Climate Change and Wildlife – Part I
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So I haven’t ran any research reviews in the past several months, and I figure one here and again will break up the stream of consciousness that is my bear hunt. I decided to start off with a very tame topic, without partisan-alignments, and something that everyone can agree upon….err, maybe not.

Bottom line, and I’m not going to debate climate change past this paragraph, is that our earth’s long-term temperature averages are rising. Fact. Call it a warm spell, climate change, global warming, blame it on us, blame it on China, I don’t care.

It’s easy to distance ourselves from this phenomenon and leave it to big thinkers in country and global circles, but our slowly-changing climate is having a BIG impact on our wildlife – many species that we passionately chase each fall with a gun and each spring and summer with angling equipment. Their populations and their habitats ARE being affected. Here’s a short list of some of those specific instances. Hopefully it will spur you to think about your own views on the subject, for better or worse.

***In the Southeastern United States’ Smoky Mountains, massive loss of hemlock forests due to the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid and increasing summer temperatures have led to micro-habitat changes along and in mountain streams. Trout, being a temperature-sensitive species, have suffered range contractions as shade has disappeared through the die-out of hemlock compounded by already warming temperatures.

***At high elevations in mountainous alpine habitats, trees are encroaching on “above timberline” meadows and crowding critters that are obligate (they have to live there) alpine species. Mountain goats, marmots, pikas, and more.

***Warmer temperatures mean less snow, less snowpack, more rain, shorter snowmelt, longer summer droughts, peak runoff earlier in the year, more extreme precipitation habitats – you don’t have to be a hydrologist to realize that comprises some pretty serious alterations to water systems in the West.

***A greater proportion of waterfowl and songbirds are adopting resident habitats in lieu of traditional migratory behaviors that carry the birds from summering to wintering grounds and back again. This straps already scarce resources with increased burden…just think of what the snow geese are able to do in the tundra now…

Again, call the change in temperature whatever you like, but these are real changes that have been happening over the last several decades. These statements are based on many studies that have stood the test of science and peer review.
I’ll stop the post here, but I’ve got another list of potential impacts of climate change on some of our more beloved game species in the next post…white-tailed deer, moose, elk, and black bear to name a few.

Field Judging Black Bears
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Without a lot of experience to lean on, I’ve been brushing up on my bear judging skills. First objective is to verify that the bear is legal. For Montana, this means that the bear cannot be a sow with cubs. This sounds real simple but consider that a significant number of bears are surprise encounters as a hunter rounds the corner of a bend and sees a bear feeding 75 yards ahead on the logging road.

I’ll be honest, the bear above looks HUGE at first glance, and the first temptation would be to dump the safety and yank the trigger. But one must simply give enough time to double-check the situation and verify that there are no cubs present. If you can be sure of the gender of the bear that’s an even safer bet.

A combination of head, body, leg, and attitude traits can be assessed to make a pretty good guess with regards to gender. Large boars are more likely to have a blocky head which results in the ears being more side-positioned than top-positioned. A sow tends to have a bigger rear end versus big broad shoulders on a mature boar. Extending down from the shoulders, a boar’s front legs may look extremely muscular and extend wide and strong straight into the paws. On a sow, those legs will likely show perceptible taper.

A big clue can be bear’s attitude. This sounded silly the first time I read it, but it does make sense. A sow or small boar will be careful to walk in shadows, raise its head at every sound, be continually checking its surroundings, and walk in a relatively straight line. A big boar is the big bully and the apex predator on the mountain, and his demeanor will reflect that. A side-to-side swaggering gait coupled with a coconut with “small” ears sitting off to the side and muscular forearms is a certain shooter!

Neither Andrew or I are super caught up in tagging a monster bruin, but we obviously want to be legal and target a representative Western mountains bear. I wouldn’t even be disappointed with a big old dry sow. Antelope are another tough species to judge, but they become easier as looking over 100s each day enables you to pick up their subtle differences quickly. We did this hunt together back in 2006 or 2007, so the extra time behind binoculars and spotting scope will seem almost familiar.

I’d like to get all high and mighty about how I’m not going to shoot anything less than a 7 foot, 300 pound bear, but that would be a bold-faced lie. Any legal bear pushing 5.5 feet and weighing 175 pounds with a solid coat is going to get my best shot. Talking to folks out in that area of Montana, a spring bear of that caliber will be one worth being proud!

DIY Montana Spring Bear Hunt – Weapon Choice
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I don’t know how to explain the disparity between the way I feel so strongly about elk hunting with a bow and absolutely not caring about bear hunting with a bow. Bottom line is that I don’t have to explain it. All I have to do is tell you that I’ll be packing Ol’ Betsy out to Montana. Those feelings might change after my first Western bear hunt, but I’m really happy about the fact that I’ll be able to handle anything from a 15 yard ambush setup on a logging road to long range cross-canyon shooting into an open clearcut.

Here’s the bullet drop chart that I put together for the butt of my gun.

With a prone steady rest, minimal crosswind, and an exact yardage, I will feel confident to shoot out to 400 yards if need be. That would be holding just off the hairline at 400 yards. I’m waiting until next week when dad brings my rifle up from North Carolina to shoot some different loads through it, but that gun has historically shot extremely well with Winchester SilverTips. Something else will have to really impress me to make a switch.

One of the toughest parts of bear hunting is judging bear size and quality. That task gets exponentially harder as distance increases. Not wanting to unknowingly tag out on a sub-par bear is one motivation to get close. One of the main reasons I bow hunt for elk is because I like “in my face” animal encounters. Despite the fact that I’ll be carrying a center-fire rifle on this trip, the goal will still be to cut the distance as short as possible. If as short as possible still means 300 yards, I’ll be no less thrilled to fill my tag!

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that another reason for toting a rifle is the ever-present possibility of a grizzly bear encounter run amuck. Those odds are probably lower than the 4th floor of my office building caving in on my head in the next 20 minutes, but they are on the landscape and odds are we’ll at least run across some grizzly sign over the course of our 9.5 day hunt.

Anyways, ‘Ol Betsy will be arriving in just a couple days, so I’ll be sure to post my final choice for ammunition and range practice update as the days tick down.

Dissecting a Black Bear Hunting Honey Hole
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So what makes a certain location an absolute mecca for black bears? I have no certain knowledge. I have ideas based on facts, theories, experiences, hunches, and descriptions I’ve assembled from others, but I have no prior knowledge of NW Montana and how it relates to actual bear hunting. This all begs to question – how in the heck do I plan to narrow down NW Montana to the “best of the best”. To start, I’ve looked for a few key components – 1) hard to get to either from a road access standpoint or from a rugged terrain perspective, 2) lots of openings – be they clearcuts, select cuts, above timberline clearings, or old wildfires, 3) aspects that range from southwest swinging over to southeast, and 4) good glassing points that open up the southern exposed openings to a good set of optics. Still, there are zillions of these places located throughout NW Montana.

For me, planning is half (at least!) the fun and I went overkill in selecting precisely 30 locations that I deemed top-notch. Some of those can be hunted in half a morning, others probably can’t be adequately hunted over a 2 or 3 day span. No way we get to over half those spots, but we definitely won’t be stuck in the situation of wishing we had game-planned more. What I have done for my 30 locations is systematically laid each out. After 2 or 3 days of hunting, we should have a decent idea of what is and isn’t working. Based on the characteristics of those locations that are producing lots of bear sign, sightings, and/or shot opportunities, I can then look at my comprehensive list to match up other most similar spots. Here’s how I have them each broken down…

***What do I call the spot?*** This name lands on each and every map – aerial, topo, US Forest Service, Gazetteer, and Motor Vehicle Use Map – so that I can keep tabs on each spot easily.

***What national forest or wilderness is the spot located?”*** This helps organize from the top-down…the first point is more “bottom-up”.

***If it’s a national forest, what district?”*** This determines what map to pull out…

***Primary aspect*** True southern aspect or a slight bend towards the west or east?

***Minimum and maximum elevation of the prime openings I’m looking to target in each spot*** Snowpack will track closely with elevation and this shortcut data will save looking at lots of topos in the field to judge what spots are and aren’t accessible.

***Trail miles required*** Some will have none, some will have LOTS!

***Snowpack*** I’ll update this Excel column in the last 10 days before the trip from NOAA’s interactive snow model webpage.

***Any other notes I deem appropriate***…clearcut or natural opening…approximate age of clearcut, etc.

You should know by now that I overkill the details, but the details are what add up and compound to achieve success (and luck of course!). I’m convinced of it…whether those details are as small as being organized, or having 3 pounds less in your pack, or getting to the top of the ridge at 2:31 PM instead of 2:32 PM because you had to take an extra breather on the vertical climb up…the way we’ve over-analyzed each spot and all the associated maps is one more detail in the “more likely to succeed” bin. The next month and a half can’t go by fast enough!

Rain Gear Upgrades – Marmot Super Mica Jacket and PreCIP Pants
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My gear list hasn’t changed too much – same sleep system, same baselayers, same cook system, same pack, same everything mostly…I really only switched up my optics and my rain gear. The Driducks were a good idea and they served a 2-week stint in Colorado 2 years ago. I had issues with them though. Too loose fitting to be functional if you were doing anything other than being stationary. Not durable enough to withstand…well, anything. They did keep you dry, but that was about all. Knowing that the climate of NW Montana has the potential to throw a lot more adverse weather at us than the Colorado high country, I wanted something that would keep me dry AND let me move about to continue hiking, hunting, or what have you.

The answer was a long list of products that Andrew researched and found some great deals ranging from Stoic’s Vaporshell line (which he chose on a great deal from to some higher end stuff from Marmot, North Face, and other quality backpacking gear companies. Truthfully, the higher end stuff wasn’t even on my radar until I checked eBay and found a barely used Marmot Super Mica jacket in my size. I ended up snagging it for $45 shipped…STOLE IT!!! That jacket retails for between $150 and $200 and the reviews were stellar. Around 6 ounces in my size and a tight fit that will allow me to keep moving even in a downpour. Durable enough to withstand basic abuse and bragged about for its breath-ability. I was real excited to have that jacket show up at my doorstep.

For the pants, Andrew and I both purchased a pair of Marmot PreCIP pants off Sierra’s Trading Post for $45. This is less than half of the standard retail price and it was another great deal that we couldn’t pass up. I almost quadrupled my investment in rain gear from the Driducks of old, but I think the upgrade will “bear” itself out for a great return on investment. That pun was so forced…sorry!

Infolinks 2013