a wild-eyed glance to make sure I’m game then dives over the edge. He’s misread the terror on my face. And there’s nothing left but action.

The dogs have made the leap successfully, a controlled fall down one face, and now a climb of the opposite to rejoin birds above. I scramble to close on them wishing I had the benefit of their four legs in this terrain.

We weave in and out of boulders. Points. Running birds. Flushes perilously close to dogs. Long, ill-advised shots. Repeat. It’s hunting through a labyrinth of rock on a 40 degree slope.  The ptarmigan fly just far enough to draw us deeper into their lost world by dangling shreds of hope. Never over the horizon, just over the next set of granite daggers.

I boulder to some higher ground to escape the grind. With the altitude comes an angle. A single bird holds a fraction too long, flies just a few inches too high, doesn’t keep the flusher between us. At the snap of the trigger it falls. Wyatt runs to retrieve and it’s the contrast of angelic wing against dark jowls that I will see in my sleep for days to come.

We start the hike back to the mundane, flat ground. And the demons recede into the crevices of the mountain and are quiet. For now.


Black Lab and White Bird 

Sep 10th

The Alaska Standoff

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

IMG_6843.jpg

Alaska
 and I are at odds. I’m here to take her birds. She’s not giving them up easily. I’m to earn them one vertical foot at a time until she has determined that sufficient  toll has been collected.

She’s happy to show amazing places, jaw-dropping beauty, an abundance of nature viewing unrivaled anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. But she knows I’m here for her upland game. Though I can be transfixed by her figure, by the expanse, the birds are always in the back of my mind. And she knows this.

She keeps them just out of reach. Always around the next bend or over the next ridge. They are there. I’ve seen them, even had a fleeting shot. She keeps them 1,000 feet above me, taunts me with risk. Bring your tired legs, bring your tired dogs, push yourself too far and she’ll keep you here on her peaks. You can become a permanent fixture, another notch, a story of epic failure to ward off other suitors.

I’ve heard other places we’ve hunted, but never this clearly. I talk to her. I curse her. Then I apologize. Her beauty should be enough. For so many others it is. But the damn birds are here.

I’ve seen the tales of grouse so plentiful and stupefied that a rock and a moderate throwing arm will fill a skillet. I’ve talked to locals who have snow machined by chance into flocks hundreds thick in areas where 50 bird limits are possible. But they are Alaskan and she knows this.

So it is a standoff. I will keep talking to her. She will continue flashing eye candy. I will keep hiking uphill with shotgun and hounds, and she will decide if I’m worthy. It’s out of my hands. I can’t stop wanting her birds.

Checkout a full gallery of images on the news site, click here.  

Jul 3rd

Backyard Bobwhite: Part 2

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Can a pen-raised quail make it in the wild?

If you’ve had the privilege to hunt Bobwhite over a few seasons in areas where they still reside, you likely know that year over year you will find birds in the exact same locations. Read old stories from some of the great quail hunting authors and you’ll notice the coveys have become so consistent that they’ve been given names. There’s obviously a reason for this.

Bobwhite Quail imprint on a home territory. Their range is small which also contributes to relatively lengthy periods to expand into new areas. But when you take this knowledge acquired from hunting and apply it to conservation it can make a number of things really start to add up.

I believe this is the key to why most quail reintroduction and relocation projects lack success. Transporting a Bobwhite away from its home turf is like dropping it on the face of the moon. The learning curve to acclimate is so great that before it can identify cover, food, water and threats it becomes hawk bait.

The traditional wisdom is that you can’t take a pen-raised bird, release it in the wild and have it survive long term – it’s been too stupefied by domestication to have a clue. But can survival instincts be revived in captive birds? We don’t have the resources or permissions to trap wild birds and relocate them. But we can take newly hatched birds and try to educate them.

As with most offspring, the young are at highest risk. Bobwhite fledge in around a week’s time and become flight capable in as little a two weeks. But most quail take six weeks or more to become true flyers. By most accounts Bobwhite annual mortality rates can approach 80%. The bulk of this is due to exposure to the elements or predation before young birds can manage strong flight. Needless to say, the learning curve for hatchlings is fairly steep. Juvenile quail make a tasty snack for just about anything with teeth or talon.

Ultimate Upland Quail Pen

The way I see it, we’ve got to train our birds three things that the average pen-raised bird is lacking.

First, we want our birds to imprint on a specific area. As you may have read in Backyard Bobwhite: Part 1, we’re providing everything the birds need in a condensed space (food, cover, water). We know that the birds will explore outside of this location. The hope is they also learn to return to the relative safety it offers, much like free-ranging chickens returning to a coop nightly to roost. If our quail return to the brush piles and food plot which should grow thick by this fall, it offers them the best chance of overnight survival. We’re placing our quail enclosure in the heart of the area we want our birds to consider home base, adjacent to one of our massive brush piles.

Most pens lack cover. In order for our birds to survive they cannot feel comfortable standing in the clear for extended time in an open enclosure. Silent death from above awaits any gallinaceous bird willing to frolic in the open for too long. Our pen will be on the ground and will have the same cover and feed plants growing through it that we want the birds to become accustomed to. We also plan to incorporate some brush resting on and within the pen. We want these chicks to feel as if they are growing up in the shelter of a thicket. We know first hand from raising chickens that hawks will attempt to take birds even when they are within pens. Netting will provide protection from above and allow the quail to learn of the pending raptor threats without initially suffering the losses that accompany that same lesson in the wild.

Lastly, we don’t want our birds looking to feeders as a food source once we release them. These birds need to know how to forage. We’ll be broadcasting their food on the ground within the pen and incorporating the same seed and grains that they will need to find in the wild. Over the first few weeks of their life a Bobwhite’s primary diet in the wild is insects. Our ground based enclosure will allow foraging for insects but we’ll also look for a source of insects to supplement our young quails’ high protein requirements.

Click here to see the video of our simple, inexpensive quail pen come together. Total expenses were less than $150. If successful we hope to be able to reassemble and reuse it in other locations in the future.

We’re bird hunters armed with knowledge from afield trying to translate it to raising birds that can survive a rough Ohio winter. It’s an experiment. Parts of this plan contradict studies by much smarter individuals. Most experts believe to manage for quail you need a minimum of 20-40 acres with multiple plantings and dedicated areas for every stage of their life cycle. Our hope is to utilize a much smaller area and allow the birds to provide for themselves while we provide the missing element that caused their initial decline, a winter food source close to protective cover.

It remains to be seen if we’re correct. But we’re excited to try something different, utilizing a fresh perspective. It’s time to start thinking differently for quail and many other species’ conservation.

Dec 3rd

Bird Hunting Amid Spun Tales

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Kansas Pheasant Hunting

Every year in Kansas we hear funny stories about birds and hunting. Maybe it was the full moon, the start of the whitetail rut or the dismal bird forecasts that contributed to tales of the extra nutty variety this season. We hunt from a small town that resides in a county with a population just over 3,000. If one person shares a story it is guaranteed to be known in all corners by the end of day.

On the third day of the season in Kansas this year we were informed by one of our local friends that he had spoken to a group of out of state hunters while driving home on back roads. He inquired how the hunting was going with a response of “not so good”. This group of hunters then proceeded to share their theory for the ringneck population decline: the deer have been eating all the pheasant eggs………… That likely bears repeating because this might be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard about declining bird populations. The deer are eating all the pheasant eggs according to this group of non-resident hunters.

While at the local gas station the attendant let us know that she spoke with a hunter who had witnessed a marauding band of killer turkeys that rounded up a group of juvenile pheasant into a circle and proceeded to kill and eat them. The gobblers then headed off in apparent search of their next victims.

Complaining over the loss of 95% of their birds, the owner of a local restaurant informed me that his adult son had gone out last week and killed three roosters (this would have been a week before the season started). Upon cleaning the birds he found there was little to no meat on them and they were unfit for eating. He concluded, the entire pheasant population has contracted a disease and the Kansas DNR is covering it up.

A hunter staying in the same motel was happy to inform us if we get in a situation where we need to buy birds, there’s a great guy just west of town who charges $175 for a four bird limit. And If we call ahead he’ll put them out and show us exactly where to hunt.

I’ve hunted in Kansas for the last 20 years. For the last decade my dad has joined this adventure. Over that time we’ve developed lots of great friendships with residents we see year-over-year. We tend to hunt the same general vicinity which gives us a pretty decent annual view of what’s happening in the broader ecosystem when assessing bird populations.

Ringneck numbers in Kansas have been on the decline for the last few seasons. The hard winter of 2010-2011 accompanied by the extremely wet spring seemed to be the initial blow. This was followed by a severe drought the summer of 2012 and drought conditions throughout the bulk of spring and summer this year. These dry conditions seized a large portion of the center of the country prompting the USDA to allow a massive swath of emergency haying of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) — see the map below.

The pheasant numbers in Kansas were lower than I have ever seen. But let me assure you this isn’t a mysterious disease or egg-eating deer. Everything is being bailed: milo stalks, wheat stubble, CRP grass. In the area where we hunt many of those bails are being sold and trucked to other areas of the country even harder hit by drought. Combine this rampant bailing with the generally high prices of grain. We’re seeing more and more areas that were previously enrolled in CRP now being planted. And we’re also seeing fence lines and trees being bulldozed to gain even more area to plant.

As much as we enjoy a good story, the tale of pheasant decline across the midwest is pretty simple: lack of cover.

So we’ll be hoping for a mild winter across the center of the country this year. And then we’d like Mother Nature to serve up decent moisture that allows the prairies, pastures and crops to thrive. We don’t chase bird forecasts so we’ll be back in Kansas next season to visit our friends. We’re in search of memories afield that have very little to do with bird numbers. And if I’m ever in a situation where I need to buy birds, I’ll go to the grocery and pay $2.99 per pound.

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CRP Haying Map

Oct 14th

Quest for the Sage Grouse

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Three Llewellin setters hunting together for the first time are on point. It’s taken 9.5 miles of walking across rolling Montana sage to get this dog circus to this grand finale. Yet somehow my new hunting buddy Jory and I walk past without even noticing. I suspect his male setter Ridge has lead the discovery because he seems to be the only one with any energy left. But the ladies Sage and my Rio have crept in to back, all three dogs in a 10 yard circle confirming the inevitable.

Blame the unseasonable heat and resulting dehydration. Blame the welcome distraction of trucks now coming into view or the aching feet. Jory and I are lost in the story swap of other days afield. Something has made these pointing dogs invisible to us. Until the Sage Grouse, now sufficiently nervous from our ignorant behavior, begin vaulting to wing and Wyatt the black lab who has been heeling us out of exhaustion sees birds, taps one last energy reserve and closes to flush whatever lies in his path.

3 setters and a lab

Long shots. It’s just too early in the season to be making them. But I fire two wayward shells at the nearest and biggest grouse I can pick out. Not a single feather is cut as it puts full girth behind wing beats, comes to full speed and disappears with its friends over the horizon.

With Wyatt nipping at the tail feathers of a bird late to the flight plan, Jory draws the same result with his salvo.

And the silence that sets in after shells are spent comes from the realization that my quest that started three years ago has come to this. A blown opportunity on a bird that may have very few left. A decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is looming. The Sage Grouse could become the next recipient of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) label, joining a list that seems to never relinquish members.

The largest grouse species in the country has tormented me over hundreds of walking miles. Many Sharptail and other winged relatives have fallen along the journey, but the Sage Grouse has eluded all efforts.

Now to come this close, just outside good gunning distance. My shotgun feels heavy from the mixture of adrenaline and disappointment coursing through weary arms. I need to bring one of these birds to hand. I believe holding one will somehow make me understand whats happening with this species, will put it in the language of upland hunting which I understand best. I need to be a part of the history of this great bird before all that is left is history.

Luckily there are people like Tim Griffiths from Natural Resources Conservations Service and Sage Grouse Initiative Coordinator who can help frame the Sage Grouse into a broader perspective. The population has plummeted from millions to about 200,000 from the loss of intact sagebrush grasslands in 11 western states and Canada where its range has been reduced by half. Contributing factors and proposed solutions can be a gauntlet that gets complicated. There are no easy answers to put this bird back on the climb. And this is the West where ranchers and oil men carve a living from hard work; easy answers are frowned upon and rarely net real results.

There are only a handful of states where Sage Grouse can still be hunted. Most have very brief seasons, permit drawings and extremely conservative bag limits. Montana is one state with a significant population of birds that doesn’t seem to be under the same pressures, and allows hunting during the months of September and October.

But the truth is very few people actually pursue the Sage Grouse. Most hunters cite the flavor of the meat as the prime reason they won’t target them.  Hunting has never been considered a factor in the population decline. From discussions with Tim I learn that habitat fragmentation is the largest enemy of Sage Grouse. A number of studies have shown that Sage Grouse are a migratory species with journeys ranging from 10 to 250 miles. Put a few dozen oil wells or a subdivision in the midst of one of these migration corridors and the grouse will abandon the area.

Most folks who live outside of the traditional range of the Sage Grouse are unaware of the debate currently brewing out West. Much of this part of the country is basking in the red hot economy created by the oil and gas boom. And even more of it is part of a tradition of ranching and grazing on massive tracts of private property and millions of acres of federal lands. The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) has identified 186 million acres as traditional habitat — 60% of this residing on federal land, 40% private. That’s nearly a third of the contiguous US land mass. If this amount of natural resource falls into restriction and regulation brought on by a ESA listing, you can be certain the rest of the country will feel the impact acutely.

But outside of all the gloom and doom, let’s look at the some of the things that SGI has accomplished since inception in 2010. What attracted my attention most and brought me to contact Griffiths is I recognized a new vibe in their conservation efforts. SGI is a highly targeted and science-based landscape approach to proactively conserve Sage Grouse and sustain the working rangelands that support western ranching economies. Conservation practices are designed to be win-win solutions addressing threats facing both Sage Grouse and rangelands.

Griffiths explained in detail how a custom grazing system can be implemented to the mutual benefit of rancher and wildlife alike. I’m no wildlife biologist, but I found it mind bending and contrary to so many of my preconceived notions of livestock. I have hopes that similar grazing practices will find their way into other public lands. Some other things that SGI has accomplished:

  • Conservation easements were secured on 242,000 acres to maintain large and intact working ranches in some of the highest Sage Grouse abundant core areas. These actions anticipate a 2/3 reduction in bird loss as a result.
  • Additional hiding cover increases Sage Grouse nest success by 10% within 2.1 million acres of grazing systems implemented.
  • Tripled the chance of maintaining populations by removing 200,000 acres of invasive conifer in core habitats and prevented a loss of 60% of the available forage.
  • SGI prevented 2,600 fence collisions by marking or moving 500 miles of ‘high-risk’ fence that reduced bird strikes by 83%.

No one who understands the facts and potential impacts wants to see an Endangered Species listing, all for selfish reasons of course. But in this case the selfish motives may actually work in favor of the birds. That’s why I have hope.  SGI is working with all the major concerns — ranchers, oil and gas, hunters, conservation groups and states — to find common solutions which will benefit them and wildlife. Instead of preaching from an ivory tower or regulating economic and private interests into oblivion, they are working with biologists, scientists and landowners to find real solutions with measured results. It is refreshing and a model for future conservation efforts.

There’s no doubt that the birds that just escaped Jory and I have benefited from work that SGI has headed up.

As the pack of Llewellin circle long from winged excitement, I call Wyatt back to the original location of the flush. My gun has been reloaded without thought, just muscle memory from so many days afield. I’ve learned over years of pursuit of prairie species that often a bird from a covey believes they can outsmart predators without expending the energy of flight. Just hold tight, let the melee of a dozen birds taking wing distract and divert the pursuer then let ‘em pass right by.

These are the times it pays off to have a hard-headed lab that reads body language and knows your thoughts before you do. As if on cue Wyatt runs his nose into the one hold out bird.  I’ve closed the distance and wait just long enough for the bird to clear his darkness  before snapping the trigger. The grouse folds and Wyatt is upon it. I drop to both knees. The end of this journey is overwhelming and it takes my breath away. Jory is there with congratulations and a high five that returns me to my feet.

I call for Wyatt to bring up the bird, exhaustion has him taking his sweet time. I let him savor the moment too.

Jory and I hunt together multiple times on this trip to Montana and our crew of dogs eventually settle into a rhythm. Though unseasonably warm the Sharptail cannot avoid the dognado and many come to hand. But the highlight of the trip is the Sage Grouse now tucked into the corner of my cooler, quite possibly the only one I will ever shoot. Respect for the bird, respect for conservation efforts makes me question whether I will ever pull the trigger again. But the heft of the largest grouse in the country is something I hope others will get to experience in the future.

And now I owe Jory an assist on an elk pack-out because he led me to this bird. Why he still hunts 4-legged beasts when he lives in the heart of bird country with two setters is something I will never understand.

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Visit the SGI website to see some great photos and videos of Sage Grouse. And be sure to like them on Facebook to stay up to date on their efforts.

Oct 7th

Government Shutdown Attempts to Cripple Hunters

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Visit the websites of the Department of the Interior, the US Forest Service or the National Park Service and you will be greeted by a message much like the one below:

Due to the lapse of appropriated funds, all public lands managed by the Interior Department (National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, Bureau of Land Management facilities, etc) will be closed.

Apparently the federal government has decided that they will attempt to close the roughly 28% of the United States’ land mass of which they claim ownership.

What they fail to recognize is that the citizens own that land. We do not need their permission to access our land. They may administer and manage the resources with federal employees who are certainly impacted by a government shutdown. But it is a serious overstep of federal authority to believe they can prevent access to land owned by the people.

This is political posturing at its worst. An obvious attempt to create hardship for hunters and outdoorsman. Contact your RepresentativeSenators and the White House and let them know that you will not stand for  them using your land as a poker chip in their debate.

Sep 3rd

Kicking Off the 2013 Upland Season in Montana

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

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When you are about to drive 1500 miles to hunt birds, the last thing you want to do is forget something. Rural Montana isn’t the easiest place to find gear that you left behind.

Because it’s the first hunt of the year, I try and pack over the course of a couple weeks. Sounds crazy, even to me, but it is a proven strategy. I’ll start making a pile in an unused room, garage or sometimes the dining room table. As the departure date draws nearer the pile grows in size. You never want to forget the big items: gun, shells, dogs. But it’s the little things that gnaw at you once you’re on the road: dog bowls, training collars, power cords, hunting boots, upland vest. Things you aren’t going to find in a General Store or gas station can be problematic when you’re in the middle of nowhere.

That pile of gear serves as a visual reminder of the upcoming trip and every now and then I’ll walk by it and a lightbulb will go off to add an item not yet included.

The bulk of Montana has managed to stay clear of the drought which has ravaged much of the west this summer. The other reason we decided to start the hunt in Montana this season is Sage Grouse. After years of studies the US Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to make a ruling on whether to add Sage Grouse to the endangered species list. If that happens, the ramifications for millions of acres of federal lands considered Sage Grouse habitat could be interesting to watch.

There is no doubt that Sage Grouse numbers have been on the decline. The debate currently revolves around why the populations have dropped. Many believe it is a symptom of habitat fragmentation. Being a bird hunter, not a biologist, I don’t have the answers. I can only hope that somebody smarter than myself can come up with a solution to stabilize these birds.

I’m in Montana to find Sage Grouse on what could be the final opportunity to chase this majestic bird and hopefully bring one to hand.

Rio, the Llewellin setter, is now in her terrible twos. The hope is that she skips right past terrible and picks up where she left off last season. And our ol’ faithful black lab hunting buddy Wyatt will be plodding along this trip too. Watching a pointer and a flusher working together has become one of my true joys of fall.

Here’s some video clips from the start of the hunt.

Apr 29th

Shotgunning Comes Full Circle

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Ultimate Upland - Filson - Tractor

Three decades ago my dad put a shotgun in my hands. We’d setup on the old farm hill with the hand trap and shoot clays until our shoulders were sore and cases of pigeons emptied. Then we’d go down in the pasture, pick up the unbroken clays, return them to the top of the hill and shoot some more. I’ve never had a professional shooting lesson but believe I’ve had the best shooting instruction available anywhere.

And a few years ago my nephew Zach began getting that same instruction on the same farm hill from the same man, his grandpa. The hand trap has been replaced by battery powered which is now towed up the slope with a lawn tractor. But the lessons are the same: be safe, shoot often, have fun, but listen and learn from a man who has put more rounds down range than most small armies. Needless to say, Zach has grown comfortable with a gun in hand.

Ultimate Upland - Filson - Shotgun

As part of our Off-Season Odyssey I thought it would be interesting to pit pupil against pupil. As we drive cross country on Zach’s spring break we’ll stop whenever time allows to shoot sporting clays and hone the shotgunning skills sowed by my dad. After eight hours driving we get our first opportunity to stretch our legs and burn some powder at a clays course in Illinois.

Zach has sprouted into a young man. His reactions times will be faster, his vision better. He’s on the front end of life, the upswing. Whereas I’m fighting to stay on the right side of the hill, he’s coming of age. Needless to say, I have concerns. This is the first time I’ve had a shooting stick in hand since the close of wild bird hunting season. I don’t want to be outshot by my nephew. It’s too early for that. But the possibility is real.

Ultimate Upland - Filson - Shotgun Vest Sporting Clay

It’s apparent these friendly shooting matches are just a microcosm of the purpose for this road trip. As much as I hope to broaden Zach’s horizons, there is also a growing desire to define my own legacy. There has to be something that an uncle can still offer, some nugget of experience, of expertise, that can still awe a teen. Maybe that’s besting him in sporting clays, exploring amazing new places or just driving infinite hours to stick to a self-imposed itinerary on a road trip few would attempt in this timeframe.

After the first couple shooting stations, I’m grateful some of the symptoms of youth are still at hand: small lapses in focus, and a reluctance to try the proven path. It’s these things which keep me at a small shooting advantage. But there is also foreshadowing of rounds to come – stations where my nephew whips me handily and forces me to lug the dreaded shooting bag to the next. Each round of sporting clays we shoot, the margin of victory is tight, but more importantly we both improve our own scores.

Whether it’s shooting at the foot of the Rockies, off-roading at Big Horn Canyon, peering over the rim of Crater Lake or bouldering at Devil’s Tower, I find comfort in remaining relevant. And watching Zach grow up seems less a threat than a privilege.

We complete the 6,900 mile Off-Season Odyssey loop returning to the exact same sporting clays course where it kicked off ten days earlier. A legacy of shooting that began over 30 years ago with my dad’s passion for the shooting sports has come full circle as well. What Zach will do with his love of the outdoors and shotgunning is up to him. But I expect he’ll pass it along in his own way and own time and the legacy will continue. And one day, hopefully in the very distant future, he may actually be able to best his uncle’s score.

Big Thanks to Filson for sponsoring our Odyssey.

And thanks to Wolverine BootsSportDOG and Benchmade for sending gear to test on the journey. 
Apr 10th

The Dreaded Shooting Bag

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

I think the level of exertion at sporting clays courses should extend beyond the trigger finger. The name “sporting clays” implies a certain level of physical activity. But, a number of courses have paths for vehicles and even golf carts for transporting shooters and their gear from one station to the next. Distances between each shooting location are generally 40 yards and up. For us, upland hunting is an active sport that involves a fair share of hiking. So when we shoot sporting clays to practice bird gunning, we prefer not to drive a vehicle from station to station. We walk. And we don’t push a glorified stroller with a gun rack that some courses provide, either. We lug the gear and guns between volleys, just like we would in the field. This also allows for a healthy dose of banter, and time to keep a close eye on the score.

There’s no monetary wager between my nephew Zach and I when we shoot clays on this Off-Season Odyssey. The stakes are simple and immediate: lose the station and you lug the shooting bag to the next.

Big whoop, right? Well, Filson’s Sportsman Bag can make that lugging a bigger deal than you might think. In the main compartment Zach and I stash 300 rounds of 20-gauge shells, because even if the course is only 100 clays you still can never have enough ammo. It looks as though we’d easily be able to stow 16 boxes of 20-gauge and still have room for our two cameras, mini-tripod and various POV video accessories that we pack to chronicle the round.

In the rear outside pocket we put all our gun cleaning gear: rags, oil, cleaning rod, grease and barrel snake. And during the round we stash our shotgun socks in this compartment for safe keeping too.

In the front zippered pocket goes hearing protection, shooting gloves, eye protection, choke tubes and wrenches and cell phones for two shooters. In the pockets on either end we place keys, drinks and the scoring clipboard. I’m pretty certain we’ve intentionally made this bag as heavy as possible to inflict the worst punishment for poor shooting.

With the hefty bridle leather strap, thick canvas and beefy zippers you just know this Filson bag is built to take a beating. I’m not real certain what it weighs when fully stocked, I just know the added heft never stings quite as much as the reason you’re carrying it in the first place. So the best course of action is to get a Filson Sportsman’s Bag and make sure your shooting buddy carries it the entire time.

When the round is complete we remove the cameras, restock the shells and there’s room to stow two Filson shooting vests for the next outing. I suppose one could use this Sportsman’s Bag for any sort of travel or adventure, but why would you want to when it’s perfect for shotgunning?

 

Big Thanks to Filson for sponsoring our Odyssey.



And thanks to Wolverine BootsSportDOG and Benchmade for sending gear to test on the journey.