Hunter reports provide first-hand information that is critical to wildlife management, season settings

General season big game hunts and controlled hunts are in full swing and it’s time to remind hunters to fill out their mandatory hunter reports after their hunts end. It will only take a few minutes of your time, and it will provide critical information so Fish and Game can continue to preserve, protect and perpetuate Idaho’s wildlife.

You can submit your hunter reports online or by calling 877-268-9365. The phone option is available 24 a day, seven days a week. Please have your hunting tag number when calling.

If you’re curious as to why it’s important, as well as required, here are more details.

  • Why should I submit my hunter report? Fish and Game strives to get the best data on hunter effort and harvest possible, and the best data is from you reporting directly to us where you hunted, whether you harvested, what animal you harvested, how long you hunted, etc. If you don’t report, we may try to contact you, but that is time consuming and expensive. If you don’t report and we can’t contact you, we have to make an educated guess through statistical estimates, but we would rather hear first-hand from you to ensure accuracy.
  • Why does it matter? Hunter data isn’t the only information we use to set hunting seasons, but it’s a very important part. When Fish and Game biologists don’t have reliable information on harvest and hunter success, they need to manage game more conservatively, which can mean more restrictions on hunting, such as shorter seasons or fewer tags. We prefer to allow generous hunting opportunity when it’s sustainable, but we have to know it’s sustainable through accurate data. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission will set the 2019 and 2020 hunting seasons and tag numbers in March, so it’s important that we have accurate harvest statistics as soon as possible.
  • What if I plan to hunt late seasons? We know some deer and elk hunts extend into December. We’re not asking you to report before you’re done hunting, but the sooner after you’re done for the year, the better.
  • The rules say I have 10 days after my hunt ended, what if I miss that deadline? The rule is intended to ensure timely compliance with hunter report requirements so we have your information in time to use for developing next year’s hunting season, but your report is still important even if your hunt ended more than 10 days ago.
  • Are you going to give away my favorite hunting spot? No. All we ask is what unit (or units) you hunted and where you harvested an animal.

Respect and courtesy are essential when hunting private land

Hunters should get permission before hunting on private land, and Idaho Fish and Game urges them to act responsibly so access to private lands can be preserved.

“We are fortunate that the majority of hunters are respectful and considerate to landowners,” said Sal Palazzolo, private lands coordinator for Idaho Fish and Game. “But each year, we deal with problems related to irresponsible behavior of a few.”

Access to private land can be a challenge for Idaho hunters. Yet each year, landowners restrict access to their property because of conflicts with hunters. Trespassing, property damage and discharging firearms close to livestock or buildings are the three main reasons. Unfortunately, the careless actions of a few are causing access to quality hunting to disappear for the rest.

Whatever the reason for complaint, most circumstances boil down to a lack of common sense and lack of respect for landowners and their property.

“It’s important to remember that your actions represent all hunters,” Palazzolo said. “Always be the best ambassador of hunting that you can by treating the landowner as you would like to be treated and their land as you would like yours to be treated.”

Getting permission to hunt private land may seem daunting, but the extra effort is worth it. However, how hunters behave before, during and after the hunt will determine if they are allowed back.

Before the hunt

Always ask first for permission, preferably before the season begins. But before contacting them, sportsmen should consider it from the landowner’s perspective. Hunting season falls during a very busy time of year for them because many are rushing to get their fall work completed before winter. A steady stream of hunters calling and appearing randomly at the front door takes their time away from getting work done and can be overwhelming.

When asking, be polite, friendly and ask during reasonable hours. Calling or knocking on a rancher’s door at 6 a.m. to ask permission the day you want to hunt is the best way of getting turned down. If you haven’t already obtained permission before the season begins, a face-to-face meeting at the landowner’s house a few evenings before you plan to hunt is usually appropriate.

“A little courtesy goes a long way, and those hunters who plan ahead and ask permission in advance are usually welcome,” Palazzolo said.

If allowed to hunt, both hunters and landowners should clearly understand what “permission” is being given. For instance, is permission for a single day or for the whole season? Is permission only to hunt deer, or is it for elk or just upland game birds? Also, are you asking permission just for yourself, or will others be hunting with you?

Best policy is to get it in writing. And never assume because permission was granted last year, that the same applies this year.

“Never assume anything,” Palazzolo said. “Iron out all the details with the landowner in advance.”

Landowners want to know who’s on their property, and some even manage hunter numbers by setting a limit. The limit makes for a higher quality hunting experience and helps the landowner keep track of who will be on their land and when they will be there.

If your request is denied, don’t take it personally. Be understanding and remain polite, whether or not the landowner explains the reason for the decision. Remember, your courtesy and show of respect may affect the outcome of future requests.

“Hunting private land is a privilege, not a right,” Palazzolo said. “If hunters respect landowners and show their gratitude whether the answer is yes or no, they can establish relationships that both will appreciate.”

Fish and Game encourages hunters to exchange contact information with the landowner. Provide them a business card or note card with your name, contact information and vehicle description including plate number. Landowners feel more secure knowing who is on their property and how to contact them if necessary.

During the hunt

How a hunter behaves while on private land is critical. Many times this involves knowing where to park, keeping safe distances from livestock and buildings, leaving gates the way they are found, and knowing the property boundaries. Keeping vehicles off fire-prone vegetation and muddy roads are other concerns for landowners.

“Remember that you are a guest of the landowner,” Palazzolo said. “Follow their wishes, and chances are you’ll be invited back.”

Landowners also appreciate if you leave the area better than you found it. Again, this is just good manners and shows respect. This includes picking up your empty shell casings, other litter you may find and not cleaning birds or other game near roads, ditches or in areas frequented by people or livestock. Remember, not picking up your empty shell casings is considered littering under Idaho law. If you notice something wrong or out of place, notify the landowner immediately.

After the hunt

Landowners generally welcome those hunters who are thoughtful and respect their property. When you are done hunting, drop by and thank the landowner for allowing you access. Send them a thank you card, gift certificate to a local restaurant or other tokens of appreciation. Simple gestures will help your relationship with the landowner and help build a positive image of hunting.

If mentoring a young hunter, consider providing them with an opportunity to ask a landowner for permission and to express their appreciation after the hunt. As part of the mentoring process, it is important that young hunters understand we must respect landowners and their land.

And at the end of the day, remember that responsible hunters do not have to harvest to have a successful day. One can have a great day by recognizing the challenge of the hunt, the pleasures of being out in nature, sharing companionship of friends, and being an ambassador to the sport.

Dealing with hypothermia

We had what I perceived as a pretty warm hunting season from Oct. 10 to 20. A couple of the evenings were pretty cool, but nobody I am aware of felt cold enough to mention they were cold. As a matter of fact, I packed clothes, gloves and hand and pocket warmers I never needed. I basically did very well with boots, pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt with a light pull-over jacket with hood. During the day, I put the jacket in my day pack because I didn’t need it.

Those who will continue elk hunting during November should experience colder days and nights than the temperatures during October. If you are planning to camp while hunting in November, your vehicle might be quite a ways away if you start to experience hypothermia — the dangerous lowering of your body’s temperature.

Cold affects not just one or two specific tissues or functions of the exposed person but affects the whole physiological economy in a sometimes subtle, yet always complex fashion.

Under cold conditions, humidity plays a minor role, unless the skin is artificially wetted through rain, perspiration or falling in the creek. Should this occur, the resulting evaporation cooling may exceed all other factors in importance. A person immersed in sub-arctic 40-degree water can be cooled beyond recovery in about 20 to 40 minutes or approximately 10 to 20 minutes in 32-degree water. A person in wet cotton clothing because of perspiration or rain must be considered nearly immersed in water and should act accordingly.

The sooner wet clothing can be removed and dry clothing put on, the sooner a person can regain some warmth. To the outdoorsman who depends on the clothing worn to stay dry and warm, the choice of clothing immediately available in case of the need to change in a hurry, should have the highest priority. Because of weight limitations, weather factors, seasonal conditions and the environment, clothing must serve several purposes, yet be able to withstand the abuse of the rough, rugged environment. Several layers of easy-on, easy-off clothing can offer layers of dead air for insulation between the fabrics. Wool is traditionally preferred because it is warm even when wet, but it is poor protection from wind, so a good wind-proof garment should be the outer layer worn.

If someone in your group exhibits signs of hypothermia, remove wet clothes, hats, gloves, shoes and socks and replace with dry clothes and blankets. Protect against wind and drafts. Move to a warm dry shelter as soon as possible. If the victim is conscious and you have warm liquids that do not contain caffeine, you can offer it to them. Do not give a victim of even mild hypothermia symptoms alcoholic beverages. Caffeine and alcohol speed up heat loss.

Any time a person exhibits signs of hypothermia, as the body cools, symptoms will indicate the severity of the situation. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. If the body temperature drops to 96 degrees, shivering begins and metabolism increases. At 94 degrees, gross motor skills are impaired. At 92 degrees, severe shivering begins and walking becomes difficult. At 90 degrees, convulsive shivering begins and the inability to stand up will be experienced. Finally, at 89 degrees body temperature, shivering stops and the individual will become comatose.

A person who is exhibiting any signs of hypothermia is in trouble. Immediate action to restore body heat is critical, so make sure you and the members of your group are prepared to act quickly to restore body heat and get the victim to professional medical help if necessary.

Many people don’t realize how soon a person will be in serious trouble if they don’t immediately remedy the situation when body temperature begins to drop.

Stay safe and stay warm. If a member of your group starts to show signs of hypothermia, get them warm fast or get medical assistance while there is still time.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He can be contacted at mokeydo41245@hotmail.com.

Studying wildlife ecology through road-killed animals

Hilary Turner works for the Idaho Fish and Game Department as a roadside carcass surveyor in the Upper Snake Region. She drives U.S. Highway 20 from Idaho Falls to the Montana border searching for carcasses and collecting data.

“Why?” you may ask.

Ecology is the study of interactions and relationships between organisms and their environments. Road ecology is an emerging science in which scientists study the ecological effects of roads, which Turner does by collecting data on road kills.

From two-tracks to interstates, most people use some kind of road in their daily lives. The United States alone contains 4.12 million miles of road (2.68 million paved miles) and the ecological effects (direct and indirect) of this transportation system are vast.

The ecological effects of roads have been studied in Idaho since at least the late 1960s, when Fish and Game documented the effects of the completion and opening of Interstate 84 in southern Idaho on the migratory Sublett mule deer herd. The freeway opened in November 1969, and in the next six weeks, 18 mule deer were killed by vehicles.

For a herd that historically migrated southwest from summer range in the Sublett Mountains to winter range in the Black Pine Mountains, I-84 became an impediment to migration. Some animals were unable, or unwilling, to cross the freeway, and many were killed as they attempted to cross it.

The interstate altered their migration route, and many deer remained on the east side of the freeway and spent winters near Snowville, Utah. That winter range had insufficient forage for deer, and during the following winters, an estimated 40 percent of the herd died of malnutrition.

In an attempt to pass cattle safely across the road, as well as restore this important migration route, crossing structures in the form of underpass culverts were eventually installed. Without wildlife-proof fencing to help funnel deer to the culverts, the project was ineffective at restoring the migration route.

Improvements were made to the culverts since then, and some deer now cross under the road successfully. But some biologists estimate the deer herd is currently less than half of what it was in the 1960s because of the freeway, which still acts as an impediment to migration. The story of the Sublett mule deer herd demonstrates both the direct and indirect effects of roads on wildlife.

Often, the indirect effects of roads can be as severe, or more, than the direct wildlife mortality. Habitat is lost and fragmented when roads are built. Animals have a harder time accessing resources and moving throughout their home ranges. Migrations are lost or changed due to the barrier effect of roads.

To further complicate things, deer, elk, pronghorn and other animals’ migrations depend on learned and socially transmitted information, which if lost, can take decades to restore.

Noise, light, and chemicals also pollute roadside habitat for up to several hundred feet beyond the side of the road. Disturbed roadsides provide ideal habitat for invasive plant and animal species. Litter, intended or not, finds its way into ecosystems throughout the year via roads.

Beyond big game

People often think of the large animals that are directly killed on roads because we can see the evidence that deer and elk are hit, even skunks, raccoons, and owls are commonly observed. But the direct effects of roads are much farther reaching than what typically meets the eye.

Billions of insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals are killed annually on roads. Some studies estimate that up to one million animals are killed each day on roads in the U.S. Using the work done in Idaho as an example, since December 2017, Turner has documented over 700 unique dead organisms on a 63-mile stretch of US-20 in Southeast Idaho. Because carcasses do not persist long on roadways, Turner said she may be missing up to 14 times the number of small animals that are found.

Before getting a negative feeling about roads, not all is lost. Fish and Game has a memorandum of understanding with Idaho Transportation Department, and the agencies work together toward solutions for some of the ecological problems associated with Idaho’s roads.

Not just a wildlife problem

Because wildlife/vehicle collisions are also safety risks for drivers, ITD has an interest in projects that reduce them, and the agency works with Fish and Game to implement them. It is through this agency collaboration that the road-kill carcass survey is possible. Carcass surveys provide valuable information about mortality hotspots, which can be used to determine appropriate wildlife/vehicle collision mitigation siting and what methods to use.

ITD and Fish and Game have already collaborated on mitigation projects, including the wildlife underpass and fencing that was installed on US-21 near the Boise River Wildlife Management Area. Trail cameras have documented wildlife using the underpass. A wildlife overpass with fencing is also planned for the near future on US-21 to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve habitat connectivity.

Other projects include wildlife underpasses and fencing in the Coeur d’Alene region, and barn owl collision mitigation in the Twin Falls area.

You can help save animals, and prevent vehicle repairs

Remember, as a driver, you can also do your part to make a difference for animals. Fall and spring are the peak seasons for deer and elk movement. During fall, herds are migrating from summer to winter range and beginning their mating season. Add daylight savings time (a one hour shift in predictable traffic patterns) into the mix and fall is usually the worst time of year for collisions.

Here are tips to avoid them:

n Keep a watchful eye for animals near the road

n If you see one animal cross the road, it is likely that others are near

n Animals are more active at dawn and dusk

n Avoid nighttime driving when possible

Residents upset after hunter kills deer in city park

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) — Residents of one Coeur d’Alene neighborhood are upset that steps aren’t being taken to prevent hunting in a popular city park.

The Coeur d’Alene Press reports a deer gut pile found in the park recently prompted concerns from residents who fear getting shot by hunters.

City police said the deer was killed with archery equipment by a resident who did not know that killing deer with bow and arrow in the city was illegal.

Police spokesman Sgt. Jared Reneau said investigating officers responded to a call of a poached deer. Officers found the hunter, who was warned but not cited.

Reneau says he doesn’t think the hunter “had any malice.” But he says it is against the law to shoot animals within the city, regardless of how you do it.

Multiple mountain lion sightings in Pocatello area

POCATELLO — Reports of mountain lion sightings have been on the rise lately in Southeast Idaho, and experts say attacks involving the big cats are a growing problem elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

The Bannock County Sheriff’s Office responded to a reported sighting at 9:04 p.m. Wednesday near Robbin Road.

Earlier in the week, Chubbuck police responded to a reported sighting on Siphon Road.

“We’ve probably had more sightings than we normally do,” Sheriff Lorin Nielsen said. “We had two to three in the county in the last month or two.”

Nielsen advises people who encounter a mountain lion to slowly move in the opposite direction.

“Leave them alone, and if you see them call Fish and Game,” Nielsen said. “Usually they’re going to want to get away from you as much as you want to try to get away from them.”

Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokeswoman Jennifer Jackson explained mountain lion sightings tend to rise when their prey, including turkeys and deer, move lower into the valleys, and urban areas. She emphasized we live in a wildlife-rich area with a healthy mountain lion population, and that many reported sightings go unconfirmed.

During the spring, for example, Jackson said the department received a cluster of eight mountain lion-sighting reports in Pocatello and Chubbuck, and a single report was confirmed, involving a mountain lion that was relocated from the Red Hill area. The Red Hill trail was closed for a period of time as a result. Some of the other calls likely involved people who misidentified other wildlife, such as coyotes, after catching a glimpse, Jackson said.

Nielsen knows of no injuries resulting from a mountain lion attack in the region. However, mountain lions have been implicated in several attacks lately elsewhere in the Northwest.

A deadly attack in May near Seattle. A hiker dead in Oregon, likely killed by a cougar. In September, a girl near Inchelium, Washington, shot a cougar after the animal stalked her younger brother. In late September a big cat was spotted in a tree in downtown Coeur d’Alene and eventually euthanized.

All these sightings, incidents and attacks have left many wondering, why? One common-sense answer: There must be more cougars.

Experts disagree.

“Well, I’m not so sure there are that many (more) cougars,” Brian Kerston said.

People often assume that if “we’ve seen a spike in the number of reports” there must be more cougars, he said. But research he’s done doesn’t support that claim.

Kertson studies large carnivores for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. For two decades, much of his research has focused on cougars. He’s found that the number of reported incidents is not directly connected to the overall cougar population.

“It’s totally counterintuitive,” he said.

Instead, what leads to cougar attacks, sightings and incidents has more to do with people and less to do with the animals.

That contradicts anecdotal evidence and statements by some wildlife managers. In a recent Spokesman-Review article, Idaho Fish and Game biologist Jim Hayden said, “We’re seeing dispersal and seeing the range expansion of mountain lions in the West.”

“But I’m skeptical that they actually know that,” Kertson said. “Cougar populations are very, very difficult to enumerate outside of intensive field research. Those sort of assessments are made based on anecdotal observations.”

The rate at which cougars enter and inhabit human areas remains relatively steady regardless of the overall population, Kerston said. That finding comes from one of his studies in Western Washington, near Snoqualmie. The study has not yet been published.

Between 2004 and 2008, about 50 percent of the adult females Kertson studied survived. That number is “bad” and “indicative of a population decline,” he said.

And yet during that time, the “average cougar used residential areas 16 percent of the time.”

Compare that to 2013-17, when about 90 percent of female cougars survived. The average residential use remained more or less the same, Kertson said.

So, what is actually going on?

There isn’t one simple answer, but three things may point observers in the right direction.

First, the number of humans has increased dramatically. Washington’s population has essentially doubled since 1990. That expansion inevitably increases pressure on cougar habitat.

At the same time, more people are recreating outside. That means even if people don’t live in cougar habitat, they are traveling into cougar habitat on the weekends.

“Washington is so interesting because we really are the tip of the spear,” Kerston said. “We have a full suite of large carnivores. We have cougars. We have black bears. We have wolves. We even have grizzlies.”

The only other western states that can boast that kind of diversity are Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

“Our human population is three times larger than those states combined,” he said. “We are the tip of the spear, and we are going to continue to face these challenges moving forward.”

But what about the increased number of sightings, attacks and complaints? Anecdotal evidence, while perhaps not scientifically valid, still counts for something. Especially if you’re the one being stalked by an apex predator.

Kerston doesn’t doubt that people have been reporting more cougar sightings. But he believes that has more to do with the human brain and less to do with the cats.

“When you have a really high-profile event, like we did recently in May, that draws additional scrutiny,” he said. “Just because we weren’t aware they were there doesn’t mean they weren’t there. As we’ve accumulated knowledge and we’re more aware of an issue, we look for it.”

That’s a well-documented cognitive phenomenon known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or more simply, the frequency illusion.

Essentially, once you learn or experience something, you’re more likely to notice that same thing in the future.

With two high-profile deadly cougar attacks this summer, it’s no surprise that people are noticing — and reporting — the animals, Kertson said.

That kind of pattern isn’t limited to cougars. Regional wildlife mangers see a rise in reports any time there is a high-profile event.

“We see an increase in calls after any type of news event,” said Michael Atamian, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Spokane.

“The magnitude of the news event mirrors the magnitude of the calls.”

Other cougar researchers’ work supports Kertson’s findings.

Mat Alldredge, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife researcher, said his cougar study in Colorado’s Front Range indicates that the number of cougar incidents and sightings is not directly connected to the overall cougar population.

Instead, like Kertson, he thinks it’s a combination of increasing human presence and increasing awareness.

“I would strongly question anyone saying that this is the result of increasing lion population,” he said.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t seasonal and regional fluctuation. But cougar populations have stayed stable since the mid-1990s, Alldredge said.

There is plenty of misinformation about cougars, Kertson said. Scientists are also learning new things about the big cats as technology improves.

Cougars were hunted for decades, leading to their near extinction in North America.

But since the 1970s, cougars have been making a slow comeback with stricter hunting regulations and tighter management. It’s true that there are more cougars in the West than in the past, but Alldredge said that population steadied in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As the animals have lived in their traditional habitats and as technology has made it easier to track and study the wide-ranging mammals, researchers have learned more.

For instance, recent research indicates that cougars are more social than previously believed, although the findings are questioned by some biologists. Either way, it’s an exciting time to be a cougar researcher.

“I think people seem to forget sometimes that this is a remarkably adaptable mammal,” Kertson said.

Cougars and humans will, barring some major collapse of either population, have to coexist.

For humans, that means being aware that the big cats live nearby, whether we want them to or not, Kertson said. He urges people to not feed wildlife — like deer — that could attract cougars. For people who have goats, chickens or other animals, Kertson said it’s important to keep those animals in some sort of shelter, especially at night.

If you’re in cougar country, be aware. Think ahead. Know how to respond.

“I think personal responsibility for people is really important,” he said.

Dan Garren begins job as regional supervisor for Fish and Game

Dan Garren recently took over as supervisor for the Southeast Region of Idaho Fish and Game.

Garren, who’s based at the regional office in Pocatello, has over 25 years of experience in Fish and Game agencies from three different states. However, he said he is excited to be a regional supervisor in Idaho, a state whose citizens, he said, are highly engaged with Fish and Game.

“Essentially we’re trying to provide opportunities for recreation,” Garren said. “And when you have an active and engaged sporting public, you just know that people appreciate the opportunities that you’re providing out there. I would 10 times rather have an active pubic than one that’s kind of disengaged from the resource.”

As regional supervisor, Garren oversees all management programs within his region.

“Basically everything that Fish and Game is doing falls under the responsibility of the regional supervisor.”

And though the Southeast Region is, as any other region, often buzzing with activity, Garren said he plans to spend his first few weeks on the job learning.

“I certainly didn’t come in with an agenda,” he said. “I look at my role right now as just trying to learn. I’m in a learning phase right now trying to get up to speed on what’s historically been done and where we want to go in the future.”

But Garren has already shown interest in some of the region’s activities. He was one of the voices that expressed concern over Pocatello’s Wildlife Feeding Ordinance, which was recently proposed to the Pocatello City Council by the Urban Wildlife Task Force.

The council agreed to further discuss the ordinance during a work study session, but the ordinance was pulled from the agenda after Garren, among others, took issue with the complicated prospect of enforcement of the ordinance.

Garren said that, though Fish and Game serves as a technical adviser to the task force, the future of the ordinance was primarily up to the members of the task force themselves.

“We can provide the science behind different management options to the technical committee, but they’re really the drivers behind this,” Garren said. “And they’re the ones that need to work with city council to get an appropriate rule in place that the city council buys off on and that meets the objectives of the technical group.”

For the most part, though, Garren said he is still learning the ropes of the region.

“I think the challenge for me is going to be getting up to speed on the issues as fast as they’re coming at us,” he said. “You come in to work thinking that you’re going to be working on a specific topic, and the reality is that you’re probably going to get something you weren’t even expecting. The diversity is pretty substantial, and I enjoy that.”

He added that he has also enjoyed working with the region’s staff, who he said have been instrumental in helping him adjust to his new position.

“The exciting part is walking into a region where the staff is engaged and knowledgeable about the issues and willing to work with the public,” Garren said. “I’ve been really impressed with the quality of the staff and their engagement.”

Overall, Garren said he looks forward to interacting with “these resources and these customers” in his new role and asked that the public be open.

“I’d love to hear from people,” he said. “I’d love to hear thoughts and concerns about our programs as a whole and get a better understanding of what our public wants.”

Dutch ovens really up your cooking game

In the last two decades, Dutch-oven cooking has gained monumental acclaim. A lot of the articles I write I feel like I barely get to do them justice because of my limited space, but on this topic I really am just going to barely scratch the surface. There’s been no telling how many books have been written on this subject.

When you think about Dutch ovens, your mind automatically drifts back in time to the old trail drives and cowboy chuck wagons. It’s the crack of dawn and while everyone is roping their horse for the day, the cook scoops a shovel full of hot coals out of the fire. He throws some on top and some on bottom of his old Dutch oven and heats up a batch of sourdough biscuits. In a short amount of time, the cowboys all line up single file as he serves them up a hot cup of coffee, biscuits, scrambled eggs and sausage.

Now let’s fast forward 100 years. The modern-day Dutch-oven cooks are chefs that demand an exact heat level. My buddy Paul Loree strategically places a certain amount of coals on top and on bottom for the exact heat he wants for that recipe.

I bought my first Dutch oven in 30 years ago. I messed around with it, but years later I attended a class that Paul taught. That’s where I really learned how to do it right. Paul has taught thousands of people how to cook Dutch oven.

Where do we start? The first step is to buy a Dutch oven and bring it home and scrub it out with hot soapy water and a Brillo pad. This will remove the wax, grease or whatever the heck it is they protect them with at the factory. (Many manufacturers claim to preseason their Dutch ovens, but I still do it myself.)

Dry it off. Grease it up and fire up your oven to 400 degrees. Throw it in the oven for an hour. Let it cool off and pull it out. Grease it up and it is ready to use. From now on you will never use soap on it again or it will remove the seasoning and you’ll have to re-season it. From now on to clean it, scrub out the old food and heat and grease.

Here are a few good Dutch oven cookbooks:

  • “Lovin’ Dutch Ovens: A Cook Book for the Dutch Oven Enthusiast” by Joan S. Larson
  • “The Outdoor Dutch Oven Cookbook” by Sheila Mills
  • “Cast Iron Cuisine” by Linda Cawley and Geri Munford (A good one for beginners)

Buy one of these books and try some of the recipes. Remember, every time you open the lid to peek in it increases the cooking time by five minutes.

There is a wide array of tools and accessories to make life easier when cooking with a Dutch oven. Tongs to lift the lid, lid holders and charcoal starters are just a few. Paul will shoot me for being a heretic because in the old days they got by without all these gimmicks. It’s just that they make life easier.

Shortly after attending Paul’s class I took my boss Doug Pagler bear hunting. We got back to camp after dark and I was preparing dinner and was worried that I didn’t have charcoal and was trying to carefully measure out some hot coals. Doug brushed me aside and said quit worrying about it. He grabbed the shovel and scooped a load and laid it on top. I told him we needed so and so many coals. He told me not to worry, he’d been cooking Dutch oven for years. Then he said something that clicked. He asked me if I really thought that the old cowboy carried a bag of charcoal to cook with?

As best I remember we ate every bit of whatever it was I was cooking, so I guess it wasn’t too bad. It’s just that the cooks nowadays have exact heat temps and know exactly how long to cook a meal. There’s no guesswork — for them it’s just like using an oven. They know for each recipe exactly how many charcoal briquettes to lay on top and how many on bottom.

Remember, though, in the cowboy days all they had to use was the coals they scooped out of the fire pit. All my buddies are hardcore and use an exact number of charcoal briquettes. You can also double stack ovens to conserve coals. Paul cuts the side out of a metal trash can and stacks his ovens in it. That blocks the wind and helps him cook faster.

You can buy a variety of brands and sizes of Dutch ovens. The most common is the 8-quart oven. They even make aluminum ones. They are unbelievably light. Paul packs them in on his horses. And they make an anodized one if you’re worried about Alzheimer’s. The aluminum is light and cleans easier, but the cast iron has a more even heat. Whichever one you buy, get one with a lip on top and legs on bottom. This way you can put coals on top. Lodge is the best brand that I’ve found. The walls have a more consistent thickness, the lid seats better and the handle works smoothly.

What can you cook? The sky is the limit. The classes that Paul taught were four weeks long. The first class he taught for the first two hours and then served the whole class. He had cooked a whole turkey, enchiladas and lasagna for a main course. For dessert, he had cherry cobbler, and if you didn’t like cherries he had peach cobbler. I was totally sold after that meal. Now it’s a given. If we’re having a barbecue, we tell Paul to bring whatever he wants as long as it’s a Dutch oven special.

A couple of years ago, we had a dinner for our cattle suppliers. We had a guy with an outfit named Going Dutch or something like that cater the meal. He fed more than 300 cowboys with Dutch ovens. He grilled some ribeyes and cooked potatoes in his Dutch oven. They were sliced and cooked with cheese and jalapeños. They were worth dying for.

I’m telling you. You can cook anything. Paul even cooks pizza. Here are a couple of easy recipes to get you started.

Doug Pageler’s Quiche

  • 4-5 eggs
  • 1 to 1-1/2 cups Bisquick
  • 1 can of mushrooms
  • 1 can Rotel tomatoes
  • 1 large onion chopped
  • 8 oz. cheese
  • 1 lb sausage

Charlie’s Honey Buns

  • 1 cube butter
  • 1-1/2 cups brown sugar and 2 tbsp Karo syrup
  • ½ cup chopped nuts
  • 2 cans Pillsbury Grands biscuits

Line a 12-inch Dutch oven with aluminum foil. Place Dutch oven over 5 or 6 coals and melt butter. Stir in brown sugar and nuts gently. Slice biscuits in 1/2 or ¼ and drop all around on top of the brown sugar mixture. Cover with lid and 12 to 14 coals on top. Bake until golden brown — about 15 minutes. Dump onto a large plate and let the goo drip down the sides.

If your salivary glands aren’t salivating by now, you’d better get yourself checked out. You ought to buy a Dutch oven this fall and try it out in hunting camp. It’ll add another dimension to your camping experience and will guarantee you a spot in any camp.

Tom Claycomb lives in Idaho and has outdoors columns in newspapers in Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Louisiana. He also writes for various outdoors magazines and teaches outdoors seminars at stores like Cabela’s, Sportsman’s Warehouse and Bass Pro Shop.

Increased cougar sightings don’t necessarily mean increase in big cats’ population

Cougars have been in the news this summer.

A deadly attack in May near Seattle. A hiker dead in Oregon, likely killed by a cougar. In September, a girl near Inchelium, Washington, shot a cougar after the animal stalked her younger brother. In late September a big cat was spotted in a tree in downtown Coeur d’Alene and eventually euthanized.

All these sightings, incidents and attacks have left many wondering, why? One common-sense answer: There must be more cougars.

Experts disagree.

“Well, I’m not so sure there are that many (more) cougars,” Brian Kerston said.

People often assume that if “we’ve seen a spike in the number of reports” there must be more cougars, he said. But research he’s done doesn’t support that claim.

Kertson studies large carnivores for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. For two decades, much of his research has focused on cougars. He’s found that the number of reported incidents is not directly connected to the overall cougar population.

“It’s totally counterintuitive,” he said.

Instead, what leads to cougar attacks, sightings and incidents has more to do with people and less to do with the animals.

That contradicts anecdotal evidence and statements by some wildlife managers. In a recent Spokesman-Review article, Idaho Fish and Game biologist Jim Hayden said, “We’re seeing dispersal and seeing the range expansion of mountain lions in the West.”

“But I’m skeptical that they actually know that,” Kertson said. “Cougar populations are very, very difficult to enumerate outside of intensive field research. Those sort of assessments are made based on anecdotal observations.”

The rate at which cougars enter and inhabit human areas remains relatively steady regardless of the overall population, Kerston said. That finding comes from one of his studies in Western Washington, near Snoqualmie. The study has not yet been published.

Between 2004 and 2008, about 50 percent of the adult females Kertson studied survived. That number is “bad” and “indicative of a population decline,” he said.

And yet during that time, the “average cougar used residential areas 16 percent of the time.”

Compare that to 2013-17, when about 90 percent of female cougars survived. The average residential use remained more or less the same, Kertson said.

So, what is actually going on?

There isn’t one simple answer, but three things may point observers in the right direction.

First, the number of humans has increased dramatically. Washington’s population has essentially doubled since 1990. That expansion inevitably increases pressure on cougar habitat.

At the same time, more people are recreating outside. That means even if people don’t live in cougar habitat, they are traveling into cougar habitat on the weekends.

“Washington is so interesting because we really are the tip of the spear,” Kerston said. “We have a full suite of large carnivores. We have cougars. We have black bears. We have wolves. We even have grizzlies.”

The only other western states that can boast that kind of diversity are Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

“Our human population is three times larger than those states combined,” he said. “We are the tip of the spear, and we are going to continue to face these challenges moving forward.”

But what about the increased number of sightings, attacks and complaints? Anecdotal evidence, while perhaps not scientifically valid, still counts for something. Especially if you’re the one being stalked by an apex predator.

Kerston doesn’t doubt that people have been reporting more cougar sightings. But he believes that has more to do with the human brain and less to do with the cats.

“When you have a really high-profile event, like we did recently in May, that draws additional scrutiny,” he said. “Just because we weren’t aware they were there doesn’t mean they weren’t there. As we’ve accumulated knowledge and we’re more aware of an issue, we look for it.”

That’s a well-documented cognitive phenomenon known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or more simply, the frequency illusion.

Essentially, once you learn or experience something, you’re more likely to notice that same thing in the future.

With two high-profile deadly cougar attacks this summer, it’s no surprise that people are noticing — and reporting — the animals, Kertson said.

That kind of pattern isn’t limited to cougars. Regional wildlife mangers see a rise in reports any time there is a high-profile event.

“We see an increase in calls after any type of news event,” said Michael Atamian, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Spokane. “The magnitude of the news event mirrors the magnitude of the calls.”

Other cougar researchers’ work supports Kertson’s findings.

Mat Alldredge, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife researcher, said his cougar study in Colorado’s Front Range indicates that the number of cougar incidents and sightings is not directly connected to the overall cougar population.

Instead, like Kertson, he thinks it’s a combination of increasing human presence and increasing awareness.

“I would strongly question anyone saying that this is the result of increasing lion population,” he said.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t seasonal and regional fluctuation. But cougar populations have stayed stable since the mid-1990s, Alldredge said.

There is plenty of misinformation about cougars, Kertson said. Scientists are also learning new things about the big cats as technology improves.

Cougars were hunted for decades, leading to their near extinction in North America.

But since the 1970s, cougars have been making a slow comeback with stricter hunting regulations and tighter management. It’s true that there are more cougars in the West than in the past, but Alldredge said that population steadied in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As the animals have lived in their traditional habitats and as technology has made it easier to track and study the wide-ranging mammals, researchers have learned more.

For instance, recent research indicates that cougars are more social than previously believed, although the findings are questioned by some biologists. Either way, it’s an exciting time to be a cougar researcher.

“I think people seem to forget sometimes that this is a remarkably adaptable mammal,” Kertson said.

Cougars and humans will, barring some major collapse of either population, have to coexist.

For humans, that means being aware that the big cats live nearby, whether we want them to or not, Kertson said. He urges people to not feed wildlife — like deer — that could attract cougars. For people who have goats, chickens or other animals, Kertson said it’s important to keep those animals in some sort of shelter, especially at night.

If you’re in cougar country, be aware. Think ahead. Know how to respond.

“I think personal responsibility for people is really important,” he said.