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A Yankee Notebook

June 23, 2014


FORT BELKNAP INDIAN RESERVATION, MT – Sing what you want about Oklahoma, but out here in northern Montana the wind really does blow free across the plains. All the grasses, as well as the cottonwoods along the watercourses, lean southeast. If there were any cities within easy transmission range, this would be the ideal place for wind farms. Tom assures me, however, that whenever the wind isn’t blowing, the mosquitoes and no-see-ums swarm by the millions. I’ll take the wind any day.

Tom Jones is the Fort Belknap Game Warden. He’s a tall, rangy Gros Ventre First Nation guy. The back seat of his pickup is loaded with well-worn ordnance; a CB radio on the dashboard monitors the dedicated local frequency. A little while ago he spotted a dark, almost invisible line against the horizon.

“There’s a bunch of buffalo over there,” he said. “If you guys with the cameras” – pointing to Steve and Phil, the television film crew; a still photographer; and a World Wildlife Fund naturalist – “if you take that road around behind ‘em, I’ll see if I can get ‘em moving your way, and maybe you can get some shots.”

“Road” is a generous description of the dirt tracks through the Fort Belknap bison reserve, but we’ve seen much worse. The guys bumped hopefully away in their four-wheel-drive vehicles. Tom turned deliberately off the track and headed cross-lots through dry washes, scattered sagebrush, and rolling, glaciated hillocks that hid our approach from the herd we’d spotted on the edge of vision. Ground-nesting godwits, curlews, and savannah sparrows flew up and chattered at us whenever we got too close to their nests.

From a distance, a herd of bison looks like a herd of Black Angus cattle – except that cattle tend to separate and graze almost heedless of each other. Bison graze close together, so that instead of scattered black spots, their herds form solid black masses. They’re an ultimate herd animal, taking their cues from each other and moving together, appearing always to be seeking unanimity. Tom drove closer to the herd, about 400 of them, he reckoned. It began to take on individual forms: bulls, cows, and lively brown calves. They all faced toward us with interest, tails lifting into the air.

They began to move, and split into three groups. But you could sense them getting uncertain, and soon the groups began to coalesce again. A few big bulls stalked toward us, staring at the truck. Others ran behind us. It was great! I felt like Farley Mowat’s character in the film Never Cry Wolf, who races naked through a running herd of caribou. This was a bit less dramatic, but still wasn’t the kind of thing a New Englander experiences every day. Finally the herd got itself together again and thundered away over a hill, behind which, we hoped, lurked the video crew.

We’re here to shoot a segment of a program currently in production, one that looks at the changes in habitat that are causing the precipitous decline of some now-threatened grassland bird species. A few weeks ago I described the problems in the intensely agricultural Ontario glacial plains, where the first of three annual cuttings of hay interrupts the birds’ nesting cycle. Here on the high western plains the problem seems to be the massive loss of prairie to agriculture. We filmed one field of green young wheat that stretched literally out of sight. It’s cultivated by robot machinery controlled by satellite-assisted GPS technology. Any human beings would go out of their minds attempting to work that field with manually operated machinery.

We visited the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, near Malta, (In New England it’s BO-dn, out here Bo-DOIN), a 15,000-acre short- and mixed-grass prairie surrounding four cold-water impoundments. We found it teeming with wildlife, from grasshopper sparrows and burrowing owls to prairie dogs, pronghorns, deer, and coyote. The refuge is a year younger than I am. It’s amazing to see what a recovery the habitat has made in that time, compared to the farming land around it. (The highway running through Malta, by the way – Route 2 – is the same one that runs through Lancaster, New Hampshire and Montpelier,Vermont, the so-called High Line.)

Here in Fort Belknap, the combined First Nations of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine have recently introduced genetically pure bison from Yellowstone National Park. Both nations are “People of the Buffalo”; it’s their totemic animal. “The buffalo gave to us for centuries,” one local says, “and now it’s time for us to gave back to the buffalo.” The herd we saw on the tribal preserve was but one of several they hope to have as their range expands.

What have bison to do with grassland birds? Quite a bit, actually. Bison in their natural, pre-interference state, grazed freely, leaving large tracts of prairie grass either undisturbed or at the optimal length for the nesting and feeding of grassland birds. In turn, the birds fed on the vast amounts of insect biomass, a practice I heartily support. If I recognized all the birds I’ve seen here, I could expand my life list by dozens of species. The naturalist knew them all, from the buffleheads and mallards to the willet, chestnut-collared longspur, and ferruginous hawk.

That’s perhaps the best feature of trips like this: seeing things you’ve never dreamed of and experiencing new dimensions; the immense distances traveled here for the most mundane of errands; snowcapped peaks rising stark from the prairie; the official state car (four-wheel-drive Chevy Silverado); and wild bison ranging protected over territory they once owned outright.

Photo by Willem lange