Friday, July 19, 2024

Farm life

by Warren Illi
| May 2, 2024 12:00 AM

I write this column from my farm in eastern Montana near Malta. This is my first trip of the year to my farm.

First, I must apologize to my wife for calling this my farm. She likes to point out that this is “our” farm since the deed includes both our names. Anyway, I am here alone, enjoying a spring vacation of farm work.

One of my favorite spring farm activities is really a non-activity since it involves taking my morning cup of coffee and a lawn chair and sitting by my — or “our” — pond and watching the ducks in their bright spring coloration. Normally there are four species of ducks on the farm pond, including mallards, pintails, American wigeon and shoveler or spoonbills. It is interesting to see how these duck species all tend to stay near or with their own duck species groups. The mallards are in one tight group and the pintails are in their own species group. They generally don’t seem to integrate with other duck species. Perhaps this explains why human efforts to integrate all aspects of human life is difficult.  

I’ve noticed the same with big game species on the farm. I’ve seen groups of mule deer, whitetail deer and antelope all at the same time feeding in my barley field. But each of those separate species tends to stay in clusters with their own species.  So, wildlife watching is an important part of my spring trip to the farm.

In America, there is a war going on between hunters, anglers, trappers, farmers and ranchers on one side, and America’s urban residents on the other side. As America becomes increasingly urbanized and with film media becoming the primary entertainment for most Americans, those city folks seem to be winning the war, one critter at a time. 

While most city folks do not hunt or fish, there seems to be a general public acceptance of sport hunting and fishing if it is done in an ethical, humane and legal manner. Sportsman and their organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation and Ducks Unlimited have widely promoted their efforts to sustain and increase game animals and wild game habitats. Game habitat is also home to hundreds of non-game wildlife species.  

As hunters, we must recognize that we are an increasingly minor part of our national population. The last figure I recall is that each fall there are about 12 to 15 million licensed hunters in the U.S. That is a sizable number of Americans, but only about 4% of our total population. So, it is increasingly important that hunting and fishing organizations promote hunting and fishing that is done in an ethical manner, that animals harvested are humanely killed and those animals or fish are eaten. Americans love to eat meat, so cattle, pigs and chickens must be killed to satisfy the diets of all Americans. So, most non-hunters can accept the killing of wild game if it is eaten. 

On the frontline of hunters who are fighting the anti’s, are non-game hunters who like to shoot or trap animals, but don’t eat them. That includes hunters who love to hunt mountain lions with dogs or hunt or trap wolves, bobcats, lynx and many non-game animals such as raccoons, badgers, prairie dogs, gophers and coyotes. These critters are pursued and shot or trapped just for their heads, teeth, claws, hides or sometimes just for the sport of killing a live target. For some reason the wolf gets more media coverage than any other non-game animal. I suppose that is because wolves were the original breeding stock for the pet dogs that we love.    

Humans have been trying to kill off wolves since the beginning of recorded time because they threaten humans and our livestock such as sheep, goats and cows. The media, especially film media, like to show a mom wolf playing with her young pups in front of their den on a sunny spring day. Who could not love that scene? Media doesn’t show that mom wolf standing over a recently killed deer fawn or elk calf or domestic sheep with blood dripping from her mouth. That mother wolf will frequently begin eating her prey before the calf or fawn is even dead. This is not pleasant to view but it is the law of nature.   

In 2021, voters in Colorado voted to reintroduce wolves into Colorado. The vote was close, but the Denver urban folks had more voting clout then hunters and Colorado agricultural groups.  Hunters and game managers were concerned with the impact of wolves on Colorado’s world class elk and mule deer herds. Agricultural interests were concerned about impacts on domestic livestock. So, the state was obligated to reintroduce wolves as directed by the citizen vote. Wildlife managers call this ballot box wildlife management.  

Colorado requested Montana and Idaho to supply those wolves. Both states refused to send wolves to Colorado. Colorado finally received 10 wolves from Oregon. Recently those wolves were released in Colorado. Only a few days passed until the first report was received of a domestic cow being killed by a wolf. So, the wolf wars in Colorado are just starting.       

Meanwhile here at the farm, I manage our farm to increase the game animals such as deer, antelope and sharp-tail grouse, I do not allow my neighbors to cut hay on my farm until the young grouse can get out of the way of the hay mower. I require the farmer that raises barley hay on the farm to leave a 20-foot-wide swath of barley hay around the edge of the field for deer and grouse consumption. I am trying to increase the water ponds on the farm. On our farm, I do my best to kill the wild critters that damage the farm or the wildlife I love. My neighbor was planting the barley field last week when a coyote walked into view. He reached behind the tractor seat for his gun. Bang. The coyote was dead. Coyotes have no value on our farm because they kill helpless deer and antelope fawns. They also raid the nests of my sharp-tail grouse.

Yesterday I was sitting on my deck enjoying the sunshine and viewing farm. I noticed a new white object between the farmhouse and some old grain bins. My binoculars disclosed a gopher standing on his hind end, looking at me. Gophers can destroy a pasture. My .22 rifle was handy, so that gopher died. I suppose gophers have some redeeming value, but I don’t know what they are. 

Luckily, I live in Montana where common sense generally dictates wildlife management. Wildlife that we love are treasured and enhanced. Wildlife that threatens us or our farm values are controlled, usually by killing them. Is that OK? Perhaps not, but that is life in Montana. I love it. 

Have a good spring season.