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2017: The year outdoors

A lot of ground was covered in the Great Outdoors in 2017, but no one accomplished a more skillful feat than rock-jock Alex Honnold.

The 31-year-old Californian already had been raising the bar to seemingly unreachable heights for rock climbers since he was a teenager. On June 3 he defied impossibility by solo-climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan wall without the aid of a rope.

In what Outside magazine declared as the greatest achievement in the history of climbing, Honnold ascended without a safety device of any kind for 3,000 feet top-to-bottom in 3 hours, 56 minutes. After the first two minutes, nearly any mistake would have been certain death.

For comparison, a pair of world-class climbers in 2015 made the first free-climbing ascent of Dawn Wall, El Capitan’s most difficult climb, without using aid to go up, but they still used ropes during the climb to catch them if they fell. It took them 15 days. One of those climbers, Tommy Caldwell, called Honnold’s feat “the moon landing of free soloing.”

National Geographic magazine termed Honnold’s pure-rock climb “the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever.”

Elsewhere, public lands were in the spotlight for other reasons.

The Trump Administration took charge of the country and wasted no time in scaling back Obama-era rules that protected public lands and the environment.

On his first day as Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke withdrew a controversial order signed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe to phase out use of lead bullets and lead fishing tackle on federal wildlife refuges.

Most controversial was the effort, spurred by lawmakers from Utah, to give states more control or even ownership of federal lands. The lucrative Outdoor Retailer trade show companies voted to pull out of Salt Lake City in protest of the state’s obsession with derailing federal land management.

After Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments established by presidents through the Antiquities Act, the Trump administration announced it would shrink four national monuments and change the way six other land and marine sites are managed.

Utah lawmakers heralded the news that Zinke had proposed downsizing two massive national monuments there – Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 46 percent. The withdrawn land would remain federal, but it would be easier to access for mining and other development.

On the Idaho Panhandle, more public access to wildlands was secured as the Fish and Game Department made several major land deals. A 1,000-acre former horse ranch was acquired along the Coeur d’Alene River near Black Lake. Farther north near Bonners Ferry, an agreement with Stimson Timber Co. opened Clagstone Meadows, 13,169 acres, to year-round public access for hunting and other recreation.

Grizzly bear restoration plans for the North Cascades were boiled down to four proposals after two years of surveys and public meetings. The options included letting the bears move in on their own from Canada as well as proposals for releasing grizzlies in designated areas. But the process ground to a halt in December when Interior Secretary Zinke told North Cascades National Park officials to hold off on their environmental review. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the outlook for polar bears grew dimmer as researchers documented the further decline of arctic sea ice and other ravages of climate change.

Northern pike continued their invasion downstream from Montana, across the Idaho Panhandle and into the Columbia River where tribes and state agencies are trying to draw the line on the non-native species. The goal is to keep predatory pike from taking hold downstream from Chief Joseph Dam, where they could impact salmon and steelhead waters.

The pike seem unstoppable. Despite official gillnetting suppression operations in the Pend Oreille River and in the Columbia near Kettle Falls, pike numbers appear to be increasing. Northerns were a rare catch in U.S. portions of the Columbia a few years ago. This year anglers earned about $10,000 for turning in 1,095 northern pike heads as part of the Colville Tribe’s northern pike reward program that started in May.

Gray wolf recovery continued to be an expensive management issue in Washington, and even in Idaho where the wolf is no longer listed as an endangered species. Washington officials said they had budgeted $2.9 million for monitoring and managing protected wolves in 2017. Meanwhile, Idaho spent about $1.2 million mostly to control wolves and pay for livestock depredation.

Wolves expanded in numbers and distribution in Washington. Trail cam photos confirmed wolves roaming Mount Spokane and a lone wolf captured west of the Cascades in Skagit County is being monitored after biologists caught, radio-collared and released the 100-pound black male.

Three wolves were killed by state-authorized shooters in northeastern Washington after two packs were involved in multiple livestock attacks. Two more wolves in that region were found illegally killed. Pro-wolf groups put up a reward of $26,000 for information that convicts the poachers. Three unsolved wolf poaching cases also were reported in Oregon.

Steelhead anglers suffered the worst run of Snake-Clearwater fish in decades. While some groups called for fishing closures, Washington and Idaho started the seasons allowing only catch and release. Anglers were later allowed to keep some hatchery-marked fish.

Weather, as always, played a big role in outdoor resources and recreational pursuits in 2017.

A winter noted for deep snow stressed big-game herds in portions of Idaho and Washington. Emergency winter feeding for mule deer was authorized in portions of southern Idaho. Washington wildlife mangers closed public access to 11,000 acres of wildlife areas to reduce stress on struggling elk.

Aerial surveys later indicated the Blue Mountains elk herd declined from about 5,500 to 4,400.

The snow was a boon to ski resorts, with Lookout Pass and Whitefish Mountain logging record numbers of skier visits. Priest Lake businesses cashed in on a stretch of snow in the valley that enabled snowmobilers to ride from resort to resort.

Spring found the region flush with water for better or worse.

In Western Montana, legendary backcountry soaking destination Jerry Johnson Hot Springs was filled with silt from the thundering runoff.

Costly road washouts blocked access to some popular areas in national forests throughout the region.

In Eastern Washington, downtown Sprague was inundated. Farmers couldn’t get into their fields. The Spokane River was flowing so high and fast, city and county officials closed access. That angered experienced kayakers itching to play in rapids of rare opportunity.

Meanwhile, runoff was overwhelming outflows from scabland lakes and redistributing fish from lake to lake for miles.

“It will be interesting to see where perch show up in coming years,” said Marc Divens, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife warmwater fisheries biologist.

The wet spring translated into great waterfowl production for fall hunting seasons, but it likely contributed to the Lincoln County landslide that closed the road to Porcupine Bay, one of the most popular recreation areas in the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area. County officials are still searching for funding to fix the site so the area can be reopened.

But the water was a blessing for anglers in Lincoln County. South of Odesssa, Pacific Lake, which has been nearly dry for 15 years, was full of water. State fisheries biologists responded by stocking the lake with 10,000 rainbow trout. Then 9-inches long, the carryovers should be especially ripe for catching this spring.

A boom of blooming beargrass in the region’s mountains made some slopes look as though the snowpack had returned in June.

But the other grasses and vegetation that flourished from the spring wetness set the stage for significant wildfires and periods of gross air quality.

The Eagle Creek Fire on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge made headlines because of its proximity to human use and Interstate 5. Set by a teenager shooting fireworks, the blaze nearly trapped about 140 hikers who had to be led out the long way on an overnight marathon to escape the flames.

A Spokane family of five and two friends on Sept. 2 were on a simple hike of less than 4 miles round trip to take photos at Punchbowl Falls in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. When their inbound route was engulfed in fast-moving flames at about 4 p.m., they joined the crowd with no option but to hike nearly 18 miles to safety.

“I’ll never again set out on a trail without a few essential things in a pack,” Merribeth Midtlyng said while detailing her family’s harrowing ordeal with no headlamps, extra food or clothing other than the shorts and T-shirts whey were wearing. “I learned my lesson.”