Rattlesnakes, pheasants and mushrooms

In late September we used to shear Beau, our Brittany, of the thick wool he grows, to insulate him for his winter outdoors living, to make burr removal possible after pheasant hunting forays. Now the shearing is done in late May or early June to cool Beau’s summer.

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In late September we used to shear Beau, our Brittany, of the thick wool he grows, to insulate him for his winter outdoors living, to make burr removal possible after pheasant hunting forays. Now the shearing is done in late May or early June to cool Beau’s summer.

That confuses the old guy (he’ll be nine on July 3rd), and he immediately starts nagging for a trip south and east to upland bird country. So, in mid-June, away we go for the one day in 10 two out of three forecasters agreed would be bright and sunny.

Naturally, it rained all the way and most of the time we were there, conditions the upland birds hate. They hide somewhere dry; holes in the ground, maybe. En route Beau and I discussed the absence of real meteorology in weather forecasting these days, and how it is that forecasters never admit their many mistakes, or explain why that rain, sunshine, whatever, just didn’t materialize.

Upland bird country was lush and a shade of green I can only recall seeing 25 years ago on drizzly days along the Test and Itchen rivers in England. We were down here because rancher and farmer friends were reporting seeing good numbers of adult pheasants and paired Hungarian partridges after the first non-winter in two or three years.

We may have been a week or 10 days early for the first hatch of pheasants and Huns, but it should be a good one, barring the June monsoon, perhaps even a greater upland bird killer than long, harsh winters.

We found a few older meadow mushrooms, all but one of which the worms had beaten us to. The little gems would be popping like champagne corks the first sunny morning after this rain.

Thankfully we did not encounter one of the too-many rattlesnakes that locals claim are now off the “at risk” list. Will they become at risk everywhere again, particularly on roads, and will that great sign on the road to Dinosaur Park be taken down?

Instead of our usual lunch at the historic Patricia Hotel, we tried the canteen at Dinosaur Park. Development continues at this world-class site, including floored wall tents with queen size beds under shingled roofs: “roughing-it” irresistible to German and Japanese tourists at $150 a night.

Alberta’s upland bird situation was a discussion topic at lunch. Upland Birds Alberta has whined sufficiently that the government has agreed to continue funding the pheasant stocking program for one more year, provided UBA handles it. What rankles more than anything is the headline of an article announcing this: “Pheasants Fly Again in Alberta.” They have never stopped flying in Alberta, ever since they were first introduced in 1908 by the ancestors of the Alberta Fish and Game Association, and thereafter sustained by the wild birds themselves, and not by stocked birds.

As in the recent past, the hatchery birds this year will mostly be dumped at provincial designated release sites, and shot dead by sundown; those that survive will become overnight gourmet dining for coyotes. The lush state of the cover and the reports of landowners in “my” pheasant country indicate the wild birds are making a good recovery from recent hard winters followed by stormy, wet springs.

Further south is the sage grouse saga: a two-year program whereby 37 sage grouse hens and three males have been trapped in Montana, fitted with radio transmitters, then released in whatever sage grouse habitat can still be found in Southern Alberta. In Canada the sage grouse is designated an endangered species. In Alberta, according to Dr. Mark Boyce, University of Alberta professor and Alberta Conservation Association Research Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife, the sage grouse is the first Alberta species to be extirpated by resource extraction industries. Whatever the cost ($300,000 is most often mentioned) of the pitiful attempt to reintroduce sage grouse into habitat that no longer exists, rest assured that it will be the impoverished department of sustainable resource development that pays the bill, rather than the oil and gas rich energy department that caused the extinction in the first place.

But that’s the Alberta way; just as all Alberta hunters having to foot the bill for cannon fodder for addicts of shooting hatchery “chickens” immediately they are dumped off at our designated pheasant release sites.

Our government can afford these useless efforts while doing nothing to protect, maintain and improve habitat, initiatives that have real and lasting benefits. Such initiatives would be “bad for business” and are left to the private sector, such as the AFGA, Ducks Unlimited, the Partners in Habitat Development, and so on.

It lightened and brightened as Beau and I drove home; it was sunny and bright when we got there, and all the next day, despite predicted rain. Sure enough, the rancher reports new meadow mushrooms popping wherever he went while herding cattle with his ATV.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.

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