Grim reapers in gameland

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George was unavailable this week, but sent us this article he wrote for Sports Afield in April, 1963:

It was a fishing trip; none of us was armed, so it was several hours before we could return with a gun and end the tragic affair. A magnificent bull elk had apparently misjudged the distance or slipped off a small cliff when startled by our appearance. As we approached, he was wallowing in the slide rock with both front legs broken below the knees Ė one of the most haunting sights of my 30-odd years in the backcountry.

Like some readers, I, too, have witnessed unusual deaths in the wild and studied signs where others have occurred. Iíve even heard it speculated that more animals are killed by accidents and other non-hunting consequences than are downed by sportsmenís guns. This theory could set off a debate which would be tough for anyone to settle, but it is a topic to stir the minds of outdoor philosophers.

On two past occasions while doing trail maintenance work, I found bull elk which had strangled themselves in telephone lines pulled down by the winter snow. One of these big stags had dragged almost 200 yards of wire down a deep ravine before becoming too entangled to fight any more.

Near Essex in 1949, I found a large black bear which had died after being caught in a fence. The marks on his hide showed that the old boy had made a fantastic fight for his life.

The biggest killers, in the western states at least, seem to be winter snows, cars and overgrazing (not necessarily in that order). My personal observations would run into many hundred deaths from these three factors alone.

During several years as a smokejumper fire fighter, I noticed that flames killed fewer animals than lack of food or vehicle accidents, but fire still gets way too many. Small animals, such as squirrels and rabbits, seem to die first, as flames roll up the canyons.

One what was once a crystal-clear stream above Laramie, Wyoming, another jumper and I chopped open a beaver house after a man-caused fire in 1955. Inside were five beavers in what could be described as a broiled condition. That was a bad fire, and how much other wildlife died there, no one knows.

Trains in the West get their share of victims, especially when snow is deep and tracks become a natural highway for migrating game. Many are the elk, deer or moose that go to the big winter range in the sky aboard the cow catcher of a fast-moving freight.

It was during midwinter of 1942 that I chanced on a scene where six wild dogs had a herd of whitetails trapped in a box canyon feed yard. Before I could snowshoe within reliable range for my buckhorn sights, two deer were down. I rolled four dogs before the back made it to the timber. A friend of mine took another later that year in a wolf set.

Hereís just a partial list of the pitfalls that could catch an animal in the wild.

Thereís slick ice and thin ice, vegetation snares and tangles. There are floods, drought, diseases, logging operations, insects, quagmires and predators. There are mating flights, mowing machines and lightning, falling trees, power lines, cliffs, snowslides, avalanches and sharp limbs in the dark. There are many others, too. Death is never more than one jump away for the resident of the wildland.

All these hazards take an unnumbered toll, but the way Iíve got it figured, the biggest joker in the whole deck is the poacher. He is the most insidious killer of all. Here is the thief who left the mother grizzly and her two young cubs dead in the headwaters of Doris Creek, where we found them on a timber cruise in 1955. He hung that young buck antelope to rot on the fence near Sidney. Heís the guy that sneaks to the city dump in the dark of the moon. Heís the one who defies the laws of man and nature, respecting neither, and exacting a frightful price for which there can be no compensation. Wiser men than I have estimated that poachers kill up to 30 percent of all game taken by man. This is just as much our problem as it is that of game law enforcement agencies.

Sport afield is the game of games. Letís not begrudge nature her due, for her rules are understood and we have accepted the invitation to play. Weíve been dealt a fine natural hand, but letís help get rid of the cheats.

G. George Ostrom is a longtime columnist for the Hungry Horse News. He lives in Kalispell.

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