Wednesday, September 07, 2016
MY FIRST PEEK AT AN UNLIMITED BIGHORN SHEEP DISTRICT
For about a quarter of a century I have been attempting to draw a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks “Special Tag” for hunting moose, mountain goat or bighorn sheep. Now I’ve added bison to the unobtainable list. Thus far, even with the “benefits” of the Bonus Point system, I haven’t drawn shit. As I tally up the years, mileage and injuries I’ve acquired, I’m getting a little nervous. I don’t know how many years I have left in which I will still be physically able to hunt the high country for sheep and goats.
Montana does have some “Unlimited” bighorn sheep hunting districts where a person can simply buy an over-the-counter tag. These represent the only opportunity in the Lower 48 States for a hunter to actually purchase, a bighorn sheep tag, as opposed to attempt to draw one tag via a lottery system.
The major reason why the state can have these five unlimited districts is that the country in question is steeper than a cow’s face and rougher than a cob; rocky, isolated, and hard to access. The units are in the National Forests and Wilderness areas just north of Yellowstone National Park. Some of this terrain, like the Boulder River and Beartooth Mountain units, consists almost entirely of loose rocks piled just a few degrees shy of vertical. It kicked my ass twenty-odd years ago when I was still in my prime. Now, I have to take a three ibuprofen just to look at a topo map of the area. Jack Atcheson, the premiere sheep hunting guide who used to work the unlimited districts around Yellowstone told Duncan Gilchrist, author of the Land of Giant Rams books, “Some hunters arrive, look at the immense size of the country, become depressed and leave immediately.”
One must also factor mountain weather into the mix. It can and does snow every month of the year in the northern Rockies. I once found myself plodding through three inches of snow in a genuine blizzard atop a high, barren ridge in the Big Belt Mountains, and in Idaho I awoke one fine morning to find ice rattling around in my canteens…both these events occurred during the balmy old month of August.
The areas in question are also very thick with grizzly bears which, after forty years of Federal protection, have come to believe that they are officially at the top of the food chain. Rather than fearing man, they have come to regard us as delightfully fat, slow and rather defenseless (no horns, claws, or teeth to speak of) sources of protein. A rifle shot is actually a “dinner bell” to some bears who’ve discovered the report means, at the very least, a yummy gut pile, if not an entire elk, that they can confiscate from the plump orange two-legged critters who waddle hastily out of the way.
Merely traveling into these areas is hard; you can get horses and mules into the approaches to the mountains that hold sheep, but to hunt the high country itself you have to do a lot of arduous walking. Finding a legal ram is even harder. Due to the high elevation and tough winters, the unlimited district rams have a reputation for slow horn growth. From 2000 to 2013, only one ram measuring over 40 inches has been harvested from the Yellowstone area units.
Since it appears that my odds of drawing a bighorn tag for a limited hunting district are significantly less than my odds of being elected president, I decided it’s time to hunt the unlimited districts while I still can. So I’ve been researching the two “easiest” to get to unlimited bighorn districts, Unit 300 (Gallatin-Yellowstone) and Unit 303 (South Absaroka). They’re in the same county that I reside in but, Montana counties being what they are, still require a 90-plus mile drive one-way for me to get there.
The Gallatin-Yellowstone has about the smallest geographic area, although it still covers a wide swath of tough country, and an early ten-day season starting September 1st. Mountain weather being what it is, I like the idea of the early September hunt. Despite the fact that 40-odd hunters scoured the place each season, for the past two years Unit 300’s two-ram quota has gone unfilled, and many years only one ram is bagged.
South Absaroka covers a much larger area, but has a little “easy” access in the southwest corner, where you can drive to pretty high elevations above Gardiner and Jardine. There are pockets of resident sheep throughout the area, if you can find their haunts, but many people gamble on waiting for the really big rams to migrate out of Yellowstone Park to their winter range on the National Forest in mid to late October. There’s always a chance that the quota will be filled and season closed before the big boys leave the park. The 303 quota usually gets filled and, if you hunt above Gardiner, there’s the very nice benefit of being able to camp in a vehicle or camper, always a plus in grizzly country.
Since I haven’t hunted the country around Gardiner for almost two decades and need to do a lot of scouting, the timing seemed fortuitous when my neighbor down the road, whom I’ll call “Uncle Si”, asked if I wanted to go with him on a sheep hunt in Unit 300. I agreed to tag along because he’s in his late 60’s and missing half a lung. He wanted me to go along because, as an artilleryman in Vietnam, he’s deaf as a post and worries that a grizzly could walk right up to him without him ever knowing it. Having served in armor, I’m only half deaf and I wore my hearing aids.
For reasons I’ll detail in a post of is own, neither one of us carries pepper spray. Since I didn’t have a sheep tag and no other big game seasons were open, it was my intention to just pack my 4-inch Smith & Wesson Model 629 .44 Magnum in case we ran into a bear. Uncle Si, who was hunting with a single-shot Thompson-Center rifle in 7mm Remington Magnum, wanted me to bring a rifle too. This didn’t quite seem right to me, so I phoned the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks office to ask about this. It isn’t technically illegal to carry a rifle for protection under such circumstances, but they really preferred I didn’t.
I compromised between the two by bringing my smoothbore slug-barreled Model 870 Remington 12-gauge pump shotgun, with a single one-ounce deer slug in the tube and the extended magazine filled with double-ought buckshot. Plenty of firepower but decidedly short-ranged and defensive in nature, nothing a normal human would be able to poach a sheep with. In hind sight it was simply a whole lot of extra, unnecessary weight to carry. Thankfully, I had at least installed a sling some time back, which made it much easier to tote around.
Uncle Si had supposedly hunted the country in question his whole life, bagged plenty of nice elk up in Tom Miner Basin, and knew the area like the back of his hand. So, I foolishly left my topo map folded up in my belt pouch and trustingly fell in behind ye olde mountain man, assuming he knew right where he was going. I completely forget about another mountain man maxim expressed by Brian Keith as Henry Frapp in the old 1980 movie The Mountain Men. “Naw, I ain’t never been lost. Powerful confused for a month or two, but I ain’t never been lost.”
Our goal, Sheep Mountain, as seen from Specimen Ridge, the closest we got to it.
We started hiking through the timber, which featured plenty of blow-down, at first light. Around noon, we emerged some 2,500 feet higher atop a nameless 9,321-foot peak that turned out to be two drainages and well over four air miles, and about twice that in trail distance, from our intended target of Sheep Mountain. We were too far away to even glass for sheep with the spotting scope.
So we wound up spending the rest of the day hiking as well, taking the most direct route possible back down to the truck. The most direct route possible turned out to be Specimen Ridge. It was not a route I would have chosen considering the age and shakiness of our knees at the moment, but we just took it nice and slow with the aid of our walking sticks. In places, the ridge narrows down to a few yards or even feet in width, with craggy vertical cliffs dropping dizzily away on either side. Footsore, soaked with sweat, and dog-tired, we stumbled back down an old logging road to the truck as darkness was falling. We’d covered somewhere around seven plus miles, of which distance approximately six inches consisted of flat ground.
We hiked back down Specimen Ridge for about 2 miles to get past the cliffs to descend to our starting point.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. As they say, the worst day of hunting still trumps the best day of work. A couple of brief morning rain showers greeted us and these had cleared out the thick gray pall of drift smoke from a big forest fire near West Yellowstone that had been obscuring the valleys. This opened up the achingly beautiful long distance vistas of the mountains in all directions.
Twenty miles to the west we could see the barren reddish rock of isolated, flat-topped Sphinx Mountain in the Madison Range rising 10,840 feet against the silver blue sky and through the binos we could make out the ski runs around Big Sky. To the northwest, beyond a series of smooth, yellow grass covered ridges and darkly timbered draws, were prominent features of the Gallatin Range like Ramshorn Peak and Fortress and Steamboat Mountain. To the northeast, across the flat patchwork of irrigated alfalfa fields in Paradise Valley, the peaks of the Absarokas pushed against the sky, the northern-most some forty odd miles away near Livingston. To the south, we could see far into to heart of Yellowstone National Park, Quadrant Mountain and Antler Peak dropping away through stands of timber to the open green grasslands of Swan Lake Flats where the sun occasionally glinted on steel and glass as vehicles passed along the silver thread of the park road.
And, of course, to the east we could see our currently unobtainable goal, 10,095-foot Sheep Mountain, the communication site on the east summit gleaming white in the sunshine. Long, smooth grassy ridges stretched out towards us like fingers, the draws between them dark green with thick stands of timber. Between us lay a helluva lot of steep, rocky, tough ground.
Of the last nine rams harvested in Unit 300, five were taken on Sheep Mountain, so it got hit pretty hard. We saw five other sheep hunters and/or their partners, two pairs like use and one lone-wolf. We also ran into two mounted YNP Rangers patrolling the pack trail that roughly parallels the park boundary.
In many places, on the way in, the dwarf huckleberry was turning scarlet and the tiny leaves of the grouse whortleberry were golden. There weren’t many berries on the more open hillsides, where the leaves were already beginning to get dry and crunchy, but where there was a little more moisture at the bottoms of the draws we found a nice crop. We paused briefly a few times to pick sweet juicy fat purple huckleberries, glossy black wild currants that made our faces pucker, and some coarse red thimbleberries whose broad leaves were also turning yellow.
Although the area is in the heart of grizzly bear country, and in spite of the fact that a well-known local bullshitter claimed to have seen no less than thirteen grizzly bears up there the previous day, we saw very little sign. None of the berry bushes had been worked over by bears and we came across only one rather old pile of scat and a solitary lodgepole pine trunk that bore grizzly claw marks. There wasn’t much deer or elk sign, either, and the few moose doots we saw were very old and dry. It wasn’t until we got up atop the high ridges that we found any sheep tracks and droppings.
We kicked up a couple of mountain grouse. The first was a long way from the ridge yet so, when he landed in a nearby tree, I slipped a #6 birdshot shell into the shotgun and nailed him. Such was the nature of the terrain that I had to follow a trail of feathers for twenty plus yards to find the grouse. He had fallen lifelessly from the tree, hit the ground, and bounced and rolled like a soccer ball down the steep slope for quite a ways before lodging against a fallen tree trunk.
The trees at the beginning of our journey were a mix of rough-barked Douglas fir and arrow-straight lodgepole pine stands. These gave way to smooth trunked subalpine or “piss” fir on the slopes and some dark spruce in the draws. Finally, getting closer to timberline, the tops of the ridges were decorated with gnarled, twisted, wind-battered whitebark pine. Occasional black-and-gray Clark’s nutcrackers flew from tree to tree giving metallic squawks; nutcracker and pine squirrel caches of whitebark pine cones and nuts are a favorite staple of the grizzly bear. A great many of these pines were now only dead gray skeletons, the victims of white pine blister rust, a fungal disease introduced from Europe. The tiny spores are borne easily on the wind, so that even isolated “island” mountain ranges like the Crazies have been affected.
The area is also part of the Gallatin Petrified Forest and we enjoyed seeing the petrified wood nearly everywhere we went. The trees were supposedly buried upright and standing 50 million years ago by lava, mud flows and volcanic ash, then petrified via silica and quartz seeping into their cells. In some places, the white petrified trees were embedded within the rock of the cliff faces, which are often composed of volcanic conglomerates. Water and wind have sculpted these conglomerates via erosion into strange shapes, pillars and balanced rocks.
"Uncle Si" and the petrified tree.
Traipsing down Specimen Ridge, we came across the still-standing petrified trunk of a giant old tree that must have been ten or twelve feet across at the base. Its sheer size made us wonder how high the actual tree must have reached when living. The Eocene Age when these trees were alive must have been much warmer, for such species as sycamores, magnolias, chestnuts and oaks have been identified in the petrified forest.
On our initial way down Specimen Ridge, we also surprised a nice mountain goat billy who was bedded down in the shade of the stunted piss firs that adorned the top of the ridge. Having domestic goats of my own, I could just about read the comically distraught expression on his bearded face and in his coal black eyes. Of course he was long gone by the time I got my camera out. The sleek-haired, snow white goat trotted past us within 25 yards or so and then disappeared over the edge of the nearest cliff. For the rest of the hike, whenever we could look back and see the east-facing aspects of the ridge we glassed for him, but it was as if he had disappeared into thin air.
By the time we hiked all the way down Specimen Ridge to where the slope moderated enough for us to dive off the west side, I was weary, footsore, and getting dehydrated even though I’d packed in three quarts…or six pounds…of water. Thankfully, we had a cooler with Gatorade and bottled water in the back of the truck. As I sat on the tailgate and guzzled my first Gatorade, I checked my watch and noted that it took three full minutes for my ass to come dragging in behind us.
Driving back down Tom Miner Road, within a mile of the aptly named Grizzly Creek, there were a couple of vehicles stopped along the side of the road so we stopped to take a gander as well. About 300 yards off the road, two grizzly bears were making their way across a wide open yellow grassy meadow against a backdrop of brilliant green white-barked quaking aspen.
Da Bears...viewed from a nice, safe distance.
They looked like they had been eating well, and their sleek brown pelts were obviously frosted with the traditional “grizzled” white-tipped guard hairs. Their shoulder humps were clearly apparent and despite the fat they carried on their well-rounded rumps you could still plainly see the grace and power of their massive muscles rippling beneath their hides as they walked, dug at the ground, briefly tussled together a couple of times, and occasionally ran a short distance. One stood up on its hind legs a time or two to survey the terrain around them, revealing a white patch on its chest.
Going by their nearly identical appearance and size, maybe 300 pounds or so, and their familiar behavior towards each other, we speculated that they were siblings and probably three-year-olds who’d been given the boot by Mama Bear so she could have more cubs.
So, after all was said and done, it was a pretty good day even though we didn’t even get to see a bighorn. The only thing that really upset us was seeing a billboard advertising camel rides along Highway 89 in Paradise Valley. If the quota remains unfilled, we plan to go back for the last 2-3 days of season.