Another Day on the Musselshell

  • March 07, 2013
  • Posted by David Stout

Throughout the next year the Musselshell Watershed Coalition will be conducting interviews with landowners and water users throughout the Musselshell Valley. The results of these interviews will be used to develop priorities in our strategic water use plan. What I’ve found is that these face-to-face interactions often go beyond a simple list of questions and reveal some very profound relationships that people have with the land.

In early February, before I had developed the questions for these interviews fully, I received word that one of our more supportive landowners would be in the area for a short while. He’s an individual that spends part of his time in Bozeman and part of it in the Musselshell Valley, and like many of the Montanans I’ve met he’s a California transplant. The interview was scheduled last minute and I arrived at his house a few miles east of Roundup unsure of how to direct the interview. Walking into the house I could immediately see that this was the residence of a well-traveled man, and moreover a hunter and photographer. Any nerves I had at the outset quickly dissolved as we dove deep into conversation and my interviewee revealed curiosity to match my own questions.

This curious streak manifested itself in a few ways; among other things he expressed interest in how to properly manage his sage brush steppe for sage grouse habitat and how to best monitor his riverbanks to control noxious weeds. He also relished telling me about some of his innovations that he had used to solve problems around the ranch including a cheap and simple wildlife guzzler he had installed on one of his stock tanks.

When our interview was over I took him up on an offer to go visit the stock tank to see what this guzzler looked like but that quickly turned into a longer trip. As we rode up and away from the river and onto the plateau of sage brush steppe he pointed out the interesting geology around us. To most people, most Montanans even, this area might look ordinary or possibly barren, but my host was revealing was his deep concern for these ordinary spaces and the wildlife that depend on them.

As a hunter and artist he had a naturalist’s eye and expressed a special love for the unsung and unnoticed diversity of eastern Montana’s landscape. To him the alpine mountains were deserts of diversity, but here on his piece of land we could find mixed grass prairie, sage brush steppe, and ribbons of wetland and river ecosystems. From the edge of the plateau the full scope of it all was realized: a plummeting draw covered in ponderosa and juniper that unveiled a dramatic view of a riparian corridor carved by one of the Musselshell’s tributaries. Willows and cottonwoods sat down by the winter trickle of a creek; grasses graded back up the slope towards the evergreens on our edge of the small valley. Out to our east my host pointed out an outcropping of ponderosa pine on the opposite side of the far side of the cottonwoods where elk could be found when they made their migrations through. To our west we managed to spot a group of mule deer three stags strong disappear off the plateau down the wooded end of the draw. Soon after we spied through binoculars a herd of antelope making their way out into a field managed in the grassland reserve program. As they ambled off to the west a coyote trotted through the grass to the south of us. Looking through the binoculars I wondered aloud what he might be doing. My host answered that he was probably hunting sharp-tails, and after a few more of the coyotes steps a grouse exploded out of the grass in front of him and flew beyond a small crick just out of his reach. I passed the binoculars to my host and he resumed the watch. Our canine friend must have caught on to us because he began a dash away from our vehicle. As it left my host remarked, “Coyotes really are amazing creatures. They’re just absolute survivors. Sometimes I shoot them but do I respect them.” It struck me that the respect, despite the blood between them, was genuine.

While I can’t say I was visiting with a typical landowner – because of his frequent absence he leases his land to another rancher and provides some direction with their management – I was certainly left with a feeling that in this place, like all places, there is a special relationship between people and the land. My new friend showed me a glimpse of that and was giving the ordinary, even desolate looking sage brush and coyotes, its beautiful due. After heading back to the house to gather my things I was invited back come warmer weather to take advantage of some canoeing on the Musselshell. I think a follow up interview is in order.


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