Can Hunting Keep us Human?

Paula Young Lee poses the question in the High Country News. If this strikes you as a philosophical diatribe, you may be correct. But in an era where hunting is increasingly despised (read: misunderstood), the deeper meaning behind such ecosystem interaction at the human level of cognizance is indeed ponderous.

Hunting’s broader importance to human existence reconnects the severance between human life-history and the complex society we have developed. Humans operate under the disillusion that humans are superior to the natural ecosystem, having no association with the natural world or ecosystem function. But the hunter views things differently.

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⇑⇑ Above: the author with a cow elk, his first, taken on the Idaho winter range, December 2018. Hard earned and well respected. The tags for this special draw hunt have since been stripped from the public and given to private landowners as depredation tags. ⇑⇑

“It may seem like sophistry to argue that hunting protects wildlife, but the act of hunting encompasses far more than shooting a wild animal, and it neither starts nor ends with a death. The hunt itself is part of a much larger continuum.”

Diving deeper into the meaning of the hunt, Lee discusses the spiritual connection between hunter and prey, and that the hunter views wild game as a blessed gift. Lee reinforces her point of the larger continuum through an economics analogy related to the gift of wild game.

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⇑⇑ Above: A successful valley quail hunt with two hens falling to a pointing dog and swift gun work. This interaction with the canine and upland bird plays a crucial role in spiritual rejuvenation for the hunter, who, in turn, gives back to conservation. ⇑⇑

“In a gift economy, the act of giving compels the person who receives the gift to reciprocate. A gift can be refused, but that refusal has consequences. Hence, ethical hunters reciprocate by protecting the wilderness, giving of themselves to ensure that the forest stays the forest….”

Hunting maintains our connection with and works to conserve our place in the ecosystem, and the ecosystem itself. The preservation of human nature.

Grass Awns and Gun Dogs

Have you ever stopped to consider the impact upland bird hunting has on your gun dog? Birds hunters are well aware of the physical exertion on ourselves, whether its pounding the prairie for sharptails and pheasant, or pushing through draws of aspen for ruffies. But I often ponder how many hunters really understand the effort a gun dog puts into a hunt, or the stress they endure.

Upland bird hunting is a full-contact sport for a your dog. No, there are no physical altercations with other dogs (generally…), although one of our feathered quarry may be run down and tackled on occasion, but the conditions endured by a gun dog in the field are downright hazardous.

In the grouse coverts, thickets of woody shrubs and aspen, prickly hawthorn, and windfalls stand to challenge your dog’s stamina, but can also poke, pinch, scratch, and gouge. In the southwest quail country, cactus, mesquite, barbed wire, venomous critters, and a hot, dry climate stand to work your dog into the ground. The rolling prairie appears to be the most benign of the common western settings, but are you aware that your hunting companion covers three to seven times the ground you do in a day’s jaunt, not to mention porcupines, badgers, and even grizzly bears on the plains of the Rocky Mountain Front?

Gun dogs are prone to exposure to a variety of habitats in pursuit of upland game across a given season, but among the plethora of potentially harmful phenomena in the field, grass awns stand among the top contenders for most harmful. While there are a number of precautions and post-hunt measures one can take to ensure the well-being of your fur baby, grass awns can go undetected, wreaking havoc on you pup’s health.

Two common, menacing grassesfoxtail barley (left) and cheat grass (right).

Grass awns are responsible for a number of unexplained illnesses, and even deaths among gun dogs annually. But how can a grass seed be so injurious? In the western US, several grass species including cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum), and cereal rye (Secale cereale), which are largely invasive grass species, form barbed tails on their seeds or awns. The awns attach to the dog’s fur, and the sharp point of the awn may work its way into the skin between toes, in ears, eyes, mouth, nose, arm-pits, etc., and the awn barbs continue to work the awn deeper into the tissue until it can enter the interior body cavity or muscle tissue.

The awn may carry bacteria as it enters the dog’s body, and/or it may carry bacteria that are normal inhabitants of one part of the body, usually the mouth, into other parts of the body where it is abnormal, establishing an infection, typically in the form of an abscess.

As we approach and enter upland bird seasons, late summer through fall, grasses dry out and the awns loosen, becoming prone to drop. The best advice? A careful tailgate inspection of your dog before leaving the field may allow removal and avert any illness. But, with awns that have been ingested, odds are that the damage is already done by the time you and your dog leave the field. Routinely check your dog for swellings, particularly at the lower rear sections of the rib-cage, a prime site for abscess development.

What to look for:

  • Hair: Matted hair that may eventually lead to sores against the skin if not removed.
  • Ear canal: The dog shakes the head, scratches or rubs the ears, holds head at a slightly tilted angle.
  • Between the eye/eyelid: The eyes of the dog get inflamed, sometimes including discharge or tears.
  • Nose: The dog sneezes, paws at the nose, and may experience nasal discharge
  • Gums, Tongue, Mouth: If swallowed, grass awns may stick to the back of the throat causing inflammation and swelling.
  • Lungs and Other Organs (inhalation or migration): The dog shows signs of serious sickness, coughing, short breath, and vomiting.
  • Rectum and Anal Glands: dog abnormally licking or scooting on the ground, trying to defecate often or for prolonged periods.

Zeta at the vetZeta at the vet, June 2019, to have cheat grass awns removed from both anal glands.

Learn to recognize hazardous plants, and be watchful where you are hunting, training, or just exercising your dog.  Typically, a simple tailgate inspection post-hunt or run to remove awns before they have the chance to penetrate the skin and begin to migrate will eliminate problem awns, but inspection may not always reveal hidden awns immediately.  A best practice is continued monitoring of your pup’s behavior after hunting through dangerous grasses. Being mindful of the vegetation in your hunting or training areas, coupled with thorough inspections will keep your four-legged partner pointing or flushing long into their upland career.

Pheasant Hunting the Walla Walla Valley Uplands

Published in the Union Bulletin, September 23rd, 2018.

I sat alone in the gray calm of dawn, gazing contently across my food plot. A few wary whitetails snagged a snack on their morning commute. Steam curled up from a hot cup of coffee, tickling the hairs on my face and nose as I sipped in peace. It was early December. Not quite frigid, but the bunchgrasses were frosted and brittle.

My Llewellin setters, Finn and Yuba, and I hunted pheasant hard the prior six weeks and I needed a break. But the girls lay anxiously at my feet, keeping a keen eye on their orange vests and the cased shotgun by the door. They knew it was a hunting day. Any other morning we would be working roost cover along thick reed canary grass in the low swales, or working a creek side brush line at first light. But not today. This day would be different.

As the clock reported 8:30am, I decided to act like a dedicated bird hunter.  The girls had succumbed to pessimism, lying, groaning, sulking. But they cast a suspicious glance as I approached the door. A hand outstretched for my shotgun sparked utter bedlam.

Hunting reliable roost cover early in the day can be productive, but hunting pressure may call for adjustment to keep on the birds as the season progresses. Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season.

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Lowland swales, wetlands, and riparian areas provide prime pheasant roost habitat. When left to their own devices, pheasant rise in the morning and move out to feed soon after sunrise. Early in the season, birds may loaf in or near roost cover, but reacting to hunting pressure, birds will push out incredibly early, at times in the dark on public land. While pheasant may adjust their schedules to hunting pressure and weather patterns across the season, when and where to find them at any given time can be predicted with moderate certainty in the Walla Walla Valley.

Seeds and berries are common pheasant diet components in fall and winter. By mid-morning, birds are foraging on upland slopes and moving toward or into crop fields. Tall wheatgrass (an introduced Eurasian bunchgrass common to southeast Washington), wheat, canola, or other seed-producing crops offer forage throughout the season. Woods rose and blue elderberry provide dual function of food and cover when growing in dense patches. Birds may spend more time in this type of cover in the early morning, particularly in freezing conditions.

Pheasant spend a large part of the day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Short wheat stubble lacks adequate cover from avian predators, so pheasant typically don’t roam far from secure refuge when browsing cut crop fields.  By late afternoon, birds grab a final snack before flying into roost, within about forty-five minutes of twilight.

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As 9:30am approached, the girls quivered with anticipation alongside my old Fox 16-gauge double, broken open across the tailgate. I released the girls and strode quickly through lowland, waist-high Canada thistle and reed canary grass in route to the uplands. A whistle-blast and hand signal turned the girls to the high ground. We worked into the wind up a long ridge spine toward a wheat field, paralleling a steep slope. Native needle-and-thread grass and bluebunch wheatgrass grew low and lush, hiding pheasant along the slope edge.

Having quickly lost sight of Yuba, I turned toward my last visual of her, but a familiar arrythmia pulsed in my chest as Finn locked up mid-stride. Going in for the flush, the hen held tight enough I nearly left her thinking the bird had escaped on foot. A stellar performance by Finn to kick off our late morning jaunt. Upon release, Finn sailed toward the slope, dropping out of sight. My pace quickened.

Approaching the edge, I spied Yuba standing staunch, tail high, with Finn cautiously backing. Hastily, I circled wide, approaching from the front to pin the bird between us. At ten feet out, Yuba’s penetrating gaze identified a thick round of bunchgrass three paces to my right. Turning to face the unseen bird triggered an eruption of parting bunchgrass with the onset of heavy wing beats. A splendid wild rooster gained altitude over a backdrop of rolling golden wheat and grassland.

My Fox came up smoothly, followed by the girls launching over the edge, their eyes fixed firmly on the prize. At approximately 10:00am, I softly slid our first rooster of a lazy morning into my vest, admiring his emerald green head, long, striped tail, and modest spurs.

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As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors; consider upland food sources over lowland coverts. Relax. Relish every point. Enjoy the hunt!