Bitter Creek balances the needs of ranching and wilderness in Montana.
There are precious few places in the plains where a light is not visible on the horizon at night. Bitter Creek is one of those places. Stretching north of Glasgow to southern Saskatchewan, it is a land of grass; the largest remaining on the U.S.—Canadian border. In Montana, its core is the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area (WSA)—59,000 acres of glaciated plains and badlands where you could hike all day without seeing another soul or hearing the sound of an engine.
Thanks to the quality and the extent of grass, this is an area that supports grassland plants and animals in an abundance unrivaled elsewhere. It contains grassland types that have largely been put to the plow. Deep soils that grow spring wheat and lentils elsewhere, here are home to America’s largest populations of Baird’s sparrow and Sprague’s pipits, which sing and flit among the wildflowers and porcupine grass.
The flat expanses are vital habitat to swift fox that were once extinct in eastern Montana, but returned following restoration efforts in Saskatchewan. It is home to the most northern population of black-tailed prairie dog and black-footed ferret. The last sustainable, international population of greater sage-grouse spends its summers here, but winters up to 100 miles to the south—the longest migration known for the species.
Quirks of History
Even by early settlement standards, Bitter Creek was remote country, one of the last places to fill in eastern Montana after homesteads were increased to 320 acres in 1909. By the time small farm fields were being carved out of the prairie, farm prices around the world collapsed. By the early 1920s, a railroad planned along the Canadian border didn’t materialize, the population fell, and fields, still clinging to prairie roots, returned back again to untamed grassland. Today, the homestead buildings are nearly all gone and small mounds of rocks, the result of countless hours of toil to prepare the land for farming, is all that remains of the early efforts to farm. Without farms and houses, there are few roads. Those that exist are impassable after a prairie thunderstorm has saturated the soil. Power lines are absent, as are most other structures taller than a fence.
Bitter Creek's vibrancy is thanks in large part to ranch families who, for generations, cared for the grass. TNC is working with them to ensure that the grassland legacy is retained. The area is a patchwork of public, Bureau of Land Management, and private land. Securing those private lands will ensure continuity of grass with public lands. We acquired our first conservation easement in 2010. Since then, we have purchased additional easements, securing more than 55,000 acres of private land. Combined with the public holdings, those easements ensure that more than 230,000 acres of prime grassland is now available to sustain a long tradition of family ranching and as critical wildlife habitat.
**WSAs are remote and undeveloped lands that offer primitive and unconfined recreation opportunities. Travel by mechanized or motorized means is only allowed on numbered routes.