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Harvesting My First Elk

11-17-2014 | Matthew Podolsky

This past weekend I shot my first elk.  Aside from the freezer full of meat, this hunt was an amazing learning experience and an opportunity to explore some truly spectacular country.  I was hunting with my good friend Thomas Hayes, who was kind enough to take me to one of his favorite hunting spots.  Although I won’t reveal the exact location (I was sworn to secrecy!), I’ll just say that we were up in the mountains Northeast of Boise in an incredibly beautiful spot.

elk ridge timelapse

For the unit that we were hunting, elk season starts on November 1st, and ends November 9th, so we had a limited amount of time to get an animal.  This hunt is for antlered elk only, so we had to find a male (cow tags in this area are a lottery draw, whereas this tag is unlimited and can be purchased over the counter).  Thomas and I got an early start the morning after Halloween, leaving Boise several hours before daybreak.

We started our hike as the sun was rising, carrying everything that we would need for three days of backcountry camping.  We set up camp on top of a forested ridgeline, right in the midst of elk country, and began searching for animals.  We didn’t have much luck that first day – we spotted a group of elk from a distance, but couldn’t find a way to get close to them.  That afternoon the rain began to fall and by the time we arrived back at our tent just after sunset we were soaked to the bone.

That night the rain turned to snow.  We awoke to several inches of snow and ice weighing down our tent, and all of our wet gear was now frozen solid.  Luckily we had come prepared with plenty of extra dry clothes, but slipping our feet into those frozen hiking boots was very unpleasant!  The beauty of our snow-covered surroundings easily made up for this uncomfortable situation however, and we knew the snow would make it that much easier to track elk.

We hiked up along the same ridge where we were camped that morning, and spent an hour or so slowly walking, stopping regularly to observe our surroundings and glass distant hillsides.  We came out from behind a group of ponderosa pine and Thomas froze in place.  I followed his line of sight and spotted the object of his attention – a good size bull elk!  He was looking right in our direction, but in a moment when he looked away I sat down and pulled the 30-06 rifle into position.  The bull was 200 yards away – a bit far for me to feel completely comfortable with taking a shot, and on top of that my view through the rifle’s scope was partially obscured by a tree branch.  The elk turned, and walked off behind a stand of trees and out of view.  We waited for a bit to see if he would pop back out on the ridgeline, but I knew that I had squandered this opportunity and was already kicking myself for not being able to get a shot off.

Thomas over look with bins

Later that day Thomas and I decided to hike to the top of a nearby peak.  We had spent some time watching a herd of elk up on the mountainside, and decided to hike up and explore.  When we reached the top of the snow-covered peak we did indeed see lots of fresh elk tracks in the snow, and were able to get up close to a group of three cow elk, but didn’t see any bulls.  We climbed down and hiked back to our tent where we curled up inside our sleeping bags, exhausted.

The next day we hiked back to the road, looking for elk all along the way, but didn’t see any animals.  We made the drive back to Boise a bit dejected, but knowing that we had one last opportunity to fill my tag.  We would be back the following weekend to give it one last shot.

That next weekend we were back – once again leaving Boise hours before sunrise and hiking up the same mountain as the sun rose.  I picked a spot with a nice view of a hillside where we had seen elk the previous weekend, and sat there for much of the day.  As the afternoon dragged on I grew antsy and decided to do some walking.  I hiked out to a viewpoint where Thomas had been sitting and scanning for elk – and just minutes after arriving we spotted a herd of elk in the distance – right along the hillside that I had been watching all morning!  We rushed back to the spot, but we were too late – it was dark by the time we made it back, and once again we were hiking back to our tent feeling dejected.

I resolved to return to that same spot along the ridgeline before daybreak the next morning, thinking that I could catch that herd of elk in the early morning light.  I carefully made my way back, creeping along the ridgeline in the pitch dark of early morning.  As I approached on the ridgeline, all of a sudden, I was startled by a loud crashing of brush – the elk herd was right in front of me and I had spooked them!  It sounded like a stampede as this group of a dozen or so large animals busted their way through the dense brush.  All I could do was stand and listen, crestfallen that my plan had failed.  By the time there was enough daylight to see, the herd was long gone.

This was the final day of elk season, and I now had only half a day left to fill my tag.  Thomas and I regrouped, and decided that our best chance lay in a different area.  We packed up all of our gear and hiked down the mountain to the road.  Thomas had been watching a large group of elk across the canyon on the opposite side of the river.  We waded across and began the steep climb up the opposite side.

After a couple hours of climbing we were up on the ridgeline and we began slowly creeping along, stopping to scan the open hillsides every few steps.  We made it up to a rocky point that was an excellent spot to observe the surrounding landscape, and decided to sit and wait, despite the fact that we did not see any elk.  Where had the huge herd that we’d seen from across the river gone?

After just 5 minutes of sitting three elk stood up from their hiding place behind a patch of brush about 150 yards away.  As they started to make their way across the steep hillside I got my binoculars on them and immediately saw that the last in line was a spike (a young bull elk with just one antler point on either side).  I rested the rifle on a large rock in front of me and took aim.

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I fired a shot and the spike froze – I’d hit him!  He wavered back and forth, then dropped to the ground.  I waited; watching him through the rifle scope – if he got back up I’d be ready.  He did get back up a few minutes later and I fired off another two solid copper rounds.  He dropped to the ground once again, and Thomas and I began our approach.  He was still kicking when we got close, but one last round to the head ended his suffering.  I watched in awe as this massive animal took his last few breaths.

There was an hour or two until sunset and the rain started to fall.  Processing this animal and hauling the meat down the mountain would be no small feat.  We got to work right away, separating and skinning the quarters and removing the meat from the body.  Everything went into game bags and was strapped to our packs for the long haul down the steep hillside.  The final step was to remove the heart and liver – by this time the sun had set and we were surrounded by complete darkness.  We switched on our headlamps and strapped on our packs, now laden with roughly 150 lbs. of elk meat each.

The hike down was steep and difficult, largely due to the extremely heavy loads strapped to our backs.  The rain continued to come down, and by the time we reached the river we were thoroughly soaked and exhausted, but filled with a strong sense of accomplishment.  We waded across the river, taking several trips to haul our heavy loads, and celebrated at the truck with a dry set of clothes and a heaping slice of birthday cake (Thomas had celebrated his birthday the previous week).

It took an entire day for Thomas and I to finish butchering the elk back in Boise.  I had to go out and buy a freezer, which I immediately filled with fresh meat.  There are many things that are satisfying to me about going through this process of harvesting an animal and processing it for consumption.  The most obvious is the satisfaction that comes with having a year’s supply of meat in the freezer, but almost as strong is the feeling of connection with my local ecosystem.  By harvesting an elk I am playing the role of predator – I am now a member of this natural system, rather than just an observer.

Lastly I have demonstrated, once again, the effectiveness of alternatives to lead-based ammunition.  I shot my elk with 168 grain Barnes triple-shock bullets designed for a 30-06 rifle.  The damage caused by these bullets was devastating, and I have no doubt that their effectiveness is comparable to any lead-core round.  Because I used non-lead, I can feel good about the parts of the animal that were left behind in the field – I have provided a safe meal for the local wolves, coyotes, eagles, ravens and other scavengers that call this area their home.  Just minutes after shooting my elk a Golden Eagle circled overhead, knowing that he or she would soon be in for a feast.  I am certain that the remains of this animal have not gone to waste.  If there are folks out there reading this who are unfamiliar with the issue of lead poisoning in wildlife, you can now watch the film I produced and directed all about this issue right here on our website – click here to watch now!

And of course I don’t have to worry about the presence of tiny fragments of lead in the meat that is currently sitting in my freezer.  This is especially important to me because I care so deeply about the health of my one-year-old son.  I’m not willing to take any chances when it comes to his health, and since we all know that there is no safe level of lead in the human body, I strive to keep him lead-free.

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Another False Debate

01-30-2014 | Matthew Podolsky
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, home of the Arizona release site for condors.  Photo by Eric Weis.

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, home of the Arizona release site for condors. Photo by Eric Weis.

One would think that I’d be happy to see the lead poisoning issue for condors continue to get attention from the press.  This week USA Today ran a story focusing on the Arizona/Utah condor population and it’s continued struggle with this issue.  My problem with this article: it could have been run over a year ago – it contains no new information.  If anything we have seen a regression in the way this issue is presented by the media over the past year.  Despite the fact that both the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation have publicly stated their support for AZ Game and Fish Department’s voluntary lead reduction program in the past, all we get in this article is the same line from our buddy Larry Keane, “We think there are serious questions about the purported science.”

The fact is that articles like this are exactly what the NRA and NSSF want.  They want people to think that there is an active debate within the scientific community over where the lead is coming from.  If the public perceives that there is an ongoing debate over the science behind lead poisoning of wildlife, it is a hell of a lot more difficult to implement both voluntary and regulatory action.  The longer it takes to implement serious action to resolve this issue, the longer the lead ammunition industry can continue to rake in record profits.

This is the oldest trick in the book and the lead industry has been hammering us over the head with it for almost a century.  Lead has been known to be a dangerous neurotoxin for well over a hundred years, yet when GM discovered in 1921 that tetraethyl lead reduced engine knock they began a large-scale pro-lead PR campaign.  The introduction of this toxic chemical into gasoline was very controversial – a handful of workers at a Standard Oil lead plant died of lead poisoning that same year, and many others suffered acute and irreversible damage from working with the lead (including the GM worker who discovered how lead could reduce engine “knock”).  Leaded gasoline was banned in a few Northeastern states in the early ‘20s. However, it wasn’t until GM and Standard Oil hired their own team of “scientists” who were paid to prove that leaded gasoline was harmless, that this new product finally started to catch on.

It was this false debate, fabricated by corporate interests that led to the public’s reluctant acceptance of both leaded gasoline and leaded paint in the 1920s.  It took more than half a century of fighting for the scientific community to prove to the public that the lead found in these products was poisoning an entire generation of people, literally shifting the bell curve for IQ across the globe and having large-scale societal consequences that we are only just now beginning to comprehend (Be sure to read Kevin Drum‘s excellent article explaining the possible connections between lead poisoning and crime).  How is it that the NRA and the NSSF continue to get away with these same tactics almost 100 years later?  Have we learned nothing?

The sad but truthful answer to this question is that it appears as though we have in fact learned nothing at all from the early days of leaded paint and gasoline.  Now more than ever corporations are using this same tactic to delay and/or prevent meaningful action on a wide variety of public health issues, climate change being the most significant.  So why are we duped again and again by this age-old trick?

Those of us who work in the media understand the importance of controversy and debate – this is what makes a good story, and more importantly this is what sells a good story.  But are we too rash to present stories as controversial when in reality they might be quite simple and straightforward?  Could I be guilty of this as well in my telling of the story presented in Scavenger Hunt?  Maybe I should have ignored the radical perspective of the NRA and the NSSF in the film?

The fate of the condor looms in the balance.  Photo by Eric Weis.

The fate of the condor looms in the balance. Photo by Eric Weis.

Ultimately I believe that those of us in the media have to approach our stories from a more scientific perspective.  In order to publish scientific research one must go through a rigorous and often quite challenging peer review process.  This process, while it can be frustrating at times, filters out studies that have no basis in the scientific method while dramatically improving many more studies by forcing the researchers to answer unaddressed questions.

We desperately need something akin to the scientific peer review process for journalism.  If I were sitting on the peer review panel for the USA Today article published earlier this week I would have had a long list of comments, corrections and suggestions for further investigation.  My top concern for this article would read: are we playing into the hands of the ammunition industry by continuing to print the same two lines of propaganda that they’ve been feeding us for the past 5+ years?

Instead let’s have an announcement of consensus within the scientific community – lead fragments from spent ammunition have been proven beyond any doubt to be the primary cause of mortality for California condors and the one factor holding populations back from reaching a self sustaining level.  We could add that the only “scientists” who seem to disagree with this are clearly doing so because their paycheck depends upon it.

Harvesting my first White-tailed deer

12-05-2013 | Matthew Podolsky

There are lots of stereotypes about hunting.  Many folks think that any redneck with a gun can go out and shoot a deer, as if all it takes to harvest an animal is the right tools and a willingness to pull the trigger.  If this were the case, I would have shot a deer long ago.  This is not to say that I’m particularly anxious about killing an animal, but that I long to be an active participant in the ecosystems that surround me.

I’ve now spent the past two Thanksgivings with my girlfriend Miranda’s family in St. Maries, ID, waking up long before dawn and heading out into the beautiful and diverse evergreen forests of Northern Idaho in search of White-tailed deer.  Although I didn’t harvest a deer during last year’s hunt, I learned a lot about big game hunting, and this year I felt much more prepared.

Brian and his wife Lyndsey with an elk harvested earlier this season.

Brian and his wife Lyndsey with an elk harvested earlier this season.

We spent our first morning sighting in the rifle that I was using; Miranda’s dad’s 7mm Remington loaded with Barnes triple-shock bullets (non-lead of course).  The days were short with the sun staying low in the sky, but we were out from sun-up to sundown searching for deer.

Day two of the hunt and all three of us; Miranda’s dad Rick, her brother Brian, and myself, still had tags to fill.  We spotted a moose on the drive out with just hint of sunlight coming through the trees.  The three of us split up and I spent the morning walking slowly along the forest edge, stopping to scan my surroundings at every corner.  Although I didn’t spot any deer, I did come across a herd of elk, and was proud that I was able to get within 100 yards without them taking any notice of my presence.

We returned to Miranda’s dad’s house for lunch and Brian and I decided to explore the woods back behind the property.  After 10 minutes of walking we spotted a doe.  She was over 300 yards away so we made our way across the draw to get a better angle on her.  As we came around a bend tracking this deer, we spotted another doe.  She was a bit closer – about 260 yards – so I set up for a shot.  As I positioned myself along the bank two more does popped out from the surrounding brush.  One of the three was in perfect position for a shot – I took aim just above and behind the front leg, and fired my shot.

I had no idea whether or not I hit her since she bolted into a clump of trees and out of view immediately.  Brian, who had been watching the animal through his binos, knew that I’d hit her.  He told me that the “thwak” of the bullet, and the way the doe looked as she ran off indicated that the shot had been true.  We waited for a few minutes to see if she’d reappear, and when we saw nothing we began our bushwhack down into the draw to search for the body.

Non-lead ammo did the trick.

Non-lead ammo did the trick.

My doe was curled up at the bottom of a wash at the base of the draw.  Although it was difficult to tell as we approached, she was most certainly dead.  We pulled her out of the wash and examined the body.  I’d hit her almost exactly where I’d been aiming; the bullet had passed through her lungs and out the other side.

Now began my lesson in gutting a deer.  Every hunter has a slightly different technique, and Brian takes pride in his strategy, which he claims to be the fastest and most efficient method.  Although it may seem odd to some, I enjoyed this part of the process immensely.  I was full of pride after just harvesting my first big game animal, and now I was getting a quick anatomy lesson while preparing this animal for human consumption.

Pulling the gut pile out filled me with satisfaction.  Back in my days working as a California condor field biologist I hauled innumerable gut piles out from the field.  This was always done in an attempt to remove harmful lead fragments and prevent the poisoning of condors and other scavengers, but this gut pile was clean thanks to my solid copper bullet.  This would be a lead-free food source for the local Bald eagles, ravens and coyotes.

I processed this deer myself, with the generous help of Miranda’s family, and am happy to say that I now have a freezer full of venison.  It feels good knowing that my new family has a clean and healthy source of animal protein that should last us through to next year’s hunting season.  Above all else however, it feels good knowing that I am an active participant in my environment.  I am happy to share this top predator niche with the wolves and mountain lions that we are so lucky to have present in our Idaho ecosystems.

My lead-free gut pile.

My lead-free gut pile.

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