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Montana's Northern Prairies

Another Kind of Wild

What may look like a two-track road on the photo might actually be a barely visible dent in the grass.

After years of creating countless maps of our Northern Prairies work areas, I decided it was high time that I experience the place as more than just points and lines on paper. And so began a 3-day trip covering nearly 1,000 miles -- the distance between Portland, Oregon and L.A. -- without leaving the borders of Montana. I learned it’s hard to plan your route even by looking at an aerial photo first. What may look like a two-track road on the photo might actually be a barely visible dent in the grass.

Our first stop was the Matador Ranch where, during one short ride, we saw about ten Greater Sage-Grouse, watched a dozen or so prairie dogs scurrying about their large “town”, startled some pronghorn into a quick retreat, and saw countless grassland birds and raptors. That evening, we headed out a bumpy two-track in search of a herd of elk, rumored to be hanging out near Coburn Butte. We were too busy searching for wildlife to notice the darkening skies and, before we knew it, we were right in the middle of a full-on storm. Huge claps of thunder exploded around us, followed by too-close-for comfort lightning crackling out of the sky. Before long, wisps of smoke appeared west of the butte, so we tore out toward the smoke of what might have been a dangerous wildfire torched by the lightening. Just as we hit the highway, the skies opened and a sheet of rain poured down on us...and on the grass fire. We all got lucky that day.

Next Stop: Bitter Creek

If you’re ever looking for a place to really disappear ... Bitter Creek is for you. It’s out there. Way out there. At its center is the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area. While we often think of wilderness as rugged mountains and deep forests, these 60,000 acres of absolutely beautiful prairie without a sign of humans, save the scattered cattle, certainly got us thinking differently. We didn’t even cross a fence to enter from the adjacent private ranch – where the Conservancy hopes to soon protect another 25,000 acres with a conservation easement.

It’s easy to get lost on a huge plateau as flat as a pancake, covered in nothing but native grass. It’s a beautiful thing really and our Science Director Brian Martin tells us “You should take a long look, because there’s only a few places in the country like it.”

This landscape possesses little hidden treasures – beautifully patterned rocks, birds, lizards, deer, pronghorn, and a huge variety of ground-hugging plants. At an impromptu picnic near a small reservoir, we watched several sinewy orange, black and white striped prairie garter snakes alternating between swimming and basking in the sun on small twigs that jutted out of the water.

I definitely developed an appreciation for the work Brian puts in on these trips. We saw one other person in 60 miles of driving. Brian drives for hours and hours on these ranches, just to see what's on the ground. He deals with flat tires, camouflaged rattlesnakes, unexpected lightning storms, kamikaze sage grouse, curious cattle, stream crossings and sometimes impassible roads (too muddy, too wet, too much tall grass!). He loves the grasslands of Montana and, after this trip, I definitely understand why. The vastness of the plains just makes you feel free ... like you can breathe easier.

By Amy Pearson, TNC Montana GIS Analyst with help from Land Protection Specialist Mary Tuckerman-Hollow

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