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Senior moments: The year outdoors

Sun., Dec. 27, 2009

A geriatric swan and two oldsters on Everest warmed up the year

Spokane eventually climbed out of one of the snowiest winters on record in 2009. But the going was rough. A high toll of wildlife losses and roadkill littering the railways and highways led to curtailed fall deer and elk seasons in northeastern Washington and North Idaho.

The winter is so bad in Spokane, moose were falling into basements. Seriously. A calf moose that followed plowed roads into town had to be rescued after tumbling into a large window well and plunging into a couple’s basement bedroom.

Indeed, the harsh winter coincided with a burgeoning moose population. Washington Fish and Wildlife Department officers in this area responded to a record of more than 200 moose cases in January and February.

“Out of those cases, we tranquilized and relocated 21 moose,” said Madonna Luers, department spokeswoman. “That’s almost one moose every other day, and it takes at least four men to deal with one.”

The agency finally had to draw a line and tell callers they would respond only in the most serious cases.

Schools and businesses had been closed for days for fears of roofs collapsing from the weight of snow, but a herd of elk in Pend Oreille County didn’t get the message.

About 20 wild elk were in and around an old hay barn taking refuge from deep snow and another storm when the roof collapsed before sunrise, killing five of the elk.

Avalanches had already taken a heavy toll by mid-January, with 15 U.S. avalanche fatalities before the winter was half over. Snowmobilers in Canada alone accounted for 19 avalanche fatalities by May.

Venita Johnson, 85, of Rockford, is among the avalanche statistics recorded in North America. She was killed Dec. 28 by a slide of snow from her roof.

But as the region began to thaw out in spring, our sights seemed to be on higher places.

Local mountaineers Dawes Eddy, 66, and Kay LeClaire, 60, had a senior moment in the Himalayas. During the same week they became the second-oldest U.S. man and woman to scale Mount Everest.

Other people, in politically high places, including Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and Sen. Maria Cantwell, followed their lead to climb Mount Rainier.

But nature lovers’ hearts were taken to new heights by the year’s top love story as a geriatric but persistent trumpeter swan sired the first cygnets to hatch at the refuge since 1987.

More than 20 years after tending his last brood and losing his long-time mate to a predator, the refuge’s lone male trumpeter, nicknamed Solo, had a few flings over the years but never attracted another viable mate until this season.

And he found more than love: Four cygnets hatched on Father’s Day Weekend, no less.

The proud mom, and dad – who’s known to be at least 33 years old – were on the water and inseparable with their offspring in late June.

Meantime, everything else initially seemed to be going downhill early in the year, including retirement funds and state economies.

Washington and Idaho began making dramatic cuts in state government, including fish and wildlife management and parks and recreation. Even more will be made this year.

Idaho began requiring non-motorized vessels longer than 10 feet to pay for boat registration stickers that will help fund invasive species protections.

While leaving resident hunting license fees alone, Idaho hiked the cost of non-resident hunting and fishing fees. For the first time in memory, Idaho did not sell all of its non-resident elk tags.

Some outdoor industries faltered, and sponsorships shriveled for outdoor cable TV shows and bass tournaments.

Genmar Holdings Inc., manufacturer of Ranger Boats, filed for bankruptcy. Muzzleloading Inc., which had made more than a million Knight muzzleloaders since 1985, closed shop in Alabama.

But other gun manufacturers – especially the assault-type semi-auto rifles – smiled as their sales soared under Internet-fueled propaganda and hysteria claiming that newly elected President Barack Obama was going to inflict gun control.

The gun lobby was on a roll as Congress passed a law permitting concealed loaded firearms in National Parks. The law, which won’t take effect until February, will yield to restrictions imposed by states.

Meantime, national parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier and Rainier, reported visitation increases of at least 4 percent. REI Co-op reported steady sales, reminding the nation that simple pleasures such as camping and nature are go-to recreation values in a poor economy.

And it helped that Starbucks introduced a decent instant coffee in feather-light packets perfect for backpacking.

A PBS documentary series on national parks by filmmaker Ken Burns was released this fall, reminding us not only that natural areas are sensational and priceless, but also that throughout the country’s history determined visionaries have had to fight – and fight hard – to protect those values from development.

Speaking of developments, here are a few to watch as they progress into 2010:

The Spokane Tribe would get $99.5 million and jurisdiction over the water in much of the Spokane Arm and a portion of the Columbia River bordering the reservation under legislation introduced in Congress in June.

S.B. 1388 is sponsored by Sens. Cantwell and Patty Murray.

H.B. 3097, the companion bill, is sponsored by Reps. Jay Inslee and Norm Dicks.

The bills would not give the tribe control of the south bank of that portion of Lake Roosevelt, eliminating one of the most controversial points in a proposal supported by Cantwell and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in 2005.

Bighorns in Idaho were virtually lowered to the status of pests as the Legislature approved a bill to shoot bighorn sheep as vermin. Fish and Game Department officials are trying to smooth out agreements with stockmen after the lawmakers essentially mandated that they kill or move wild sheep that wander onto public grazing allotments above Hell’s Canyon.

Grizzly bears, although federally protected, continued to die at an alarming rate in conflicts with humans in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Although much better than the 79 grizzlies killed in 2008, at least 46 grizzlies were killed in 2009 by hunters acting in self-defense, wildlife officials dealing with problem bears and vehicles that slammed into bears crossing roadways.

Despite these losses, one of the biggest threats to grizzlies appears to be the bark beetle epidemic that’s destroying vast stands of whitebark pines, a prime grizzly food source.

Still grappling with the tragic case of a 14-year-old young hunter shooting and killing a hiker he mistook for a bear in 2008, the Washington Legislature debated several bills to require:

•Hikers to wear the fluorescent orange clothing that big-game hunters are required to wear during modern rifle seasons.

•Youths 14 and under to be accompanied by an adult while hunting.

•Youths to be at least 16 before they can buy a hunting license.

All three bills failed, this time.

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