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Methow Valley nordic trails on record pace for grooming

Dec. 21, 2014 9:33 p.m. - Updated: 9:41 p.m.

WINTERSPORTS — The foot of snow that accumulated on Methow Valley cross-country ski and fat biking trails last night isn't the most impressive number from Washington's Nordic Nirvana.  

Get a load of the season's accumulated miles of grooming in today's Methow Trails report:

The first official day of winter brings a welcome storm that dropped 8-12 inches of very dense snow. These storms are great season builders/extenders and has gone a long way to leveling the trail platform. To celebrate we groomed just about the entire trail system; Winthrop, Sun Mtn., Rendezvous, and Mazama. Sun forecast for the upcoming holiday so it should be a very magical time. We are fortunate enough to be one of only a few ski areas in the region that has good skiing so consider an early holiday trip. We have already groomed more than 2,700 miles of trail and on pace to have a record setting year.

The Methow Valley’s skiing, scenery, and trails are world class with a 120-mile (200K) trail system for skiing in peaceful, freshly groomed and uncrowded conditions.

The nordic ski trail system is divided into four areas, all connected by the Methow Community Trail, which includes a suspension bridge crossing the Methow River, trailheads, and lodges along the way.

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Rain, wind, mud… time to let the bird dogs loose!

Dec. 20, 2014 2:49 p.m. - Updated: 2:55 p.m.

HUNTING — Soaking wet, heading into a brisk wind with two pounds of Palouse mud on each boot — today could have been a miserable hunting experience until this “double your pleasure” moment with Zuni and Scout.

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Snow falls; groomer out on Mount Spokane nordic trails

Dec. 19, 2014 8:06 p.m. - Updated: 8:06 p.m.

WINTERSPORTS — Finally — enough snow fell on the higher elevations of Mount Spokane in the past 24 hours to allow the state park to groom cross-country ski trails today.  Here's a report from Cris Currie of the Friends of Mount Spokane State Park:

Conditions are slowly improving. I skied out to Junction 9 today, Dec. 19, following the groomer's track. It was actually pretty nice, but only 6-8” of very wet snow, and slow breaking trail where the groomer hadn't been.

There is just about no snow on the Lower Kit Carson Loop Road though. The snow line is just below the upper parking lots. Maybe there will be some more snow tomorrow, but levels are expected to rise on Sunday.

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Snowshoe hut looks lonesome on brown ground

Dec. 19, 2014 11 a.m. - Updated: 2:37 p.m.

WINTERSPORTS —  Brown-earth-weary skiers, boarders and snowshoers aren't giving up hope in Idaho.

“The snowshoe hut is ready for the season,” reports Geoff Harvey of the Panhandle Nordic Club after rigging up the warming structure on the Fourth of July pass winter trail system and installing the wood-burning stove.  “All we need now is snow.”

The club's 24th annual “Best Hand Fun Ski and Snowshoe” event is set for Jan. 3 at the pass in conjunction with Idaho's Free Ski Day, when the state Park N Ski vehicle sticker requirement is waived.

Check in at Fourth of July Pass starting at 10 a.m. Then take off at your own pace at 11:30 a.m.  Prizes and refreshments provided.

The event is a fundraiser for the club, which maintains the winter trails at the pass.

“The event is a go no matter what the conditions are,” said Jim McMillen, club president.  “We expect snow but if there isn't any, we'll go for a hike.”

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Group urges release of grizzly bears in Selway-Bitterroot

Dec. 19, 2014 6:03 a.m.

WILDLIFE — The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revive a plan for relocate grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem in central Idaho and western Montana.

The agency first initiated a plan to return grizzly bears to the area in 1996. In 2000, the agency filed a reintroduction plan, but no actions has been taken.

“Grizzly bears live in less than 4 percent of their historic range and need to be reintroduced into the Selway-Bitterroot to have any shot at real recovery,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a staff attorney at the Center. “The Service has repeatedly committed to reestablishing a grizzly bear population in this region. We’re just asking them to move forward with that commitment.” 

The Selway-Bitterroot was recognized as one of six grizzly bear recovery areas in the 1993 recovery plan for the species, which noted the importance the Selway-Bitterroot could play in connecting isolated bear populations, particularly the isolated population in Yellowstone National Park. The Selway-Bitterroot remains the only established recovery area without any documented resident grizzly bears. 

According to the Center:

With more than 16 million acres of land, and centered around the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, the Selway-Bitterroot represents one of the largest contiguous areas of suitable habitat for grizzly bears in the western United States. It provides the most likely solution to long-term genetic concerns surrounding the Greater Yellowstone population. Scientists predict the area could support a population of 300 to 600 bears.

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Nordic skiing gets boost at Chief Joseph Pass

Dec. 18, 2014 6:05 a.m.

WINTERSPORTS — Montana's Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club is getting a boost from Lost Trail Powder Mountain to keep the nordic trails at Chief Joseph Pass groomed, even after a big dump of powder snow.

The agreement calls for the resort to deploy the ski hill’s new PistenBully groomer to keep the 11 miles of classic ski trail and 19 miles of multi-use trail smooth for the growing number of winter enthusiasts who have discovered the area.

Last year, the club documented 9,000 user days at the area, President Mike Hoyt told the Ravalli Republic. But when the the big storms hit — the area at the end of the Bitterroot Valley is famous for powder — the club sometimes had too much of a good thing to groom with its snowmobile groomer.

Those numbers don’t include most of the people on snowmobiles, fat tire bikers or dogsledders using the multiple use trails.

The PistenBully will be used to groom the multi-use trail. Lost Trail Powder Mountain owner Scott Grasser has purchased a smaller grooming machine to groom the classic ski trail system that winds through the forest on a narrower set of roads that are too small for the traditional sized groomer.

Word is continuing to spread about all the improvements that are occurring at the winter recreation area at Lost Trail and Chief Joseph passes.

Four years ago, Hoyt said there were about 5,000 to 6,000 people using the area through the winter months. That usage has taken a major jump over the last couple of years.

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Wolves kill more sheep in Whitman County

Dec. 17, 2014 5:39 p.m. - Updated: Dec. 18, 8:28 p.m.

UPDATED 8:15 p.m. with info about missing guard dog.

PREDATORS — More sheep have been killed by a wolf or wolves in northwestern Whitman County since the first attack in decades in the county occurred on Dec. 9.

Three dead sheep were investigated Tuesday where about 1,200 sheep are being pastured in stubble fields near the Spokane and Lincoln county borders.

The ranchers say one of their guard dogs also is missing.

Both wolf depredation events occurred on sheep belonging to Whitman County Commissioner Art Swannack near his ranch north of Lamont. Gray wolves are protected by state Endangered Species regulations in Eastern Washington.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff confirmed today that one pregnant ewe was killed by a wolf or wolves. The other two sheep could not positively be confirmed as wolf kills because the remains were too sparse, said Nate Pamplin, the agency's assistant director in Olympia.

“Apparently, some of the sheep got out of the pasture that is surrounded by an electric fence on Dec. 14,” he said. “Due to the freezing and thawing throughout the day, a small portion of the electric fence pulled out of the ground in a draw in which some sheep escaped under the fence.  The reported mortalities occurred approximately one half mile outside of the fenced area.”

The sheep killed on Dec. 9 also had escaped to a portion of downed fence. In that case, freezing rain had cause the break.

One of three anatolian guard dogs protecting the sheep has been missing for about a week and presumed dead, the Swannack family said. The mother and sister of the missing 4-year-old male dog also were with the sheep but are unharmed.

“The fence has been fixed with heavier posts being used to hold the fence in the ground and the sheep are back inside the pasture,” Pamplin said. Fox lights (that blink) continue to be deployed throughout the fenced pasture.  Carcasses were removed from the site and cameras were deployed at the kill site.”

Swannack has entered a Livestock Damage Prevention Cooperative Agreement with the state wildlife agency. 

The producer plans to follow their normal practice and move the sheep from the current grazing pasture to another fenced location around their house by the end of the year, Pamplin said.

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Utah condor chick lost; AZ chicks soaring

Dec. 17, 2014 2:27 p.m.

ENDANGERED SPECIES — Endangered California condors appear to be two-for three this year in efforts to recover the endangered species to historic range in Arizona and Utah.

While no carcass has been spotted or found, biologists following the first documented California condor chick hatched in Utah have reluctantly conceded that the rare raptor has died, reports Brett Prettyman of the Salt Lake Tribune.

“The loss of Utah’s first chick is a hard reminder that critters have a tough go of it in the wild. It’s just a shame that we weren’t able to recover a carcass to examine what might have provided clues as to the cause of death,” said Chris Parish, condor program director for The Peregrine Fund.

National Park Service, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Peregrine Fund biologists also confirmed the existence of the chick without actually seeing it this past spring, based on the behavior of the adult pair.

Here are details from Prettyman's report:

Condors 337 (male) and 409 (female) displayed enough courtship and chick feeding behavior in the spring to give the biologists enough confidence to say a chick had hatched in a remote nest cave high on a cliff in Zion National Park.

Behaviors the adults are displaying now are a major reason the biologists elected to declare the chick as deceased. The adults remain in Zion National Park, but are not returning to the nest or delivering food.

The chick was expected to leave the nest for its first flight sometime in November. Condors have the longest fledging period of all North American birds, roughly six months.

The cause of the suspected death remains a question and will likely remain a question.

“How it happened is speculation at this point. It could have been a number of things,” Parish said.

The chick could have attempted to fledge and perished, but no body has been discovered in the area below the cave nest. The body could have been consumed by another animal.

This was the first chick for condors 337 and 409 and it is possible they failed to provide the care required to get the young bird to fledging stage.

Lead poisoning, according to Parish, has led to 50 percent of deaths of the experimental population of California condors released in the Vermillion Cliffs area of Arizona in 1996. Officials have confirmed 29 condor deaths related to lead poisoning since 2000.

Lead is ingested by the condors scavenging on the remains of wildlife or domestic livestock killed with firearms. Efforts in Utah and Arizona to get ranchers and hunters to use lead-free ammunition and to remove gut piles from the field has helped reduce condor mortality in recent years.

It is possible the chick could have perished from lead poisoning, but it is highly likely that the parents ate the same carrion and they appear to be healthy.

Even condors that learn to fly face a 60 percent chance of dying within the first year, according to Parish.

While biologists are disappointed to declare the Utah chick a loss, they are excited that two other chicks born in the wild in Arizona are flying and appear healthy.

The condor breeding season is just getting underway and biologists will be watching the Utah parents closely. “They can start laying eggs as early as February,” Parish said. “It is possible this pair may try again.”

It is also possible they may choose the same nest cave.

Biologists had considered trying to reach the nest to see if they could confirm the chick’s death, but storms have made it dangerous.

As time has gone by, the likelihood of determining the cause of death has dropped, even assuming the carcass is still in the cave.

“Ravens may have already cleaned out the cave,” Parish said.

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Congress cashes out on sage grouse as status study continues

Dec. 17, 2014 12:29 p.m. - Updated: 12:29 p.m.

THREATENED SPECIES — The fate of an iconic western prairie bird appears to be hanging in limbo.

 U.S. officials say they will decide next year whether a wide-ranging Western bird species needs protections even though Congress has blocked such protections from going into effect.

According to the Associate Press, that means wildlife officials could determine the greater sage grouse is heading toward possible extinction, but they would be unable to intervene under the Endangered Species Act.

President Barack Obama signed a $1.1 trillion spending bill late Tuesday that bars money from being spent on rules to protect the chicken-sized grouse and several related birds.

Interior Department officials say they’ll continue analyzing whether protections are needed and reach a decision by September 30, 2015.

Sage grouse range across 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces.

Oil and gas drilling, wildfires, livestock grazing and other activities have consumed more than half the bird’s habitat.

However, many farmers and ranchers from Wyoming to Oregon have been working with state and federal agencies to find ways to keep the sage grouse from needing endangered species protections.

See more info here.

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Ice skater has window to wintering turtle

Dec. 17, 2014 8:32 a.m. - Updated: Dec. 19, 1:53 p.m.

WILDLIFE WATCHING — That November cold snap provided all sorts of opportunities for winter worshippers, including some fine ice skating conditions at the region's lakes.
 
Before the thaw, Ed Shaw was skating on Bayley Lake in the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge when he saw movement under his skates through the extremely clear ice. 
 
Shaw's turtle photo is just one of the many great image opportunities seized and shared every month in our Readers Outdoor Photo Gallery.  Look at past galleries and you'll find a collective portrait of our Inland Northwest seasons. Check it out.
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