One of the admirable things about Montana is how it contains prime examples of not one, but two iconic North American landscapes. I’ve spent a lot of time in, and done a lot of writing about, the Rocky Mountains, their beauty, their climate moods, and the wildlife that lives here. But eastern Montana contains the equally though differently stunning high plains, a world unto itself with very different wildlife meeting very different challenges.
I recently had an opportunity to visit that world when I joined a Montana Natural History Center field trip to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, more than a million acres of prairie, badlands, coulees, and the massive Fort Peck Reservoir on the Missouri River. Our small group spent a weekend at the Ferret Research Camp, a cluster of trailers tucked in the middle of a black-tailed prairie dog town and the site, as the name implies, of a black-footed ferret reintroduction program.
The trip was far too amazing to encapsulate in one mere blog post, so prepare to be enthralled over the course of several weeks (especially once I find the USB cord for my camera and download my photos.) But to get started, let me try to do in words what Charles M. Russell did with paint and canvas: Show you a world that many of you may never have seen.
The landscapes of the CMR, far more than those of western Montana, are shaped by the forces of erosion. Though there are many dramatic changes in elevation, they lack the jagged upthrust profile of the Rockies; instead they tend to flat-topped buttes and massive corrugated rolls like the surface of an unmade bed. The bedspread we saw was tawny dotted with silver-gray, a combination of last year’s dry cheatgrass and the small water-conserving leaves of sagebrush and greasewood.
One of the things that struck me at once about this topography is how much more organic it seemed than that of the mountains. Though Missoula is actually a relatively gentle region of the Rockies, no one would mistake Mount Sentinal for a living thing, and even Mount Jumbo is named more for a squinting kinship to a profile than for any real elephantine properties. But the grasslands of eastern Montana bear a resemblance to their wildlife that goes beyond the mere evolutionary imperative of camoflauge. When you look at these hills, you can see the humps of the bison that once grazed them (now vanished, but if all goes well soon to be subject to a reintroduction effort of their own.) The steeper slopes have some of the same vitality as the pronghorn (still present, though their numbers are down dramatically after a hard, snowy winter two years ago.) The cottonwoods in the river bottoms echo the branching antlers of the elk that bugle among them each falls (abundant, but never enough so for Montana’s voracious hunters.) The tussocks are badgers, the stones are grouse until they fail to fly away.
Like the Rockies, though, this is a harsh beauty, not an ideal climate for the human animal by any means. In the winters the snow lies heavy and researchers travel in and out by small plane. In the summer, mosquitos are everywhere despite the relative paucity of water, and microburst storms hammer down massive hailstones and produce tornado-level gusts of wind (the trailers at Ferret Camp are now tied down, after an incident a few years ago where a windstorm knocked several of them over.) The soil is heavy with clay, great for holding prairie dog burrows but not so wonderful for making unsurfaced roads that stand up to the weather. The legendary eastern Montana gumbo is the product of even a small amount of rain falling on these roads, a surface that is somehow at once both slippery and sticky, impassable in the wet season even to the most vigorous of trucks. Most of all, there is isolation — Ferret Camp, 20 miles from the next nearest human habitation, represents the farthest from civilization I have ever been. Even off the refuge, the ranches are by necessity few and far between. The grazing is not well-suited to the modern beef cow, particularly not during the sere of summer, and massive acrages are required for a financially viable business. Result, families spending long dark seasons cooped up with each other, one-room schoolhouses as late as the 1950s, and a culture enamoured with self-sufficiency even to the point of self-destructiveness* (despite their willingness to graze their cows on BLM land and call on the ADC for coyote-shooting.)
Here, then, I was to spend three days and two nights, the nights most key because of the nocturnal nature of the ferrets. Here I would explore a mighty ecosystem nearly destroyed, and witness the efforts of a few dedicated scientists to put things right. Here I would see how spring comes to the American prairie.
*For a particularly moving account of both the good and bad to be found here, check out Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt, one of my professors here at UM; she grew up on a ranch very near the refuge.