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Cheap getaway: Winterfest at 49 Degrees a free-heel bargain

WINTER SPORTS — Nordic skiers and snowshoers should check out the lineup of events and activities for Winterfest, sponsored by Mountain Gear, Jan. 7-8 at 49 Degrees North.

This is a screaming deal:  Free demos, free mini lessons and free trail passes.

Plus, tons of fun from ski races to paintball biathlon.

 Enjoy the moonlight ski and snowshoe tours, and then say overnight on the mountain — bring a sleeping bag and stay for just $15 at the Learning Center. 

“It’s fun and cheap,” said 49 Degrees Nordic guru Doug Elledge, in a classic bit of understatement.

Seasons greetings in video featuring peace, joy and the great outdoors

HAPPY HOLIDAYS from the great outdoors. This video from Idaho Fish and Game captures some of the beauty of the season.

Ross’s gull not the only attraction in Okanogan County

WILDLIFE WATCHING — The rare occassion of a Ross's gull showing up in Washington has become one of the most notable winter attractions to the Loomis area in a long time.

Birders from east and west of the Cascades are flocking to Okanogan county to get a peek at the bird, which has been regularly feeding on a submerged deer carcass along the shore.

But the gull isn't the only wildlife worth seeing near Loomis, as you can see from these photos by birder Kenneth Trease.

To see one of the best and most creative photos I've seen of the gull, check out the “local rarities” photo posted today by Spokane birding photography ace Tom Munson on his wildlife website.

Check out this report by Spokane birder Gina Sheridan:

 On Wednesday (12/21/11), Kim Thorburn, Garrett MacDonald, and I made the long haul up to Palmer Lake. The beautiful ROSS'S GULL entertained the entire bevy of birders present with a great show.While enjoying the Ross's Gull, a TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE flushed out of the riparian tree border by the lake.

 In the quaint community of Loomis, a herd of Bighorn Sheep were nonchalantly roaming around. A couple of the rams had impressive racks, and it was real treat to view them at such close range. In addition, there were a least 20 EURASIAN COLLARED DOVEs and several CLARK'S NUTCRACKERs adorning the town's trees.

After an afternoon drive over the entire Cameron Lake Road route in search of an Okanogan Snowy Owl, we were disappointed to find the entire Timentwa Plateau totally raptor-less.

Fortunately, we did find a handsome pair of PACIFIC LOONs at the foot of Chief Joseph Dam (Okanogan/Douglas County).

Avalanche advisory: Big transition expected

WINTER SPORTS — The Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center has offered suggestions for winter backcountry travelers in its weekly advisory posted today.

Overall, conditions are fairly safe — for now!

“Be cautious near ridgelines and where wind deposited snow is deeper and possibly firmer overlying a weak layer fo surface hoar,” says Kevin Davis. “We'll probably have another buried layer of surface hoar after the storm forecast for Saturday and this will set the stage for increasing avalanche danger in what looks to be a snowy week ahead….

“Be thinking more snow equals more instability on weak layers.  You can check the weak layers pretty easily since they'll be easy to find in the sugary snow above the thick Thanksgiving ice crust, about the upper 1-2 feet of the pack.”

Read on for the full 12-23-11 avalanche advisory:

Lawmakers call for delay in state park ranger layoffs

STATE  PARKS — Concerned about the massive layoff of park rangers, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers has asked the state Parks and Recreation Commission to delay sending out notices until after the Legislature meets in January, according to a report by the Wenatchee World.

The Dec. 14 letter raises the issue of public safety in the event nearly half of the 189 full-time permanent park rangers were laid off or given the option of seasonal employment.

Park rangers are fully commissioned law-enforcement officers and respond to incidents in state parks, along with their many other duties.

But state parks officials said any delays would cost the cash-strapped agency $750,000 a month — money they say the agency doesn't have.

Bald eagle numbers may be peaking at CdA

WILDLIFE WATCHING — The number of bald eagles gathering at Lake Coeur d'Alene appears to have peaked or may be declining slightly after last week's record count of 259 birds in Wolf Lodge Bay.

In today's survey, a total of 237 bald eagles — 204 adults and 33 immature — were counted in the weekly survey by BLM wildlife biologist Carrie Hugo.  That's down slightly, but Hugo notes in the survey report that viewing conditions were fairly difficult because of the sun shining into her spotting scope and snow on the trees making it difficult to pick out the white heads of the adults.

The 2010 peak count — a record at that time — was 254 bald eagles surveyed on Dec. 23.

“As usual, lots of birds were seen on the south shore across from Higgens Point and many were on the west side of Beauty Bay,” Hugo said. 

“Lots of Eagle Watchers out today as well.  The Mineral Ridge Trailhead parking lot was packed!  There are still many kokanee floundering around and there were plenty of opportunities to see eagles fishing on the wing today.”

Eagle Watch Week runs Dec. 26-Jan. 1, with volunteers offering information and offering use of spotting scopes 10 a.m.-3 p.m. south of the Wolf Lodge exit 22 from Interstate 90.

‘Tis the season for Labrador retrievers

HUNTING DOGS — Those of us who have pointing breeds are glad to see that somebody's finally come up with a good use for a kennel of Labs.

Idaho Rep. Simpson ranked among top “enemies of the Earth”

ENVIRONMENT — Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, has made the Los Angeles Times list of Congress's 10 most powerful and outspoken opponents of clean air, clean water, conservation and climate action.

 Simpson has stepped to the front lines of his party's war on Mother Nature by adding dozens of anti-environment riders to must-pass budget legislation.

See the entire list and some entertaining background.

Lake Spokane winter drawdown starts Friday

RESERVOIRS — Avista Utilities will start to draw down the water level at Lake Spokane (Long Lake Reservoir) on Friday (Dec. 23).Operators expect to lower the reservoir up to a foot a day for two or three weeks until it reaches its winter elevation of 13 to 14 feet below maximum summer elevation of 1,536 feet.

Under the right weather conditions, which include sustained periods of single-digit temperatures and little or no snow on the exposed lakebed, the drawdown is expected to help control Eurasian watermilfoil and other invasive aquatic weeds found in Lake Spokane. The drawdown also allows shoreline homeowners the opportunity to complete state and locally permitted repair and construction projects along the lake shoreline.

Property owners and lake-users can should remove boats from the water and securing docks and boathouses to accommodate shifting ice and low-water conditions.

The lower winter elevation will be maintained as long as river flows allow. However, during the drawdown period water levels are subject to change due to a variety of factors, such as weather (rain on snow events in the upper drainages) or maintenance at the Long Lake Dam.

For updates, see Avista's website or check the 24-hour telephone info for Lake Spokane, the Spokane River and Coeur d’ Alene Lake. In Washington call (509) 495-8043; in Idaho call (208) 769-1357.

Feds want to turn over wolf management to states

WILDLIFE — The Obama administration today declared more than 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have recovered from widespread extermination and will be removed from the endangered species list.

After devoting four decades and tens of millions of dollars to saving the gray wolf, the federal government wants to get out of the wolf-protection business, leaving it to individual states — and the wolves themselves — to determine the future of the legendary predator.

Read the details from the Associated Press.

Veterinarian sues Idaho agency over poaching charges

HUNTING – A veterinarian accused of poaching an elk in North Idaho has filed a federal lawsuit against state wildlife officials.

The Bonner County Daily Bee reports Roland Hall is accusing the Idaho Department of Fish and Game of civil rights violations, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution and slander.

He filed a lawsuit earlier this week in U.S. District Court seeking an unspecified amount of damages. Hall previously filed a tort claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, indicating he would seek $500,000 in damages.

Hall says the state agency pressed to prosecute him on a felony poaching charge, which stemmed from a 2009 hunting trip.  Although the charges were dropped, Hall claims the case was filed because of a vendetta against him over a long-standing dispute involving a lead and silver mine he co-owns.

Montana sportsman’s group offers $100 reward for wolf kills

PREDATORS — Idaho is using trappers and helicopter gunners to try to get wolf numbers down.

In Montana, with wolf-harvest goals looking as though they could go unmet,  a hunting group is offering a legal version of a bounty as an incentive to get hunters out to fill more wolf tags.

The Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife is offering $100 and an annual membership for photographs of wolves killed in any open wolf hunting district between Dec. 19 and the Feb. 15 end of the season, or until a quota is filled.

Read the story from the Ravali Republic.

Report: many western species need room to roam

WILDLIFE — A conservation group is putting a Spotlight on wildlife migrations.

Wildlife Conservation Society report tracks migration routes in the West

In its new report, “Spectacular Migrations in the Western U.S.,” (pdf) the Wildlife Conservation Society discusses the importance of maintaining ecologically intact corridors for migration.
—New York Times

Wolverines live up to tough reputation

WILDLIFE RESEARCH — A recent study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management confirmed that wolverines regularly patrol a vast mountain territory.

Eight years of radio-tracking 30 individual wolverines in the Rocky Mountains has provided an abundance of new data about the world's largest member of the weasel family, including that the feisty mammals survive year-round in harsh, snowy conditions 9,000 feet above see level.

See details and photos in this report from Mongabay.com.

Although immeasurably tough, the animal is nearly extinct in the lower 48 states of the U.S.

Rare Ross’s gull spotted in Okanogan County

WILDLIFE WATCHING — A rare sighting of a Ross’s gull has been reported on Palmer Lake in Okanogan County by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist Jeff Heinlen.

The Ross’s gull (Rhodostethia rosea), an East Siberian arctic species that normally winters at sea, has been  documented only one previous time in the state— in late November and early December of 1994, near McNary Dam on the Columbia River, the agency reports.

“This is like a holiday present for bird watchers,” said Heinlen of Omak. “This is arguably the rarest bird currently in the state, and definitely worth a trip to the area to catch a sighting.”

Closer to home, a “gull bonanza” is underway at Lake Coeur d'Alene, according to Coeur d'Alene Audubon Society members. Hundreds of herring gulls, as well as glaucous, lesser black-backed, Thayer's, Mew and ring-billed gulls have been reported from Wolf Lodge Bay south to Blue Bay. 

Read on for details about the Ross's gull from a WDFW media release.

Screamin’ deal: 50% off Methow Valley 3-day nordic trails pass

NORDIC SKIING — If you have plans to visit the 120 miles of Methow Valley ski trails this season, check out this great Groupon deal:   Pay $25 for a three-day trails pass that normally costs $51.

Idaho hunter ed teacher dismissed after gun fired in class

HUNTER EDUCATION — Some of Washington's volunteer hunter education instructors have been grumbling about new procedural rules and a trend toward replacing  instructor firearms in classroom settings with guns that have disabled firing pins.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department might seem a little overbearing and unreasonable in this trend — until you read what happened in an Idaho hunter ed class last week:    Here's the Associated Press report:

BOISE — A hunter education instructor in eastern Idaho was dismissed after a loaded handgun brought to class for a demonstration was discharged by a student.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game says no one was injured when the weapon was accidentally fired during the class late Monday in Soda Springs.

The agency prohibits instructors of hunter education courses from bringing live ammunition into the classroom and local police were asked to investigate. Police reported that the volunteer instructor brought the gun and ammunition to class for use as a teaching tool.

After the demonstration, police reported a student who was unaware the gun was loaded discharged the weapon and hit the head of a mounted mule deer.

The instructor was dismissed and counseling made available to the students.

Walking on ice? Boot company gets a grip

WINTER SPORTS — No need to be slip-sliding along all winter.

Korkers, the Oregon boot company that made its name with interchangeable soles for fishermen's wading boots, has diversified into other footwear, including with snowboots that have different traction options, including studded soles for applications such as ice fishing.

Check out this story from the Oregonian.

Elk Foundation withdraws support for Lochas land swap

In the news:

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation withdraws support for Idaho land swap

— Lewiston Morning Tribune

The proposed land swap in Northern Idaho that would trade 18,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service lands in three forests in Idaho for 40,000 acres owned by Western Pacific Timber in the upper Lochsa River basin had the early support of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, but the organization withdrew that support last week, citing concern of members and the expansion of the deal into elk habitat in Idaho County.

Few dispute the value of eliminating the checkerboard ownership in the upper Lochsa drainage to make it all managed by the national forests.   The issue is complicated by the other scattered lands the public would have to give up in the exchange.

See more details on the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange.

Read on for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News report on the RMEF backout.

Winter doesn’t chill bighorn ram’s desire

WILDLIFE WATCHING — The party's over for elk.  Bull moose have given up on the girls.  Deer are losing their urges and getting serious about consuming enough calories to endure the winter.

Meanwhile, bighorn sheep are getting it on.

December is the peak of the rut for the masters of rock ledges, as the males earn their names by ramming heads together to determine who's the fittest to breed.

The bighorn ram pictured above is lip-curling at the beginning of December much as the whitetail buck was as it entered its peak of breeding in November.  

Wildlife photographer Jaime Johnson of Lincoln, Mont., captured the similar behavior of both animals with his camera.

When bucks or rams come to where a doe or ewe has urinated, they often curl their lips to trap the female's odor in their nose and mouth and analyze the scent for clues to the female's estrus stage.


Show a kid this video on the danger of a single sunburn

OUTDOOR SPORTS — Many people will be hitting the sunny ski slopes this week, or maybe “coloring up” in a tanning booth, or planning for a winter getaway to a warm beach. 

Fine. Take your sunscreen and learn to cover up. 

Remember, your skin is like an elephant. It never forgets.

A single bad sunburn before the age of 18 doubles your chance of contracting malignant melanoma.

This video, “Dear 16-Year-Old Me,” is worth sharing with any young person.

It’s a record! Bald eagles mobbing Lake CdA

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Bald eagles are mobbing Lake Coeur d’Alene in record numbers this week.

On Thursday, U.S. Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist Carrie Hugo returned from an eagle cruise boat tour and reported that eagles were “all over the place” compared to just the week before, when her weekly survey counted 136 bald eagles in Wolf Lodge Bay.

She confirmed her notion Friday with the fourth official survey of the season, tallying a record 259 eagles congregating to feast on spawning kokanee. That's an increase of 123 in just one week.

Friday’s congregation breaks the record of 254 eagles counted in the bay on Dec. 21, 2010.

The record previous to that was a mere 154 eagles in 2004.

Hugo counted 215 adults and 44 juveniles Friday, noting that most of the fish-loving birds were hanging out in the Beauty Bay area and the hillside just across the water from Higgens Point.

More eagles could be coming in, since the peak of the congregation traditionally has been just before Christmas.

BLM, Idaho Fish and Game and Audubon Society volunteers are organizing the annual Eagle Watch Week, Dec. 26-Jan. 1 (take I-90 Wolf Lodge Exit 22) with free exhibits to educate visitors about this confluence of propagation, death and survival.  Volunteers will be available

at the Mineral Ridge boat launch and trailhead parking areas, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. each day during Eagle Watch Week. 

Eagle cruises launching

Reservations are filling fast for cruise boat tours to view bald eagles at Wolf Lodge Bay.

Tours are set to launch from the Coeur d’Alene Resort this weekend, Dec. 24 and Dec 26-Jan. 1

Book seats on resort’s website or call (208) 765-4000.

Related news: 

Washington DNR considers removing bald eagles, pergrine falcons from state Forest Practices Board’s critical habitats list.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources will hold public hearing regarding proposed changes to state Forest Practices Rules on Jan. 5 at 6 p.m. at the Southeast Region Office, 713 E Bowers in Ellensburg

One proposed rule will amend Forest Practices Board rules on threatened and endangered species to be consistent with other state laws. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission already has removed the bald eagle from the state’s threatened and endangered species lists, following removal from the federal endangered species listing. DNR's proposed rule change would remove the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon from the Forest Practices Board’s critical habitats list.

Bonner County mulls options to challenge Selkirk caribou habitat protection

ENDANGERED SPECIES — Bonner County commissioners may challenge a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposal to designated 375,562 acres as critical habitat for endangered woodland caribou in the southern Selkirk Mountains.

The issue is on the meeting agenda for Tuesday, when the commissioners may discuss invoking a federal rule that requires agencies to coordinate with local officials on land use matters, according to a report in the Sandpoint Daily Bee on Friday.

“We have a dog in this fight and we have tools that have never been used before,” Commission Chairman Cornel Rasor told the newspaper.

The FWS estimates about 45 woodland caribou exist in the southern Selkirks.

The proposal to protect habitat is chilling to businesses at Priest Lake, where residents a few years ago were rocked by Forest Service restrictions on snowmobile entry into the Selkirk caribou recovery zone.

Bonner County Commissioners already have established a Property Rights Council that is challenging federal Environmental Protection Agency standards on developing wetlands around Priest Lake, as detailed in this report by the Boise Weekly

Four-year effort protects 10,000 acres in Cascades for wildlife

WILDLIFE CONSERVATION — Good things don't always come quick and easy.

Hunters and other conservationists are reminded of that this week as a deal closed to seal four years of negotiations by a partnership of conservation groups and state agencies. The project blocks up and protects about 10,000 acres of public land for big-game and other wildlife in the east and central Cascades.

The deal has foresight to secure the real estate elk and other critters need from winter to summer range.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the most recent purchase in November, using funding from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Grant Program.

But the negotiations and original purchases of land were undertaken by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and The Nature Conservancy. The land was purchased from Plum Creek Timber Company to prevent the land from being developed or subdivided as well as to maintain public access.

The first phase of the project was completed in 2009, securing 2,675-acres.

Read on for details from a just-issued RMEF media release a day after the final phase of the deal was closed.

Bears denning for hibernation; have you checked your basement lately?

WILDLIFE — Imagine the surprise of a cable TV technician who made a service call to a New Jersey man's home and found a 550-pound bear snoozing in the dirt-floor cellar.  The bear had been living there for weeks and had brought in twigs and leaves to make a cozy nest.

The repairman said he heard a growl, and saw an enormous black bear waking up in the corner. He didn’t stick around to make friends with the animal.

“I just freaked out, threw my tools, ran out of the basement,” he told reporters.

Animal Control officers were able to tranquillize the bear and relocate him to nearby public land.

Salmon anglers get good forecast for 2012 runs

SALMON FISHING — Preliminary forecasts for salmon returns, announced this week, give anglers three good reasons to look forward to 2012:

  • Upriver spring chinook, expected to be the fourth largest since at least 1980.
  • Summer chinook, could be the largest since at least 1980.
  • Sockeye, tentatively expected to be the largest since at least 1938. (Record is 387,900 fish in 2010).

The 2012 preliminary forecast for upriver Columbia River spring chinook — which includes Snake River fish bound for Idaho —  is 314,200 fish compared with this year's forecast of 198,400 and an actual return of 221,200, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department officials say.

If the forecast holds for next year, it would be the fourth largest dating back to 1938. The largest recorded return was 440,300 in 2001.

The second largest occurred in 2002 when 335,000 upriver springers returned and the third largest was 315,000 in 2010.

The Upper Columbia spring chinook forecast in 2012 is 32,600 compared to a 22,400 forecast last year and an actual return of 16,500.

The Snake River spring/summer forecast in 2012 is 168,000 compared to 91,700 last year (127,500 was actual return). The Snake River wild spring chinook is 39,000 in 2012 compared to 24,700 last year (31,600).

The Columbia River spring chinook are prized by anglers for their tasty, Omega-3 laced, red-orange-colored meat, which is similar to fish from Alaska's Copper River, says Mark Yuasa of the Seattle Times.

Looking further ahead the Upper Columbia summer chinook forecast also looks very promising.

Website points bargain hunters to Salt Lake ski vacations

WINTER SPORTS —  A national travel website is advising clients that Salt Lake County is the place to go for an affordable skiing or snowboarding vacation.

A frugal traveler visit a Salt Lake-area resort for $239, according to a TripIndex Ski program launched this week by TripAdvisor.com.

By contrast, the most expensive destination is Vail, which costs $746. Park City is third on that list at $667, about $6 cheaper than a trip to Aspen. Two other Colorado resorts, Telluride and Steamboat Springs, round out the top five in the most-expensive list.

The closest bargain destination spot to Spokane is listed as Banff, Alberta.

If you need another good reason to go to Utah, consider this:

Per-gallon price for gasoline dips under $3 in Utah
It's been some time since Utah drivers paid less than $3 a gallon for gasoline, but prices have fallen more than 25 cents a gallon lately, putting Utah tied for 10th with Kansas for low prices of the fuel.
—Salt Lake Tribune

Aerial wolf hunting criticizm is merely shooting the breeze

PREDATORS — Last week, Idaho Fish and Game officials announced they will be using aerial gunning from helicopters to help reduce the number of wolves along the Idaho -Montana border in an effort to give a hurting elk herd some breathing room to recover.

The Los Angeles Times seized upon this story, not so much on the effort to keep the prey base healthy, but on the professionalism of the federal agents assigned to control wildlife.

The paper leads with concern raised by a 2006 photo of government gunners in a plane with more than 50 decals of wolf paw prints fixed to the fuselage much as WW II aces signified the number of enemy aircraft they downed.

But really: These guys have a job to do, and a very dangerous one at that. The goal is to reduce the number of wolves. Each wolf kill is logged and detailed in required reports.

It's no different than the goal to reduce the number of lake trout in Lake Pend Oreille to help bring back the kokanee.

Does it really make any difference that some of the wolves will be dispatched from an aircraft or that some of the shooters marked their efforts with decals on a plane  years ago?


Read on for a report on the IFG announcement as published in the Lewiston Morning Tribune.

Elk to be shot at Snoqualmie golf course

WILDLIFE — The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department is getting ready to tee off on elk that have been tearing up the TPC Snoqualmie Ridge golf course, about 30 miles east of Seattle.

Some people are upset by the “damage hunt,” which will involve a few sportsmen who have completed the state's master hunter requirements.

But the protests should have occured when the golf course and other development was proposed in wildlife winter range. The rest is inevitable.

Since hazing efforts have failed, wildlife officials hope that killing a few of the elk will persuade the herd of about 25 to move to less expensive turf. 

For details on the hunt, which could start this weekend, read the Seattle PI online story.

Decline in Kootenai bull trout affects fishing rules

FISHERIES — This fall’s bull trout spawning was 78 percent of the 10-year average in streams feeding Montana’s Kootenai River below Libby Dam, and 70 percent of the 10-year average in streams feeding Lake Koocanusa north of the dam.

A decline in redd counts in both drainages over the last few years prompted Montana biologists to recommend changes in fishing regulations that had allowed angler to keep two bull trout per year from Lake Koocanusa, one of the few places anglers are allowed to keep the threatened species.

Last year, that limit was lowered to one bull trout and a change to catch-and-release only regulations for 2012 was approved by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission on Nov. 10.