2021: The Year Outdoors in the Pacific Northwest

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Another year has ticked down, which means it's time for The Spokesman-Review's annual roundup of the most interesting and important outdoor stories from 2021. With the lingering economic, social and political impacts of the pandemic (not to mention the, you know, actual virus itself) outdoor recreation of all types remained an invaluable release valve for hikers, bikers, hunters, anglers, bird watchers and more.

Cheers to that. Enjoy and have a wonderful New Year's.

 

January

The year started out contentious with some hunters and anglers (not to mention a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife commissioner) saying that hunting was under attack in Washington, following the appointment of two new commissioners and a passel of lawsuits.

Drama continued when Schweitzer shut down its night skiing after repeated violations of its mask mandate.

In other news, longtime Friends of Mount Spokane State Park volunteer and founder Cris Currie retired, leaving an impressive conservation and advocacy legacy. His dedication and commitment to Spokane's namesake mountain sets a high bar for the rest of us.

"He cared about the public and their users and what they wanted. Not only himself," said Anita Boyden, a board member who has served alongside Currie since 1995. "When you love something as much as he does, you take pride in it."

Closing out the month on an exciting note, Eastern Washington University professor Chase Ogden released his film "Super Frenchie" about the indomitable French skier Matthias Giraud, best known for launching himself off a 250-foot tall cliff on Mount Hood.

 

February

Avalanches in the Western U.S. killed 15 people, deaths that shook the backcountry recreation world. Experts blamed it partly on greater winter backcountry use (due to the pandemic, perhaps) and partly on changing snow conditions due to a warming climate.

Almost added to that tally was a father and daughter duo from Bonners Ferry. Dad Edward Moellmer fell nearly 800 feet when a cornice broke underneath him in the Montana backcountry. The two spent the night separated and exposed to the elements. Both survived thanks to the dedicated efforts of local rescuers. The dramatic story raised important questions about risk, preparation and reward for outdoor adventures.

"Right now I feel grateful, but also really ashamed and embarrassed," Edward Moellmer wrote. "I like to think that I'm cautious in the mountains, but my mistake placed many lives in danger. I absolutely love skiing the backcountry, but at what price?"

Speaking of risk, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson took a big one when he introduced a plan to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River in hopes of saving floundering salmon and steelhead populations. That sparked plenty of controversy and would snag headlines throughout the rest of the year.

Finally, remarkable conservationist Dick Slagle died. Slagle fought for more federally designated wilderness near and around his home in Ferry County.

 

March

March started with some unwelcome visitors: Invasive zebra mussels were found in a Coeur d'Alene Petco and other Petcos nationwide. Zebra mussels can wreak havoc on a water system. The tiny invaders seemed to have originated with a Ukrainian distributor of moss balls.

The debate over Rep. Simpson's dam plan continued and a panel of environmental groups, including the Spokane Riverkeeper, said they couldn't support the plan due to a proposed 35-year moratorium on dam-related lawsuits and a 25-year moratorium on agriculture-related lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Columbia Basin tribes continued to work on sustainable salmon reintroduction in the river system, all while sidestepping the dam issue.

"We're not asking for operational changes," said Brent Nichols, fisheries manager of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. "That's one of the big messages we are trying to get out there.

"We're not asking Grand Coulee to change how they operate Grand Coulee."

 

April

The Washington Legislature passed a state budget that included full funding for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, a win for animals and people alike.

"WDFW funding is healthy for the next biennium, there are no cuts or furloughs, the general wage increase for exempt employees is restored, and we have many new funded assignments," WDFW Director Kelly Susewind wrote in a staff email.

Washington's wolf population grew 24% between 2019 and 2020, according to agency biologists. That was despite the death of 16 wolves to legal hunting, lethal removal in response to conflict and natural mortality. There were 29 packs and 16 successful breeding pairs statewide, according to the report.

 

May

A watercolor painting of Coeur d'Alene's Tubbs Hill toured the nation. Artist and Coeur d'Alene resident Jessica Bryant hoped her work would spark interest in conservation and preservation of natural spaces.

"Picking one wildflower isn't just picking one wildflower — it's the dozen other people or more that will also pick a wildflower the same day, in the same area," she said. "Stepping off trail for a great photo isn't done by just one person, but dozens, every day. The durability of nature is finite."

In the North Cascades, wild fishers were born for the first time in 50 years.

As more people continued to head outside, regional recreation managers and advocates debated the merits — and pitfalls — of trail applications like AllTrails.

 

June

Former Spokesman-Review Outdoors Editor Rich Landers looked into region and nationwide ammunition shortages, finding that a stew of politics, social unrest and COVID-19 restrictions were leading to its lack of availability.

In late May, Spokane power couple Trisha and Marlin Thorman summited Denali, capping off a yearslong effort to climb the highest peak in every U.S. state.

Enduro-junkies jumped on their bikes and raced across Washington in the annual Cross-Washington Mountain Bike Route, a 700-mile self-supported route that is part race, part adventure and part advocacy.

"I want it to be inclusive," said Troy Hopwood, the creator of the route. "I want people who are going to take their time and enjoy it and (I want) those who want to go crazy fast."

 

July

Tribal leaders from throughout the Columbia Basin gathered for a "salmon and orca summit" organized by the Nez Perce Tribe and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and urged swift action to save struggling salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers. At the same conference, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said breaching the four lower Snake River dams must remain an option.

Record-setting heat melted snow and ice throughout the state, including Mount Rainier, and sparked a number of wildfires. Scientists said that heat wave was made worse by climate change.

Meanwhile, for the first time, federal wildlife managers captured and collared a female grizzly bear, with three cubs, near Metaline Falls in Northeast Washington, about 10 miles from the Canadian border.

Spokesman-Review photographer Jesse Tinsley took a beautiful shot (with his iPhone) of a paddler on the Spokane River near the Clocktower. Unfortunately, the paddler was breaking a number of laws, making for a great "what not to do" photo.

Despite the heat, two Seattle mountaineers climbed all five of Washington's volcanoes in one five-day push.

State land managers continued to work on a comprehensive e-bike policy after being directed to do so by the Legislature. The report is due Sept. 30, 2022.

Finally, a spate of wildlife sightings — a treed bear, a bathing bear and more — had two things in common, according to experts. The animals' behavior was, one way or another, influenced by the extreme heat and their antics were spotted on home video cameras. The explosion of cheap and small home security cameras has led to a parallel increase in wildlife sightings, according to regional wildlife professionals.

 

August

Continued hot and dry weather forced widespread closures of public land in Idaho, Washington and elsewhere. Meanwhile, white-tail deer in Washington and Idaho started dying with some testing positive for bluetongue and epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). The two diseases would continue to rage through Washington and Idaho herds.

In an effort to protect hens with chicks, Washington wildlife managers set back forest grouse hunting by two weeks.

An Idaho duo traversed 28 miles and 16,000 vertical feet across Idaho mountains in 26 hours. For the first time in a century, summer chinook swam in the Little Spokane River after a Spokane Tribe reintroduction.

Finally, the body of Moses Lake's Rachel Lakoduk was found in the North Cascades by a group of volunteer searchers two years after the 28-year-old went missing.

 

September

Idaho Gov. Brad Little directed $2 million for projects that would attempt to reduce the amount of nutrients in the Coeur d'Alene Basin, and in particular in Coeur d'Alene Lake.

Just a few days after turning 70, Jon Fredland hit another milestone. The Nampa, Idaho, man ascended his 3,000th mountain peak.

Local and regional outdoor clubs, groups and businesses debated whether or not to mandate vaccines for their customers and clients — the consensus? There wasn't one.

A frenzied real estate market made land conservation more difficult with local nonprofits unable to compete with the high asking price of land and deep pockets of out-of-town buyers. Continued crowds at national parks prompted many — including Glacier National Park — to require reservations to visit in an effort to control the masses.

A Parkinson's diagnosis and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed a Spokane couple to realize their lifelong dream of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

October

A pink salmon was captured in the Lower Granite Dam's fish trap, one of only a handful of pinks observed at the dam over its 46-year history.

WDFW received more than 500 reports of sick or dead deer, likely all victims of bluetongue or EHD.

Area residents had a rare chance to see one of the night sky's most incredible displays: the aurora borealis.

For the first time in a decade, Washington wildlife managers sampled for chronic wasting disease on the opening day of modern deer hunting season, thanks to funding from the Legislature.

A massive male cougar that was captured and tagged by biologists in 2018 was legally killed by a hunter in Eastern Washington.

Across the border, a Meridian angler set an Idaho state record when he hooked a 46.7-pound grass carp, a large freshwater fish species from Asia, while fishing the Snake River.

In Montana, a bowhunter found the remains of a hunter who'd gone missing 53 years prior, finally giving closure to his son.

November

A longstanding spring bear hunt was suspended after the WDFW Commission voted 4-4. Agency biologist recommended commissioners reapprove the hunt, but some commissioners questioned the underlying data presented. After nearly a year, the third Eastern Washington commission seat remained vacant, raising questions about fair representation on the nine-person governing body appointed by Gov.  Inslee.

"Fundamentally, it's an issue when we have a commission that only has eight people on it," said Dan Wilson, the Washington chapter secretary for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "If it's a tie vote, it fails. That creates an issue just in good policy setting. We're not actually using majority to set policy."

In a grim milestone, chronic wasting disease was confirmed for the first time in Idaho south of Grangeville.

Idaho Fish and Game commissioners unanimously approved a three-year fishing rule package including a dramatic change to the traditional steelhead fishing season structure on the Clearwater River. The rule package also sets fall chinook and coho salmon seasons and bag limits for the next three years. The popular fall fishing seasons had previously been set on a year-to-year basis depending on the strength of the salmon runs.

 

December

One of the WDFW Commission's newest members, Fred Koontz, resigned, citing a "politicized quagmire."

A report finds that some years nonnative shad, which were first introduced to the West Coast in the 1880s, make up more than 90% of recorded upstream migrants in the Columbia River system.

A WDFW monitoring of elk in Washington's Blue Mountains outfitted 125 elk calves with collars in May. By the middle of November, only 11 of those animals were still alive, The Lewiston Tribune reported.

Two died during the initial capture, seven have slipped their collars and their fate is unknown, and biologists have documented 105 deaths. Of those, 77 were attributed to predation, with 54, or 70%, caused by mountain lions.

Finally, local wildlife photographer and birder Joanie Christian sounded the alarm that Anna's hummingbirds have extended their range in Eastern Washington. With a cold snap on the way, she educated birders on how best to help the hummers get through the winter.

"I wonder what new knowledge and lessons these birds and their unusual behavior have to teach us," Christian wrote.

"Until then, our winter unicorn continues to bring unexpected joy and wonder, and we're celebrating the Anna's."