After years of gathering critical habitat data and opening minds to the conservation possibilities in the Missouri Breaks, our longtime friend and colleague passes the torch
If you drive east out of Lewistown, Montana, for fifty miles or so—over the southern flanks of the Judith Range and along the course of McDonald Creek, through Grass Range and Teigen, a community that once anchored a ranch so big that it still has its own zip code—you’ll reach the little town of Winnett. With the vast sagebrush steppe unfolding in front of you and wind-scoured cliffs and coulees full of green grass on either side of the gravel road, it’s not uncommon to witness small flocks of sage hens flushing and rocketing away towards pronghorns lit pale-orange and white against a gray backdrop.
For the past two years that I’ve worked for the TRCP, I’ve been lost, both literally and metaphorically, in this landscape.
In the distance, the Missouri Breaks begin to appear, with dark lines of timber on the ridgeline. There’s little to suggest that you are on the brink of another world, yet you’re poised at the edge of what may be the best public-lands trophy elk hunting on the planet. Off to the east, you see the deeply incised and snaking lines of Blood Creek, Dry Blood Creek, Drag Creek, or the mother of them all, Crooked Creek, where big yellow-barked Ponderosa pines and rich grass replace the sagebrush. The creeks all cut steeply away towards the Musselshell River, which eventually joins the mighty Missouri.
The road takes you into what must be one of the most complicated systems of coulees in the world, a vast public lands puzzle of hidden sandstone cliffs, hogback ridges of soft white clay, and lost cul-de-sacs, where Old West outlaws held out well into the 20th century and where the traces of warring and hunting Native American tribes can still be found. Today it is home to the second-largest elk herd in the state of Montana, to mossbacked old mule deer bucks, mountain lions, sharp-tailed grouse, and a growing population of Merriam’s turkeys.
For so many Montana hunters, especially archery hunters, this is the heart of the state, and the heart of hunting itself—an experience and adventure like no other. Unlike our traditional Rocky Mountain elk country of aspens, high country meadows, and jagged peaks, in this strange place an elk hunter goes down into the earth. He leaves the prairies for the coulees, most of them branching off wildly, like nerves or arteries that are miles upon miles long and some of them hundreds of feet deep.
In early 2014, when the Lewistown field office of the Bureau of Land Management began working on a new Resource Management Plan for this area, I went to work for the TRCP to identify the local public lands that hunters most depend on, and the lands that have the best wildlife habitat, access, and opportunities for real backcountry recreation and experiences.
I talked with biologists and land managers from the state and BLM and with landowners, old time Montana conservation leaders, and, most of all, elk and mule deer hunters. I drove a couple of thousand miles of road, hiked over forty miles of ridge and coulee, followed elk, looked for horns in May, and shot sharptails in September. I was lost and desperately thirsty at least twice, and I whiteknuckled the incredible Dunn’s Ridge Road (Dunn’s is more like a one-lane path inscribed into the top of a narrow gumbo ridgeline, with cold-sweat-inducing drops on both sides) all the way down to the Musselshell bottoms. Rancher and conservationist Hugo Turek of Coffee Creek, Montana—a great supporter of our work—graciously let me hike across his fields and into the magnificent public lands of the Arrow Creek Breaks, a band of critical habitat for mule deer and sharptails, where Hugo has sustainably grazed his cattle herds for the past two decades, while maintaining access for hunters in the fall.
I took my then-eleven-year-old daughter on a hike through the Judith Mountains—named by William Clark in 1805, after his cousin and sweetheart, Judith Hancock—where we glassed the big-game winter ranges, trying to find a way into the deep canyons. This is where we found Collar Gulch Creek, where there is a population of native Westslope cutthroat trout—the easternmost population known to be remaining on earth—despite the “devil take the hindmost” history of gold mining booms of the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Judiths. Imagine that.
Drawing from dozens of interviews with local hunters and others who know the Breaks better than I ever will, the TRCP worked with some key sportsmen leaders and five other sportsmen’s groups to draw up a formal comment to the Lewistown BLM Field Office to explain that these valuable lands should be managed to conserve their intact character, maintain important public access, and support traditional uses through a moderate new conservation tool called Backcountry Conservation Areas (BCA). We included maps, descriptions of the hunting country and uses by sportsmen, and definitions of the BCA concept that, in its keep-it-like-it-is management strategy, fits so much of this public land like a leather workglove.
In the end, sportsmen nominated four individual tracts of BLM lands for BCA management. We included the Crooked Creek country, the Arrow Creek Breaks and the best of the Judiths, including Collar Gulch, and the intact expanses of big-game winter range that are so unique to this sky-island on the plains. Sportsmen and women are now hopeful that the BLM will consider managing these areas with the common sense BCA approach through the upcoming Lewistown draft Resource Management Plan.
It’s an even bigger opportunity for the TRCP to join with hunters across Montana and the U.S. to make sure the best of these lands are conserved with the existing access to them maintained. Where necessary and possible, it’s an opportunity to see that wildlife habitat and rangelands are restored and made more productive. The possibilities are almost endless: In my final discussions with some local community leaders, we discussed the need for a partnership between conservationists and grazers to control weeds and improve wildlife range, and how BCAs can be used as a way to focus our energy on conserving and restoring the best of the best lands for hunting, grazing, and recreation.
Now, I’m passing my work on to Scott Laird, whom I’ve known and respected for more than a decade and who will be able to take on this effort full-time, full-bore, and full-speed in a way I cannot. I’ve introduced him to some of the friends I’ve made in Lewistown and have no doubt that, with their support, and the support of a few hundred more like them, hunter-conservationists can make a permanent contribution to the future of the Missouri Breaks and the whole of Montana.
I’m leaving the TRCP as the same true believer that I was when I started. I’ll help in any way I can.