Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Water or Woods?

My article on proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir appears in the July Issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife. My copy arrived in yesterday's mail. I assume it's on newstands by now. It should be available online in about a month.

My buddy Russell Graves shot the photos. I suspect his work will have a bigger impact than mine.

So far, the response has been very positive. But I'm expecting some nastygrams.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Grassland Birds

I just finished writing an article on the status of bobwhite and blue quail in Texas. One of the biologists I interviewed referred me to the National Audubon Society report, "2007 State of Birds." Very depressing. The northern bobwhite quail ranks first on the list of declining common birds, down 82 percent since 1960. In general, grassland birds are faring poorly due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Northern shrike and eastern meadowlark populations have declined more than 70 percent.

Felicity Barringer wrote about the list in this past Friday's New York Times.

In Texas, bobwhite numbers declined about 75 percent between 1980 and 2003, and I'm sure they're still slipping. Most of the losses occurred in the increasingly urbanized eastern third of the state. Quail are holding steady in those vast, sparsely populated strongholds, the Rolling Plains and South Texas Plains.

On the upside, I learned that Audubon Texas employs a full-time biologist, Jason Hardin, to lead its Quail and Grassland Bird Initiative. In addition to habitat work and landowner education and support, the initiative has the added benefit of building goodwill between hunting and non-hunting members of the conservationist community.

Now back to local doom and gloom. North Texas - particularly the Dallas area - is the fastest growing region in the state. Boosters gleefully shout that the area's population will likely grow from 7 million to about 13 million over the next 50 years, supposedly necessitating all sorts of destructive water projects. Of the original 12 million acres of Blackland Prairie, which includes the Dallas area, only a few thousand remain unplowed and undeveloped. No doubt hundreds of thousands of acres of semi-wild prairie - decent grassland bird habitat - remain in the form of marginal farmland, vacant lots, green belts, wildlife management areas, and so on. Outside of management areas, refuges, and Corps of Engineers land around reservoirs, few of these tracts are larger than 100 acres. And they're disappearing under slabs and parking lots ever day.

When we moved to Plano in 1983, bobwhites, northern harriers, kestrels, and meadowlarks were common sights in the open spaces around neighborhoods. Our first spring here, bobwhite cocks sometimes perched on our backyard fence and whistled for hens. Lowe's and Walmart now cover a big part of that covey's home range. I haven't heard a bobwhite whistle in Plano in 20 years. I can't remember the last time I saw a harrier or meadowlark in the area. But boy do we have grackles and house sparrows.

I wish I could be more optimistic, but I predict that the grassland bird decline will continue. Whatever habitat can be preserved or restored will be offset by more strip malls and subdivisions. Here in Collin County, new malls are going up while others sit empty. Developers develop.

"Economic growth," has moved alongside Education, Our Future, and Our Children. The idea has become unassailable. Raise so much as an eyebrow and you're a crank, an elitist, or worse.

We moved here from Kentucky, a fact that's pointed out to me nearly every time I raise my concern about unchecked growth. Others have a right to settle here too. I don't dispute that. You get transferred, change jobs, or graduate from college, so you move. Few people have anything against wildlife and open spaces. I suspect most never think about them, especially not in terms of suburban growth.

But at some point, we'll have to decide what kind of world we want to inhabit.

I take that back. We're deciding right now. Problem is, most of us haven't paused long enough to realize it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Please, somebody talk me out of it...

Here's what I want:

Not this dog, but one like her. This is Whitey, a mountain cur owned by my buddy Donny Lynch of Marshall, Texas. She hunts squirrels and 'coons. When she occasionally trees a bobcat, Donny gives her a pat and sends her on. She would trail and bay wild hogs, but Donny doesn't want her cut, so he broke her from swine. I suspect that like her ancestors in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, she'd learn to pull rough stock herding duty if she had the opportunity.

I have always admired generalists, even though nowadays, the glory seems to go to the specialists - or at least breeds developed for specialized duty - English pointers, Labs, treeing Walkers - never mind that good examples of each of those breeds can perform tasks that specialist hunters discourage. Most decent Labs would be happy to root rabbits out of a fence row. There's absolutely nothing unnatural about a pointer pointing a cottontail, but he'd better not do it in the presence "serious" bird hunters. When I was a teenager, I shot plenty of bobwhites and even a few woodcock that had been trailed and flushed by my beagles.

My last three dogs, including Maggie, my current hunting partner, have been German shorthaired pointers. I chose GSPs because they're supposed to be versatile, and sure enough, good ones develop early, point naturally, staunch up with little formal training, retrieve enthusiastically, and love water. GSPs will hunt whatever you want to hunt and a few things you'd rather they leave alone. But then so will most hunting dogs. I've had hell breaking Maggs of deer and hogs.

But of course when we talk about a versatile dog or generalist, we mean versatile within some range. Your Lab will find quail, but she won't outperform a good pointer, especially in open country. That's because Labs were developed for heavy water work. There's a reason for that build and woolly undercoat. The best ones are very biddable, mark well - better then most humans - and possess tremendous retrieving drive. Likewise GSPs retrieve from water, but they're no match for the average Lab or Chesapeake. Maggie will paddle out in the stock pond (stock "tank" here in Texas) and fetch your mallard, but I wouldn't expect her to make a long, difficult retrieve in rough, cold water. And she'd drive you crazy in the duck blind or boat. She's built to run, with the temperament to match.

In Germany, GSPs are expected to point both furred and feathered game, track wounded big game, retrieve from land and water, and even dispatch small predators. The first ones brought to the the U.S. in the 1920s were large, ponderous, and poorly suited to American conditions and customs. Americans set about speeding up the GSP- basically making more it like the English pointer. (Molly, my second GSP, had a lemon patch behind her left ear. Hmmm... where could that have come from?) Today, most American-bred GSPs are primarily upland bird dogs. The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association does not require work on furred game in its utility tests.

Which is fine with me. I've been primarily a bird hunter for the past 20 years. I grew up with pointing dogs and can't imagine doing without one.

Problem is, good, affordable quail hunting is getting hard to find, even here in Texas, one of the last strongholds of wild bobwhite hunting. A good South Texas quail lease runs as high as $10/acre. Figure that two guys with good dogs need at least 2000 acres for a decent season. Do the arithmetic. West Texas prices are only slightly less. Most people who actually live in good quail country can't afford to hunt there because the land is leased by well-heeled folks from Houston, Dallas, and the other big cities, or by guides and outfitters who cater to the wealthy.

With rare exceptions, I hunt on public land. But as serious hunters of average means get priced off their leases, guess where they turn? At present, there are three wildlife management areas in the state that offer good bobwhite hunting - when we get rain in the right amounts at the right times. These have become crowded , and, the last few years, have been closed to quail hunters much of November and December.

Add the fact that I have to drive four and a half hours to reach the nearest of theses management areas. Further add the fact that I'm not getting any younger. Then consider that the woods close to home are full of squirrels and coons, and that most of the public land is in heavily forested East Texas. Also, I love to eat squirrels and the occasionally 'coon. An adjustment to my hunting life seems in order.

Yes, Maggie will tree squirrels, which is very embarrassing in certain company. But, being a bird dog, she's usually looking for woodcock when we're in the woods, and there are few if any woodcock in Texas in October and November. She might tree if she strikes hot scent or sees a squirrel on the ground, but for the most part, she's not a treeing dog, despite all that hound ancestry in the distant past. And when she barks, she sounds like she's being tortured with a cattle prod.

Curs, on the other hand, are to treeing dog work what the dock-tailed European pointing breeds are to upland bird work. Curs don't possess the beautiful voices and cold noses of blooded hounds, but most have a pleasant enough treeing chop, and over the course of a season, good ones will catch more 'coons than will hounds, tree squirrels, and actually hunt in the same county as their handlers.

Purist houndsmen write curs off as meat dogs. They're exactly right.

The mountain cur developed in the Southern Appalachians as an all-purpose hunting and stock dog. Mountaineers didn't want a dog spending hours sorting out a cold trail. Rather they wanted their dogs to strike hot scent, push their quarry to tree very quickly, then bark so that they could be located. Because they often trail silently, they'll sometimes catch game before it can tree.

Despite their toughness, most curs are very trainable and friendly toward people.

I want one. Bad.

But I already have a good dog that I love dearly, and a small backyard. As it is, I'm having trouble giving Maggie the work she deserves. That's not likely to change, given the shortage of affordable bird hunting, gas prices, and the shortened quail seasons on public land. If I got a cur, I suppose I could take Maggs along on squirrel and coon hunts. She wouldn't hurt anything, and she might even get reasonably good at it. If nothing else she'd get more field time than she's getting now. And I'd probably still quail hunt about as much as I've hunted in recent years.

(I can just imagine certain bird hunting acquaintances reading this and shaking their heads. He has absolutely lost it. Lettin' his pointin' dog run trash! And bark, for godsake! With a goddamn curdog! Next thing you know, he'll be wearing overalls and chewing Red Man.)

I don't care. I want to hunt with dogs. I can either adjust to new realities or sit around complain about the disappearance of affordable bird hunting while Maggs grows old. I doubt she cares what she hunts, so long as she hunts. And she'd enjoy having another dog around.

Still, the expense, puppy destruction, and barking that upsets my fussy neighbors. Like I really need a half-grown tree dog out back baying somebody's cat or a mockingbird perched on the fence. Honestly, I can't justify another dog. I know that.

Other people, however, are not so responsible. The other day Jane told me that I ought to go ahead get a cur pup. She said it could be an early birthday present. We could handle it. After all, way back when I was in my gung-ho twenties and thirties, we'd managed with two bird dogs and a beagle. Curiously, she told me this a couple of days after I'd shown her some photos of cur puppies on a website. My wife is so impulsive.

I said no, but thank you. I'm not serious about it yet. I'm just thinking about what I'll do when Maggs retires or passes on. Imagine - two young hunting dog in the burbs. With our schedules and travel. Let's be real.

As luck would have it, we're heading up to Kentucky to visit family later this month. We'll spend some time in our hometown, where there happens to be breeder of excellent mountain curs. Then we'll run down to far southeastern Kentucky to visit a beloved aunt. I know a guy just across the border, in Tennessee...

Just a little fact-finding. Talk to some hunters, look at some dogs. Make some contacts. Nothing serious yet. After all, I'm a grown man. I know the difference between want and need.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

It's not my fault. Blame the boys at Querencia.

Steve started it. Reid followed. Then Matt. Last night, I gave in to peer pressure and gathered reading material from my office couch, nightstand, dashboard, and office floor. But then I've always been vulnerable to corrosive influences.

I'm revisiting Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert in preparation for my entry into the Texas Water Wars. Actually, I'm already skirmishing, as some of you may know. My article on proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir will appear in the July issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife. Much has happened since I wrote the piece. In fact, I'm beginning to gather material for a book proposal on coming water conflicts in Texas and on the Southern Plains. I'm way behind on my blogging; I'll try to catch up in the coming weeks.
Even if you wrote off Susan Sontag after "9.11.01," her New Yorker "Talk of the Town" piece, you might want to reconsider and at least try At the Same Time, her posthumously published collection of essays and speeches. She'd been shaping several of these pieces for publication in book form shortly before her death in 2004. If "9.11.01" seems reflexive and ill-considered - by her own admission, she "dashed it off," while still in the throes of grief and shock - her later essays are far more thoughtful. I hope to post a more thorough review within the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, here's what she had to say about the importance of reading:
"A writer is first of all a reader. It is from reading that I derive the standards by which I measure my own work and according to which I fall lamentably short. It is from reading , even before writing, that I became part of a community - the community of literature - which includes more dead than living writers."
I just started This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm by Scott Chaskey, a poet and farmer. You have to admire a man inspired to verse by compost. As a vegetable gardener battling a mild case of blossom-end rot in two of my tomato plants, I'm especially looking forward to the chapter entitled "The Wolf's Peach."
I need no excuse for reading dog books, but for once, I have a one handy. Photographer Wyman Meinzer and I are doing a coffee table book on working dogs. I'm writing a series of short essays, about 20,000 words total, and captions to go with Wyman's photos. We're not restricting ourselves to "working dogs," as defined by the AKC. We consider any dog that does useful work a working dog. So far, we've covered, search and rescue dogs, assistance dogs, scent hounds, herding dogs, curs and feists, terriers, customs dogs, bomb and drug sniffers, sporting dogs, police dogs...I'm sure I'm forgetting some. We hope to finish by late summer. The book should be out Fall 2008. Anyone know hunters in Texas with coursing dogs? Steve? Matt?
The Ben Lilly Legend by J. Frank Dobie: No one can write responsibly about Texas big game hounds without some knowledge of legendary hunter and houndsman Ben Lilly. Emphasis on legendary. Here's Ben Lilly on Ben Lilly:
"My reputation is bigger than I am. It's like my shadow when I stand in front of the sun in late evening."
One ought to keep in mind that J. Frank Dobie was a folklorist.
Lost History of the Canine Race by Mary Elizabeth Thurston, A History of Dogs in the Early Americas by Marion Schwartz, Dog's Best Friend by Mark Derr, and A Dog's History of North America by Mark Derr. All very readable and worth the time.
Marion Schwartz irritated me slightly by saying that while she might consider owning a Siberian husky or Carolina dog, she would never choose a greyhound, mastiff, wolfhound or any descendant of the dogs the Spanish put to horrible use against Indians - as if greyhounds are at fault because their 15th Century ancestors were bred, trained, and handled by sadists.
To my complete satisfaction, Mark Derr lets loose on the AKC and the Fancy in Dog's Best Friend. He also defends hunting with dogs and rural cultures that preserve working traits. I don't quite buy his training philosophy, however. Perhaps it works for him. In A Dog's History of North America, his description of Spanish misuse of dogs is far more thorough and appalling than Schwartz's.
Lost History of the Canine Race contains good art and photos, including a couple of shots of New Guinea Singing Dogs and an irresistible photo of a dingo puppy.
The single issue of The New York Review of Books represents the vast pile of unread periodicals on my office floor. I can't remember when I've been so far behind. On the upside, I'm behind because I've been working my way through a bunch of magazine assignments.
Last night, I made some headway into the current issue of the The Atlantic Monthly. Interesting article on writer Harlan Coben, who routinely commands seven-figure advances. Like most best-selling writers, he does one thing very well. He writes thrillers and not much else. I don't see any seven-figure advances in my future. (See bird hunting book, two historical novels, ranch book, dog book...)
By 10:30, I didn't quite feel up to James Fallows' long article on why China's rise is good for us. I'll need to gather some energy for that one.