The Big Swamp
The Nature Conservancy continues an ambitious project to protect Montana's Pine Butte Swamp: the largest wetland complex along the Rocky Mountain Front and one of the grizzly bear's last strongholds on the plains. The area is part of the larger Crown of the Continent, a 10-million-acre landscape in the Northern Rockies that includes Glacier National Park and straddles the Montana-Canada border.
Pine Butte lies next to the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness and serves as a lush lowland extension to this mountain region. Besides providing essential seasonal habitat, it provides a vital connection for migrating wildlife as they travel from mountains to plains and back. The preserve is a place of stark, primeval beauty. The looming sandstone butte rises 500 feet above the grasses and wetlands, having survived the glaciers that scoured the surrounding country. The silvery north and south forks of the Teton River feed a complex of ponds and wetlands.
A Treasury of Habitats
In addition to the surface water flows through the preserve, Pine Butte Swamp (or fen) is an extensive peat-land fed by mineral-rich groundwater. What distinguishes it from other fens is its proximity to mountains, foothills and grasslands. This crazy-quilt of habitats -- wetlands and dry ground, flat prairie and steep mountains -- meet in a geologic sweep ranging from 4,500 to 8,500 feet in elevation. The result is a remarkably diverse flora supporting a third of the plant species in Montana. Rare wetland species such as yellow lady's slipper, Macoun's gentian, green-keeled cotton grass and Craw's sedge flourish in proximity to common upland prairie plants such as shrubby cinquefoil, rough fescue and Montana's state grass, bluebunch wheatgrass. Dozens of distinct plant communities have been identified on the preserve.
This wealth of vegetation provides habitat for an equally diverse fauna. Each spring grizzly bears descend from their mountain retreats, while snow still blankets the high country, following the watercourses on the Rocky Mountain Front , down to the swamp, where they feed and raise their young. The rich wetland environment provides both food and security, so the bears can easily replenish their depleted energy reserves.
Besides the grizzly forty-two other species of mammals roam the preserve, among them beaver, muskrat, mink, elk, moose, mountain lion, bobcat, lynx, black bear, mule deer and bighorn sheep. The preserve bird list contains about 200 species of birds -- 150 of which breed here. It's a stunning variety, from warblers, waterfowl and waders to soaring raptors. A rare hybrid minnow resides in the wetland waters as well. Sharp-tailed grouse use the wet meadows on the swamp's periphery for their "dancing grounds." In short, Pine Butte Swamp is a wildlife bonanza.
Traces of History
The Nature Conservancy began acquiring land west of Choteau at Pine Butte in 1979, assembling portions of several cattle ranches and a dude ranch to create the 13,000-acre Pine Butte Preserve.
Pine Butte is part of a landscape that the Blackfeet people have called home for countless generations. The Great North Trail, used by Native Americans for thousands of years, cuts through the preserve. Tipi rings testify to the presence of prehistoric plains dwellers. A buffalo jump and associated drive lanes, used before the advent of the horse, can also be found. The location of a Metis settlement from the late 1800s and early 1900s along the South Fork of the Teton River now serves as our management headquarters. The site also had a long history as the Circle 8 Guest Ranch. Scant remains of homestead structures dot the preserve, while ranching activities continue as they have for the past century.
Much earlier the preserve was home to vast herds of plant-eating dinosaurs. Eighty million years of geologic folding and erosion have brought thousands of dinosaur bones to the surface. A site, known as Egg Mountain, harbors one of the richest paleontological finds of our century: Maiasaura Peeblesorum, the "good mother lizard" who nested, laid eggs, fed and protected her young. Many nests, eggs, hatchlings and juveniles have been unearthed here. This research has provided more insight into dinosaur behavior than any other site in the world.
In 2005, the Conservancy sold the Egg Mountain site to the Museum of the Rockies, which has led important research on the site. The Conservancy retains a conservation easement on the site.
What the Conservancy is Doing Here
The Conservancy is committed to the long-term protection of the critical and unique habitat found at Pine Butte as well as the larger Rocky Mountain Front landscape. Science is at the foundation of much of our work: long-term biological monitoring, research on invasive species management and cooperative work with wildlife agencies guide our conservation strategies and management. Careful grazing along with fire, wetland and invasive species management are the core of our land management efforts.
We also believe deeply in the power of partnership and work closely with the local community to integrate their values with conservation activities. Cooperative efforts with local agencies and neighboring landowners that support both local livelihoods and the larger ecosystem are crucial for lasting conservation.
In order to preserve undisturbed habitat for grizzlies, the preserve offers very limited access. Besides enabling the bears free range on the preserve, this relatively "human free" zone keeps them from becoming habituated to people, so they're more likely to avoid local ranches and towns where a human-bear conflict rarely ends well for the bears.