Sunday, July 5, 2009

Saving the Prairie

I am honored to be on the National Council of the American Prairie Foundation (APF), which is dedicated to preserving the American prairie in central Montana, between the town of Malta in the north and the Missouri River to the south. Its goal is creation of a prairie-based wildlife preserve that will benefit not only wildlife but also local economies and will enable visitors to experience the wild prairie in all its beauty and diversity. In early October, people associated with the Foundation were able to visit the latest property added to the protected prairie, the first piece of APF land that fronts on the Missouri River.
We traveled there by jet boat, as that's the easiest way to get there, as this area is sparsely settled, with narrow, rutted dirt roads. As I stepped ashore onto this old homestead, with its deteriorating buildings and empty corrals, I felt a wonderful sense of possibility for the future of this place. Volunteers would clean it up, wildlife would wander down to the water to drink, people would come to enjoy the riverfront.
The native shortgrass prairie is an impressive and actually quite varied landscape with hills, creeks, prairie dog towns, and miles and miles of wildflower-strewn grassland. Abundant wildlife such as pronghorn, elk, and coyotes live there, and APF has acquired a herd of pure American bison, with no cattle genes mixed in, as there are in many bison herds.
After visiting the new property, we enjoyed a picnic in the nearby Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, where impressive bull elk were courting the elk cows as they grazed among old cottonwood trees along the river. We are hopeful that all these lands--the wildlife refuges, parks, ranches with conservation easements, and other protected properties will become linked together to create an "American Serengeti," a wildlife preserve that protects not only the wildlife but also honors the human history of the area with restored buildings such as a one-room schoolhouse, a homestead cabin, and ranch buildings.

Friday, July 3, 2009

September at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and Yellowstone

I spent two weeks in September, 2008, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, mostly doing library research for my book on Indians and horses. The McCracken Library there has a treasure trove of memoirs, photos, and books old and new about the west, including many resources for my book. I rented a little house and spent most of my time pouring over books and photos in the library.
Cody is close to Yellowstone National Park, one of my favorite places, and I managed spend my weekends there. Usually, I focus on the Lamar Valley, where I'm most likely to see wolves, but this time I also hiked in the southeastern area of the park, where I was lucky enough to encounter these curious pikas along the trail.
The area around Cody is also great for hiking and biking, as the town has many nearby trails and is surrounded by mountains. I developed a fondness for the town's many waterfront trails, where I found these lovely fall wildflowers blooming. As you can see, Cody is quite a dry, desertlike place.
The Wild Bill Historical Center surprised me--I had imagined it as a fluffy touristy sort of place, but I was wrong. The Center has wonderful museums full of interesting information and artifacts, from the largest collection of firearms in the United States to a beautiful Plains Indian Museum and another museum filled with the art of important western painters, as well as one celebrating the life of Buffalo Bill Cody, an important figure in the history of the "Wild West," perhaps the most influential of all in forming the American vision of life in the Old West.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Catching up and Crow Fair

I let time get away from me and neglected my blog, but after a very busy year, I'm back to it again. I will spend the next days getting caught up on what I've been doing, as I think much is of interest to others.
This summer, I'm finishing the manuscript for a book about Indians and horses, and my research for that book has taken me to special places in Montana, in books, and in my mind and spirit. For thousands of years, Plains Indians had no horses. When the Spanish came in the late 1500s, they brought horses with them, and by about 1750, all the Plains Indians had them, revolutionizing their cultures.
My first journey for this book was to Crow Agency, in southeastern Montana, for the annual August Crow Fair, nicknamed "The Teepee Capital of the World" because of the more than 1,000 teepees pitched there for the celebration. Indians from all over the U.S. and Canada come to participate in the rodeo and races and to socialize, and Crow families gather to catch up with their loved ones. Every morning the Crow people parade proudly through the camp, dressed in their finest outfits, riding their beautiful horses. It's a delightful occasion, and an opportunity to experience how this tribe has maintained its close relationship to horses despite all the horrors its people suffered as European Americans took over the prairies. My favorite part of the experience was watching the young people riding through camp bareback and hanging out on their horses around the rodeo grounds.