Robin and Bass weren’t the easiest to find. Before I could track them down, I had to work my way through Robin’s shopping list:
2 boxes in a basement in Bozeman
8 iodine bottles
one saddle + bridle
two bags of alfalfa
two bags of sweet feed
a passle of pens
oh, and hot chocolate please!!
After some odd hours of collecting items in Bozeman I followed Robin’s directions (which she left in a series of voice messages):
Voice mail 1: Head down Powder River Road
Voice mail 2 : Where are you?!
Voice mail 3 : Head down the Powder River Road, we’ll be there all day; it won’t be hard to find us! Just scan the old horizon!
Voice mail 4: I’ve been calling you from a satellite phone; we have no service!
A day later (after a stop-over in Billings) I saw two cowboy hats bobbing in the distance. I offered the travelers a lift, but hell, they had a lot of baggage, four horses and a mule. Two of the horses had packs rising over their backs like camel humps; are you sure we can fit the beers Robin?!
It seems that I had both good timing (for Robin and Sebastian) and bad timing (for me), arriving with the coldest days of fall. We had all heard reports of a storm rolling in and hunkered down in a bull pasture to weather it. Those bulls looked fierce indeed! But we were brave and cold and made a nice little fire on the Powder. I even played Robin and Bass “Silent Night” on the harmonica.
Since I joined the team, Pearl, the mule, and I have developed a deep understanding.Two local farriers, Bill and Ward, put new shoes on the horses today. Bill was getting a little irritated with Pearl, huffing, “Quit it donkey!” and I politely corrected him, “She’s a mule.”’ I’ve secretly been looking into livestock trucking rates to get her to California while Robin takes her pee breaks.
Now, we are in another meadow, although Robin laughs at me calling it a meadow, just outside of Broadus. Last night we rode the horses right through town and grazed them in front of the Sleepy Motel before we found a home for the night. Just another day on the trail with Rob and Bass. Full of thrills, grass identifying lessons, and lots and lots of laughing.
Fall, it seems, has snuck up on us. It has written itself all over the landscape: in the curing grasses, the gradual ting of yellow on the branches of cottonwoods along the rivers, and the thin film of frost covering our tent in the morning. We have just begun to see the horses’ breath as we have our coffee in the morning and wait for the dew to burn off. We spent a particularly cold day holed up watching hay equipment crawl by as ranchers hurried to get everything up before the first freeze. The horses are beginning to grow in their winter coats and Pearl has taken to bucking in the most phenomenally mulish ways to alert everyone of the coming winter. We’ve heard talk over the last month from every place we stop in of an early winter, and it seems to be the case, with over a foot of snow accumulating just a couple hours drive from us. All the hawks are molting, and every kestrel we’ve come across has been puffed up in an effort to stay warm on telephone wires. The geese have begun to bunch up and herald in the changing season with their gabble. We’ve dug up our coats and gloves and have made good use of our slickers riding through rain and sleet.
In the last several weeks, we have crossed over the Yellowstone River, I-94, and the Keystone XL pipeline (currently under construction), three major arteries that cut across the state and much of the Great Plains. Each corridor has an effect on the surrounding ecosystem.
We crossed the Yellowstone against a backdrop of badlands in Terry, MT. The Yellowstone, first called the Elk River by the Crow and Blackfoot Indians, is the longest undammed river in the lower 48. We camped on its northern bank for several days, wading in its swollen waters and letting the horses rest after a long push. We rang in my birthday with a visit from friends from Wyoming and Colorado with a fire on a drizzly day. It was rare to look up at the sky above the river without seeing a flock of geese, a great blue heron, a few sandhill cranes, flocks of white pelicans, or a bald eagle crossing over. It’s a wonder to think that what we now consider to be “a lot of birds” may pale in comparison to the abundance that once flanked the banks of the river. After moving out of the Hi-Line, where native prairie dotted with black cattle stretched to each horizon, rangeland began to give way to wheat fields near Circle, and we rode by our first irrigated cornfields in Terry along the Yellowstone River Valley.
Owing to having remarkably calm horses that are, by now, very used to traffic, crossing I-94 on an overpass went off without a hitch. The horses were far more interested in getting to the swell of smooth brome on the other side of the overpass than the semi’s zooming below at 85. We met up with the Powder River about 18 miles south of the Yellowstone. It has become one of my favorite rivers. Much of the open savannah-like forest on either side of the river is still intact, whereas much of the wooded area on either side of rivers throughout the West has been lost. The land is converted to irrigated crops, and damns impede flooding and the natural regeneration of cottonwood stands. Huge swaths of trees still skirt the reaches of the Powder, a free flowing river, and the sunlight slants through their yellowing leaves in the most wonderful way. The open forests that line the part of the Powder we’ve ridden along so far, much of it rangeland, has been remarkable. It has been nice to have a tree or two to tie the horses to, sit on the bank next to a campfire and watch the deer run across the Powder’s shallow waters as the sun sets and things turn cold.
Here in Broadus, MT, we cut over the Keystone XL pipeline. As we rode closer to town, the only traffic was from trucks with South Dakota plates coming back from work on the line. The line, visible because the track where it lies hasn’t been reseeded to grass yet, stretches clear to the horizon. We’ve chatted with landowners whose property the pipeline has gone through, some with different views. The first time many of them realized that the pipeline would cross their land was when they saw surveyors out in their pastures. Trans Canada, the foreign corporation putting in the pipeline, has received the power of imminent domain from the U.S. government. The pipeline will transport crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands south to the U.S. gulf coast. Tar sands oil is difficult and energy-intensive to produce, and leaks and spills would have enormous implications for the health of rivers, aquifers, wildlife, and communities along the route. The pipeline is a topic that has created enormous political, environmental, and indigenous friction.
Everyone we have met in this part of the country has been remarkably kind. During a windstorm, some folks picked us up and shuttled us down the road where they put us up for the night. On one hot day, just north of Mizpah, Sebastian rode up to a house to see if they had any ice cream they’d be willing to sell, and we were loaded down with ice cream cones and popsicles. We can’t count the number of times we have been offered cold drinks from passersby. Bags of grain and carrots have found their way to the horses, and homemade cookies and vegetables from gardens have made it into our saddlebags on several happy occasions. In these towns it seems everyone has a good grasp of which neighbors have horses (most) and might have corrals for us to keep our motley herd in.
With the coming winter hot, or rather cold, on our heels, we have decided to continue to go up the Powder River into Northern Wyoming in lieu of heading southeast from here. Given the early winter, the weather could quickly become dicey for our horses and the both of us. We plan to make it to Big Horn, WY in about a month, and will keep the horses there for the winter. From there, we’ll see what Spring holds…
Here are some photos from the last few weeks. Enjoy.
After winding our way through rimrock, rattlesnakes, sinkholes, and bogs, we have made our way through and out of the Sand Arroyo Badlands. It was a little patch of that hollywood-west I’ve come to expect from Utah’s slick rock canyons but didn’t expect to find in Montana. Either side of that vulture thick, mosquito heavy maze of alkali seeps and sheer cliff faces (it’s actually very beautiful, and decent rangeland for someone’s cattle operation) has been beautiful grass country of gentle rolling hills. Around Circle, they’ve had a very wet year, and things look more like spring than fall with lush green grass everywhere. We got caught in a rainstorm and found out that our rain gear didn’t work. Thats what you get for using old backpacking gear when you should have a slicker. Soaked to the bone and in the wind at 47 degrees, we were cold, and thankful to find shelter in the Brockway bar, a little watering hole with plenty of character, hot choclate and fireball. An off duty waitress, Rayln, offered us her room for the night. We stayed for three. She lent us her truck to get slickers in Miles City, the closest town with a ranch supply store, and we kept our horses down with hers at the rodeo grounds. In miles city we picked up some grain and alfalfa for the horses who were cold themselves. The wheat harvest, in full swing, came to a halt, and the locals and out-of-town combining crews quickly joined us at the bar. The rains lasted through the weekend, bringing 7 inches to some spots in an area that only gets 12 inches per year on average. The ranchers are happy for it, and the wheat farmers are worried sick over seed heads sprouting in the fields before harvest, and fungus sweeping through their fields. The crop adjusters, working for the insurance agencies, already in the area for hail damage, will be busy. We have stayed with several ranch families who have been the kindest hosts you can imagine. The colorful history around here bears pretty wild stories. Ranchers are full of tales about horse thieves and cattle rustlers. We are hooking down from the Hi-Line and heading into the part of the state frontier photographer LA Huffman called “The Big Open.” In the next few days we’ll cross the Yellowstone, and from there head down the Powder River. Here are some photographs from the last several weeks. Enjoy.
Overgrazing is dead. At least that seems to be the case in this part of the country. I know that’s not news for some of you, but for others I bet it is. I wasn’t sure what we would find at the beginning of this ride, but so far we’ve discovered that, if anything, the ranchers in northeast Montana have gotten too good at growing grass. Or at least that’s what the ecologists are saying. “The ironic thing is that for decades everyone was telling us to reduce bare-ground, to leave more grass and leaf litter for wildlife,” said Leo Barthelmess as he drove me through rolling hills covered in thick grass and sagebrush. “And now they’re all saying we need to graze it down in some areas to make habitat for the species that need that open ground.” As we wound our way down the gravel road, we only occasionally passed patches of bare hard-pan, where the white clay earth is smooth and hard as cement. Small areas of blue grama grass, growing like the turf of some wild golf course, and thick beds of prickly pear cactus were scattered here and there amid the taller grasses and shrubs. You might wonder why any ecologist would want a rancher to graze down their grass to nearly nothing, when you’ve heard that overgrazing is such a problem.
Overgrazing was a serious problem in this area at one time, and a national disaster for the United States. In other regions, and certainly in other countries, overgrazing is still an issue, especially in the more arid climates of Southern WY, UT, NM, and AZ. When the Indian peoples were displaced from much of the land in this area, the settlers that moved in were largely from cool moist climates, such as Norway, Sweden, and Ireland. Raising livestock in the northern great plains, a cold high semi-desert prone to drought and severe winters, was something none of the settlers knew anything about. It might have been different had the settlers been from Kazahkstan or Mongolia, which have long histories of livestock husbandry in high steppe environments, but they weren’t. There was a steep learning curve as they figured out what the carrying capacity of this land really was, both in the average years and in the bad years.
In the days of the cattle drives up from Texas in the late 1800’s and the homesteading days of the early 1900’s this whole region was open range. There were no fences. Any land that was not claimed for a homestead, which was much of the land out here, was retained as federal land. Anyone was allowed to run their livestock on that public land, and a classic environmental problem ensued, a phenomenon known as “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It takes a big disaster to get Washington’s attention for any national policy change, and they didn’t realize the importance of regulating the public lands until disaster struck in the 1930’s. A combination of severe drought, overgrazing, and newly plowed up wheat fields let the dirt fly, blacken the skies, and literally coat the desks of the bureaucrats in Washington as it drifted east on the prevailing westerlies.
What’s needed to combat a tragedy of the commons is either privatization of the public resource (get rid of the commons, get rid of the problem) or some serious community organizing. This can come from the grass roots, but in this case it came from the top down with the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act. Taylor and a small group of men, pouring over maps and traveling the west, split up the Federal Lands into grazing allotments, giving individual ranches 10 year grazing leases for so many cattle per so many acres of public land. Now individuals had incentives to care for their portion of the range knowing that they would reap the benefits from any improvements in management, and any grass they left standing wouldn’t simply be eaten by a neighbor’s stock. The implementation of the plan took time, however, and much of the lands weren’t actually fenced into the 1950s. Just about everyone we’ve talked to around here remembers growing up without fences anywhere. Robin and I can only fantasize about not having to open 15 gates a day in 15 miles as we ride down the roads and have to get around cattle guards, dismounting at each one to pry the gate post free from the barbed wire and swing the gate around without getting our string of horses tangled. It would be nice to not have to sidetrack miles out of the way to find a gate while cutting cross country as well, but knowing how much healthier some aspects of the grassland ecosystem are for all of the fencing quiets my complaining, though they present their own problems with obstruction of wildlife migration.
Another contributing factor to the overgrazing of this area’s grasslands was feral horses. Horses were continually escaping or being turned loose onto the public lands. They were allowed to breed and when anyone needed spare horses or money they’d round up a small band, brand them, break them to ride or sell them at auction. (We’ve also been told some pretty colorful stories of this occasionally happening to the neighbor’s horses). It was a good system except that, with no one claiming the vast majority of them, their population exploded and they added to the overgrazing problem. Eventually there were government roundups and the range was cleared of the feral horses, except in designated areas reserved for the mustangs, but that is another story.
In addition to those pressures on the grasslands was the near eradication of most predators in the early 1900s. Leo Barthelmess remembers when jackrabbits and cottontails were absolutely thick, and Sage Grouse, now under consideration for listing as an endangered species, could be flushed by the hundreds. The Mule Deer and Pronghorn Antelope numbers were higher than they ever were before or since, with no predators to keep their numbers in check. Well, it may have been a hunter’s dream, but for livestock producers Leo figures that the benefits of losing a few less calves and lambs every year to predation were outweighed by the damage it did to the grass, reducing the livestock carrying capacity further. Since Coyote numbers have climbed over the past half a century, it has become extremely hard to keep sheep in this country, though some like Leo have had success with guard dogs protecting their flocks. Still, with game animal numbers very low throughout the area we’ve been riding, and Coyote numbers high, more predator control may be necessary to achieve a desirable balance of species.
Dale Veseth, who runs cattle and sheep on the land his grandparents homesteaded (not so long ago really) could explain each stage of the improvements to the range first hand, as he’s lived through them all (and he’s really not very old). It continually amazes me how recent all of this history is. There were border fences put in on property boundaries which helped people use their own land more responsibly, and kept livestock off of public land unless it was permitted to be there. Dale doesn’t remember the grizzlies being roped and shot by cowboys in the late 1800s, nor the demise of the prairie wolf and coyote from hunting, trapping, and poisoning, but he does remember the steady increase in the coyote numbers since he was a boy, and the decline of jackrabbits etc. Then there were improvements in cattle management on private ranches. In the early stages, there might have been a perimeter fence, but the cattle were largely allowed to graze through the entire ranch year round, though they were herded to areas that weren’t being used as heavily when possible. Then the seasonal pasture system came about as interior fences were put in. There were generally four or so big pastures that the cattle would be rotated through corresponding to the seasons. They would spend about three months in each pasture. Usually each pasture was used during the same season every year, which impacted some pastures much harder than others. Grass is most vulnerable during the growing season in the spring and summer, so the spring and summer pastures were usually in the worst shape. Dale explained that the next big thing was the rest-rotation system, where one pasture was entirely unused each year, a sort of fallow system. That helped improve conditions, but it took a large chunk of the ranch out of production every year and the cattle were still in each pasture for months at a time. After that, some people started experimenting with dividing up their pastures further. It seemed like the more pastures they had and the shorter the period of time cattle were in any given pasture, the better the grass did. They also figured out that if you grazed a pasture in the dormant season, it was like you had rested it for the entire year. By rotating which pastures were grazed in which season, they could largely do away with the “rest” portion of the rest-rotation system. Not all ranchers have adopted this rotational grazing system. Some still have just a few big pastures, but almost all of them have moved in that direction and implement some of those principles in one way or another. About the only pastures that are hammered down year round now tend to be the small horse pastures by the houses.
And the proof is in the pudding. The drought (pronounced “drowth” here) in the 1980’s was bad. All of the patches of bare ground expanded. The cactus grew like crazy. The cracked black clay of the adobe hills was all bare. For two nights we stayed with the Stonebergs in Valley County, sleeping in their sheep wagon and letting the horses run in their horse pasture. Rose Stoneberg fed us the most wonderful meals and gave us as much fresh milk from her two half brown swiss nurse cows as we could possibly drink. She knew it was bad living through the drought in the 80’s, but when she went back recently and looked up the weather records, she realized that the 80’s had been even drier than it had been during the Dust Bowl. And you didn’t hear about a Dust Bowl II in northeast Montana. So something had improved. The Drought that has been raging for over a decade in south eastern Colorado, north east New Mexico, western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, the exact same area as the heart of the 1930’s Dust Bowl, has been drier and lasted longer than the drought in the 30’s too. Yet so far the dust hasn’t made it to Washington, so something is different there too.
Now, the dust bowl didn’t result from overgrazing alone. It was largely a consequence of native grasslands being plowed up for dry land wheat fields. With the encouragement of the railroads, the homestead acts, and several good years of rain leading up to the 30’s, settlers moved into the country in droves. Sylvan Walden rode with us across her ranch in McCone County. She pointed to a small depression in the ground, a few snowberries growing inside, and told us of the dugout where a homesteader tried to “prove up.” She knew that’s what it was because it matched the government records of the homestead’s location. We never would have seen it, but the spot came alive with history after she pointed it out. It was a requirement to plant wheat if you wanted to own the land. At one time, she said, there were seventy homesteaders along this small dry creek. Now, the creek sustainably supports one family. A lot of the wheat fields were abandoned during the Dust Bowl. Some were left bare to be re-seeded by the surrounding vegetation, some were replanted to perennial grasses (sometimes native, sometimes not, usually to the introduced Crested Wheat Grass around here). The federal government reclaimed much of the abandoned ground, and private landowners did the same, turning land from crop production to permanent pasture for grazing. That in and of itself has made a huge difference in the resiliency of the plains to severe drought, though the improvement in grazing management on private and public lands alike has certainly helped too.
“What we want to manage for is heterogeneity,” explained Charlie Meserley to Robin, a group of New York City students in the Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program, and me. We were taking a break after moving hay bales all morning in the heat. “Most ranchers manage their grass for a mid level height” he held his hand apart about six inches, one over the other. “They try and take about fifty percent of the grass in a pasture and move on.” Grass is most productive when you do that. It grows more grass through the season than it would if you didn’t touch it at all, or if you grazed it down more. It is basically pruning to stimulate more growth, without taking away all of the leaf area that makes photosynthesis and re-growth possible. We sat in the dim light of the old log bunkhouse where generations of cowboys rested their weary bones, and at least one was shot in the door. “For a lot of species, that’s good,” he continued, “but others prefer longer grass, and some need the short grass and bare ground.” At The Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch, they use area rancher’s cattle to manage the grasslands for a range of different grass heights. “What we graze this year is creating the habitat structure for next spring, when the birds are nesting,” he explained. They aren’t destroying the vegetation in any areas, just creating different habitat structures. For a three inch long bird, six inches of grass height can make a big difference.
Sierra Holt leans back. She has to raise her voice over the whining roar of the four wheeler she, her husband Jason, Robin and I are piled onto. We’re headed between vegetation monitoring transects on their place, slowly accumulating a healthy coating of dust from head to toe. “Well, it really depends on what you mean by ‘improved’. What your values and goals are.” She points to the small patches of hardpan that remain bare. “There is more grass now, especially since the eighties, but there is less cactus and blue grama.” Living on the ranch with her parents, Rose and Ron Stoneberg, she understands that usually “improvement” of rangelands means increased carrying capacity, heightened functioning of the mineral cycle and water cycle, higher productivity etc. Being a botanist by training, with a PhD in plant taxonomy, she leans towards a wider perspective of what “health” means for grasslands. “Depending on your values, having areas of low productivity, of a stunted mineral cycle and inefficient water cycle isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can actually be a good thing.” I’m beginning to sense a pattern here. “That’s why having different ranchers across the landscape is so important. Everyone will manage slightly differently, and that will create some heterogeneity across a region.”
I used to think I understood that we needed heterogeneity for a healthy environment, but I still perceived grazed down, grubbed out pastures hammered into the ground as a bad thing. Now, I’m not so sure. As we’ve ridden our horses across eastern Montana at a snail’s pace, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’ve been hearing from the ranchers and ecologists we’ve met. A shift is taking place inside of me. I’m starting to feel it. When we started I half-suspected we might find some terribly overgrazed pastures, and I thought that that would be a bad thing. I’ve found that there aren’t many overgrazed pastures at all, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if a few of them are around. I’m not too worried about overgrazing creating another Dust Bowl, either. The vast majority of ranchers understand the limitations of the land now, after generations spent figuring it out, and they will be careful not to exceed it going into the future. Their livelihoods depend on it. If anything, the biggest problem on the public land in this part of the country may be over-rest of the grass, which is arguably just as bad for grassland productivity and biodiversity as is overgrazing on a wide scale where everything is homogenous.
What I’ve slowly been learning is that overgrazing isn’t really a useful term at all in most cases. There is heavy grazing, moderate grazing, and light grazing. None are bad or negative in and of themselves. Each is good and necessary on a certain scale, in certain areas. If your management goal for one area is to have it lightly grazed and it ends up being heavily grazed, you could say that it has been overgrazed; but you can’t look at a piece of land that has been heavily grazed and say that it is overgrazed without knowing what the management goal was for that piece of land. The same applies for “over-rested” land. The ranchers around the Charles M. Russle National Wildlife Refuge are fond of saying that the grass there is all over-rested, because of the extremely low stocking rates allowed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Riding along the shores of the Fort Peck reservoir, we saw that much of the grass is thick with old dead growth from previous years, and likely has lower productivity than if it were moderately grazed. The question is, what is the management goal for that land? Is it over-rested, or lightly grazed? Perhaps more importantly, should the entire refuge, over 1 million acres in size, all be managed for the same level of grazing, or should heterogeneity be part of the refuge’s grazing management goal?
I can’t help it, but rotational grazing still gets me excited. I still get a kick out of talking with a rancher about how to increase leaf litter, use hoof action to aerate the soil, get more water to infiltrate into the ground, and reduce bare ground. But maybe not everyone should try and do that. I no longer think it is such a bad thing if a few guys still have just a couple of big pastures, where some areas inevitably get “overgrazed” and others are “over-rested.” It depends on rancher’s goals. For some it is maximum productivity. That might mean moving cattle every day on a four wheeler through three hundred and sixty five small pastures. Others might value having large pasture free of fences, using horses to move them when necessary, and having more spare time to do other things. If different people manage for different values, it is a good thing ecologically too. We heard of one neighbor who always puts off fixing his fences. “It would cut into my riding time,” he told them. “I’d have to spend all summer fixing fence instead of riding to gather up the strays.” It is all about values, I guess.
During the environmental movement of the 1960’s and 70’s many people perceived cattle as the root of the problem. “Get rid of the cattle, get rid of the overgrazing” was the common thought among many environmentalists. Even the Nature Conservancy took that stand back then, though they’ve taken the opposite stand now. Livestock numbers were drastically reduced on public lands. In some cases environmental groups fought to end all grazing on some public lands. What wasn’t appreciated at the time is that grasses and grasslands evolved with large grazers moving across the landscape. Large grazers are needed to maintain range health, as well as something to move them across it. With the Bison and Wolves that chased them gone, you need cattle and the cowboys that chase them or the grasses and grasslands would diminish. And don’t worry, they won’t overgraze it. Besides, if a few do, thats not such a bad thing.
Morning light spills
through grass thick
with dew, small whorls
of dust rise
stamping their lives
into this ground. Listen,
Fourchette Creek, July 21
Lonesome is rolling in a field of crested wheat grass, Pearl is exploring the perimeter of the fence. I am both exhausted and exhilarated. This land is so open. The horizons unhemmed. In huge swaths the landscape is invariably whole, uncut by power lines or trees. Once you quit your fighting, your swatting at the clouds of biting bugs, once you stop sheltering yourself from the hard noon sun, a shift happens. A transition between fighting your environment and becoming part of it. Not minding so much the heat and sweat. (I will say I haven’t entirely made the switch-the mosquitos at night still have me swatting.) It’s been some long days. When we left the Matador a few days back, come noon it was hot enough that a reservoir we passed looked awfully inviting to pass the heat of the day. We splashed around some with the horses, had lunch, napped, and did some birding. Saw this great eared grebe, his eyes red, dipping and diving through the marshes. A ruddy duck boasted a beautiful iridescent blue bill. There was a muskrat rutting around in the mud, and a billion blue dragonflies anchored to different grasses as the wind blew their lithe bodies this way and that. The place was so alive, so teeming with vibrancy, all of the insects and animals and their habits, going about their day. And us with our funny daily routine: checking hooves, scratching big white mule ears, watching the sky fill up with stars. I felt part of it, no different than the blue-billed ruddy duck making its way around its pond. It was about eight before we finally finished packing up to continue riding. It was a gorgeous ride out of the Matador, the perfect time to be moving. The sage brush steppe lit with evening light, the horses moving quick in the cool temperature. Pearl was trailing behind us, stopping for an occasional roll and snack, and then she’d come galumphing and cantering after us, her ears flopping in every direction. The ride was pretty idyllic until night set in and we couldn’t see much of the road. We were still a couple of miles from water when the sun finally sank, so we made the last few miles by starlight. We’d bargained for a little more moonlight, but the clouds gathering cloaked it pretty well. By the time we made it to the reservoir it was 11 and dark. The grey sky was turning tar black, and we began to hear rumbling from over the hills and would see an occasional streak of lightning light up the horizon. By the time we had the fence set up and everybody hobbled, the wind was whipping and the lightning quite a bit closer. The windmill on the shore of the pond was whirring. We finally got everything secured and the tent set up in huge gusts of wind. By the time we finally crawled in it was 2:30. We’d started riding at 5:00 that morning, so were exhausted. The whole night I worried the horses were going to break out. I checked on them twice during a restless night’s sleep. Luckily, they were lined up at the gate the next morning, calm and quiet.
* * *
An assortment of photos from the last few weeks. Click to enlarge.
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.
It seems absolutely wild that we’re finally writing these words, but, we are headed out the door. We are so incredibly thrilled to begin. We headed North last week with four wheels to do some final route finding in anticipation of hitting the trail with 28 legs (four horses, a mule, Winnie, and the two of us); the country we found was lush, green, and covered in wildflowers. It has thankfully been a wet spring and water is running. We saw our first sightings of several rare grasslands birds and look forward to growing more familiar with their song.
We’re particularly excited about the first leg of our trip in Northeastern Montana near the Charles M. Russel Wildlife Refuge. One of our first stops is at The Nature Conservancy’s Matador ranch, and then to Fort Belknap to learn more about the Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) and the Assiniboine (Nakoda) Tribes’ history with the land, before ferreting around CMR to learn more about black-footed ferret reintroduction efforts. In between we’ll meet with several local ranchers whose management practices are widely celebrated for their innovation and sustainability. That’s all in the first two weeks before we make our way South to join up with the Yellowstone River.
When we have coverage we’ll post updates, stories, essays, and photography from the road. Be sure to stay tuned to our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages.
We’re so excited to finally be setting out. With a little bit of a later start than we originally bargained for, it seems unlikely we’ll be able to make it to Northern Oklahoma before the winter truly hits, but we’re not quitting till we’re snowed out, and the country in between is ripe with beauty and promise. We can’t wait to share what we find with you. Thanks for helping get us here.