About two weeks have passed since the four horses, Pearl the Mule, Sebastian, Winnie, and I were dropped off in the middle of a pasture in Northeast Montana. We were shepherded up from Bozeman by our good friend Riley, Sebastian’s little sister Eva, and her co-pilot Carley. The drive was long but beautiful. Somewhere in my mind was the very concrete fact that once we were dropped off it would take us 4 miles per hour to get anywhere compared to the truck’s 65.
4mph was what we were guessing at; so far, our average speed has been about 2.7 mph. What with the filming stops, water stops, lunch stops, packing and repacking and packing some more, swapping horses, repositioning saddles, tightening cinches, etc., we’re winning no races, but I’m happy to report that we are taking everything in in such a way that I, for one, have never once been able to experience before. The region we’re starting in is an astounding mix of sagebrush steppe and open grasslands. It boasts some of the most intact mixed grass prairie left in North America. One of the amazing things about this region is that the native prairie still has a stronghold on the landscape; the cultivated fields we’ve ridden by have been of note not because they stretch in every direction, as is the case in most of the great plains, but because they are in the minority. There are places around here where you can see native prairie extend to the horizon no matter which way you turn, on horseback or on foot, from a hilltop or in a coulee. It’s neat because you can’t do that just anywhere.
The best thing about it, for me, is that these large tracts of intact prairie are the stomping grounds for a whole host of rare grassland birds that I had only ever read about but never before seen. In the first day alone we came across about six species that I had never seen: Swainson’s hawks, long-billed curlews, grasshopper sparrows, prairie falcons, sage grouse, you name it. I learned pretty quick that you oughtn’t get too relaxed on your horse lest a flock of eight sage grouse flushes, flapping from beneath you and your horse. Luckily, we’ve got good horses.
The very best part of the trip for me so far was my first encounter with a sprague’s pipit. It’s this tiny little brown bird that is probably the least sexy bird you can imagine. It’s about the size of a badminton birdie, is pretty uniformly brown, and you can’t really ever see it. It’s got none of the hullaballoo of a crane, could easily be likened to a mouse, and I’ve been obsessed with it for over two years. I first read about it in Trevor Herriot’s book on grassland birds, Grass, Sky, Song. If you’re at all intrigued by the sounds of the pipit, buy the book, you won’t regret it. Herriot beautifully describes a wide variety of grassland birds and explains why their tenure on the plains is so perilous.
We saw the pipit during our stay at The Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch just South of Malta, Montana. The property operates as a grass bank for surrounding ranchers. The way it works is area ranchers lease pasture from the Matador to run their cattle and the price they pay for grass decreases in accordance to conservation measures implemented on their own property. For example, if an area rancher maintains a prairie dog town on his property, or uses wildlife friendly fencing, the price he pays for a lease on the Matador goes down. This model is so successful because it is a community-based approach; the Matador benefits the area ranchers, and the area ranchers benefit the Matador by providing the cattle, a tool used to create diverse habitat for wildlife. The practices adopted by the ranchers facilitate a balance between production and conservation, a balance we’ll need to fine tune as our population continues to grow. The manager, Charlie Messerly, was born and raised in Malta, and has a feel for the way things work around the region. He respects the ranchers and their knowledge of the land they’ve been working for generations, and has created a management plan that reflects sound scientific findings on the ways grazing can help create and maintain optimal wildlife habitat.
The Matador is bustling with researchers and field technicians that are conducting wildlife studies on the ranch and in the surrounding area. One of the studies underway is on the reproductive success of grassland birds. Tim Wuebben, with Avian Science Center, and Annie McDonnell, with World Wildlife Fund, are surveying nests as part of the study. They offered to take us out with them to do a little birding.
As we tumbled down two track roads at six in the morning in Annie’s red pickup, we were on the hunt for a pipit. According to Annie, their song sounds like a laser being shot: pew pew pew pew pew. We first heard the pipit through her rolled down window. When we heard him, we piled out of the truck to get a closer look. The first thing I saw was a tiny speck no larger than a peanut careening towards us from fifty feet above. He was in the middle of a dive and was singing his little heart out. As soon as I saw him, he disappeared again into the crisp morning air. It’s easiest to spot pipits by lying down on your back so you can take in more sky. Supine, we saw two singing males come in and out of our vision, zigging and zagging their way across a pale blue sky dotted here and there with a white wisp of cloud.
During its flight song a male pipit will circle high above his mate and will sing to her for up to 3 hours. This is the longest flight display of any other bird on the planet. I told Sebastian this to try to get a little more singing out of him, but so far the hint has fallen on deaf ears. The future of Pipits, like myriad other grassland species, is dubious at best. Around 80 percent of all grassland birds are in decline. According to BirdLife International, Pipit populations in the US have declined at a rate of 32 percent per decade since 1970. The challenges they face are vast. They depend upon a prairie that we depend upon for food, fuel, and fiber, and thus nest in habitat that, largely, we’ve plowed up. Habitat loss and fragmentation, fire suppression, land and water mismanagement, and the presence of all of these factors in their wintering grounds are among their largest threats. Knowing the host of hurdles pipits face made seeing one in the middle of its flight display all the more exhilarating.
The morning only got better when Annie and Tim took us to a nest they’d been monitoring full of 5-day old Sprague’s pipits. The nest was marked by a bamboo pole situated a few yards away. Once you see the pole you have to tread carefully, lest you squash a baby pipit. Annie parted the thatch of grasses the nest was woven into, and we saw four fuzzy little bodies squirming hither and dither chirruping for a snack. They were covered in grey down and their wings were bent at improbable angles. They had pink necks that erupted from their awkward bodies and boasted outlandish orange beaks that were constantly opening and closing in anticipation of food flying in from one of their nearby parents. To see these little guys squirming and chirping, alive and well despite the sizeable stack of odds piled against them, was an incredible thing.
Another great stop we’ve made so far was on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes. We met with Tribal Council Chairmen Mark Azure, who has been an instrumental figure in the tribes’ ongoing effort to reestablish a healthy bison population to the reservation. Bison were first reintroduced to the reservation in the early 1970’s, after nearly 100 years of absence. Mark explained that his people and the bison have shared similar trajectories in recent history, from near decimation with the influx of white settlers in the late 1800s to the more recent revitalization of both the tribe and the animals. Today the tribes are continuing to ensure the long term health of the herd, the land, and their people by carefully managing the herd for production, conservation, and cultural values. As part of this program in 2012, while serving as the head of the Tribes’ Fish and Wildlife Department, Mark welcomed “excess” Bison from Yellowstone National Park into the reservation’s herd. The move triggered reactions ranging from celebration, area opposition, to an injunction banning the transfer of any federally owned bison to any reservations within Montana. The tribes won the case in court last year, and the Bison appear to be on the reservation to stay. The struggle and work is not over, but Mark is dedicated to seeing that the animal’s future is secure. Mark’s family welcomed us into their home for the night, and it was a pleasure getting to know each of them.
Another highlight was our stop at ferret camp, not so different, in some ways, from summer camp. The field crew headed by Randy Matchett, a senior biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is assessing the efficacy of a vaccine against plague in an attempt to lessen its hold on black tailed prairie dog colonies and black-footed ferret populations. Both species have been majorly affected by plague and habitat loss. In the 20 years that Randy has been involved with efforts to reintroduce black-footed ferrets to the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, their population has peaked and plummeted in a sawtooth pattern. 234 ferrets have been reintroduced to UL Bend, and their population at some points has hovered around 90. Currently, there are 3 known surviving ferrets in UL Bend. It’s a frustrating story, and it is a battle for the ferrets to survive out here. Black-tailed prairie dogs, which the ferrets depend upon for food and shelter, occupy only about 2% of their historical range. The prairie dogs are beset with plague themselves, and are hunted on public and private lands alike. A great read by Scott McMillion on the theme ran in the Montana Quarterly and can be found here.
In an effort headed by USGS underway across seven states, biologists are administering a vaccine against plague. They trap the prairie dogs, check ear and pit tags, take blood and fur samples, weigh them, measure their foot length, and send them back into their burrows when all is said and done. When we arrived there were about 85 prairie dogs stacked one on top of the other in small mesh cages waiting for their turn through the gauntlet. The team had it down to clock-work: one tech caught the prairie dog and funneled it into a plastic tube where it was anestheticized, another took it out, weighed it and ran a comb over its back, took a small tuft of fur and sealed it in a small manila pouch, handed it over to another technician who took blood samples and measured foot length, and then another who put the prairie dog back into its numbered cage until it came to its senses and was released. All the while, data was shouted out to another technician whose duty it was to record all of this info. Each prairie dog took about 4 minutes to process. When it was time to release them, we helped place the cages by the mouth of the burrow, tip the cages upside down so the door would flop open, and watched as they disappeared back into their hole.
Another favorite stop was at Dale and Janet Veseth’s cattle ranch. Dale is a fourth generation Montana rancher that is intimately connected to the land he works and knows just about every single species of grass on his ranch. He learned at a young age that the grass is the life force of the place, and manages the ranch with this in mind. He’s identified over 170 plant species on the place, no more than 20 of which are non-native. With an intensive rest/rotation grazing system in place that keeps the cattle off any one pasture for too long a period of time, his pastures contain a diverse range of mixed grasses. This provides optimal habitat for several species of endemic grassland birds that nest on the ranch. He was good enough to let us pester him with questions about his history with the ranch and his involvement in founding the Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes ecological, social, and economic conditions that generate biodiversity on the land and foster thriving rural communities. He is full of information on the history of the area, the history of ranching in the west, and the different areas of thought behind a sustainable future in the industry. His partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Ducks Unlimited, the BLM, NRCS, and other organizations and agencies, serve as an example of the way ranchers and conservationists can collaborate to foster a common goal: rangeland health. Janet was kind enough to send us on our way with homemade banana bread and a bag of aspirin. Liam the guard dog was keen to send us off with many licks.
As I write this the sun is sinking low into the horizon, silhouetting the outline of an old cottonwood along a creek that is cracked dry. The cutting wind that sent me into a shed to hole up and write this has since quieted down, and is now bending tufts of cured grasses to the east. There’s a colony of kingbirds in a tree nearby whistling at the hills. In the distance I can hear the horses’ tails swishing and the occasional billow of breath punctured by the chime of the bell around Pearl’s neck. I’m being eaten alive by mosquitos, and I’m pretty glad to be out here.
More to come about these stops and the ones we’re soon to make as we head North a short ways to the tip of Lake Fort Peck before we head down its eastern edge and make our way South to meet up with the Yellowstone.
Robin and Sebastian