Evan Saugstad: Of licks and leks


I grew up in the Bella Coola valley and spent much of my youth in Tweedsmuir Park, on the Atnarko River, with my grandfather on his farm.

In the 1960s, the Atnarko River was considered remote as the road was still single lane and gravel. It took some effort to get there so we never saw a lot of people other than a few visitors, mostly family, hunters, and fishermen. His farm was also on the winter range for mule deer.

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A few yards away from his home was an old cedar stump that he used for a salt lick. Over the many years, his cows, horses, and the mule deer ate it away at until it more resembled a wood-lined hole in the ground. Although visible from Highway 20, most everyone knew his farm and lick were off limits for hunting (we could hunt bucks in the fall). Although most deer disappeared during summer and did not return until late fall, those that spent the winter and spring on his farm were off limits for shooting.

Far cry from what is there today.

Still private land but, as with Grandpa, the old house is gone, the fields are growing up with trees, there's no farm animals, no salt lick, no one living there, and few, if any, mule deer. Not a safe place as the lick is in sight of the highway; not safe without someone watching over them.

My lasting memories of that place are waking up at daylight to see how many deer came for salt. I spent hours and hours just watching them, how they interacted, how the buck’s horns grew. Those early years gave me just as deep appreciation of watching live animals, as I have for pursuing them in hunting, both of which still exist today.

Fast forward to today, here in northeast B.C.

I have permission to hunt deer on a friend’s place, who will remain anonymous for reasons that will soon become obvious.

Another person has permission to hunt moose and elk there. We both are under strict orders that the sharptailed grouse are off limits. They are only for the watching. Reminds me of my childhood.

Although I still hunt, not everything needs to be hunted, not everywhere nor all the time, even though there may be an open season.

My farmer friend grew up on the prairies and sharptailed grouse were part of his life then, as they are today. In his childhood there was a lek on his father’s farm, just as there is a lek on his farm today. He lives with the enjoyment of seeing grouse on his lawn, grouse in his garden, and grouse from a few feet away.

He is especially proud that, from his house, he can watch his lek a couple hundreds of yards away. Almost every day he can listen to their cackle and mating rituals as they go about their lives, safe from humans, but still fair game and on the lookout for predatory birds and animals.

I have also come to enjoy these same birds.

Last fall, I set a couple of trail cameras on the lek and recorded thousands of photos. For the uninitiated, set your camera a bit wrong, and you can get thousands of pictures of grass blowing in the wind, or still photos that, when strung together, look like a movie.

Until now, I had never been exposed to grouse and their lek. It didn’t take long to realize that a sharptail’s lek is like the community hall in a small rural community. At some point, everyone shows up, year-round, for visiting, courting, or just for company. Not unlike a mineral lick for big game, a lek is one of those unique places that is extremely important to those who use it.

Like my grandfather who so valued his salt lick and the deer that used it, so does my friend value his lek, and for that, my hat’s off. It is a special place deserving of his protection and guardianship.

And to all those thousands of other landowners who share their land and make special accommodations for the wildlife who use it, my hat's off to you also.

Talking the talk and walking the walk for wildlife is about all of us, not just about government and not just more rules and regulations.

Maybe next year I will set up a blind during the May courting season for some better videos. Would just have to get up well before the sun comes up, as it is just as dawn breaks, that they put on their greatest show.

Evan Saugstad: "Talking the talk and walking the walk for wildlife is about all of us, not just about government and not just more rules and regulations." - Evan Saugstad

Evan Saugstad is a former mayor of Chetwynd, and lives in Fort St. John.

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