Most of Montana’s wildlife would fit in the palm of your hand.
Of the 109 species of mammal native to our state, the order rodentia provides 45. Naturally, they also take up the mountain lion’s share of Kerry Foresman’s new edition of “Mammals of Montana.”
In fact, little critters like voles, bats and golden-mantled ground squirrels (which are not chipmunks) outrank charismatic megafauna such as grizzly bears and bighorn sheep for most of the book’s 430 pages. And thanks to the way Foresman redesigned the entries, the little guys earn the armchair biologist’s respect.
For example, northern flying squirrels have a better glide ratio than hang gliders and like mushrooms. Whereas red squirrels have been documented building middens (food caches) measuring 10 feet by 36 feet. The vagrant shrew has a resting heart rate of 1,000 beats per minute.
“What I really wanted to do with the book was make it very accessible for the lay person,” said Foresman, a biology professor at the University of Montana. “I wanted K-12 students, mom and pop going out in the field, hunters, sightseers, all those people to be comfortable with it. I didn’t want it to be just a scientific book. But I didn’t want to dumb it down either.”
Foresman’s first edition came out in 2001. That version came through a partnership with the American Mammal Society, and concentrated on concise technical descriptions with few illustrations. It became the main reference book for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents and U.S. Forest Service.
It also soon went out of print. Foresman retained the copyright. With a chance to rethink the project, he approached Missoula-based Mountain Press Publishing.
The biggest change was visual, but that presented a challenge. Commercial wildlife photos often cost $200 or $300 an image. With 109 critters on a self-financed project, the cost could have been a deal-breaker.
That’s where being in the biology business since 1984 paid off. Foresman took photographs of many of the mammals he studied. Even better, he helped train many of the biologists currently at work in Montana’s wildlife agencies and high schools.
“I have a lot of friends who are pro wildlife biologists or photographers, and I’ve worked with these people my whole career at the university. So I imposed on all my friends. I’d say I’d love to use the image you’ve got, but I can’t pay you. I did that with 43 different people. To a person, they all said yes.”
The person who said yes the most was Alexander Badyaev, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, professional wildlife photographer and colleague of Foresman’s for more than 20 years. Badyaev brought a distinctive touch of animal behavior to his 120 images.
The chapter introduction for order carnivora illustrates the difference. A single photo of an aspen grove in winter covers pages 262 and 263. It takes a second look to spot the mountain lion prowling on the far right edge.
“It also at the beginning has a nice section of history of managing wildlife in Montana,” said Hellgate High School biology teacher Darcy Hover. “It covers some of the techniques we use in the field, as well as the different ecotones (transition areas between different landscapes) of Montana, and what animals you’d find in each.”
Finding that kind of material in a book suitable for classroom use was tough, Hover said. Wildlife biology textbooks are hard to find in general, and a specific one for Montana’s fauna flat-out didn’t exist in contemporary form.
“I think this fills a need,” Hover said. “We looked at textbook companies and couldn’t really find one. I also think it would make a good book to have on your shelf at home.”
Updating also was an issue. In just the dozen years since Foresman’s first edition, fellow biologists churned out bookshelves full of new data on many of the entries. The recent trick of implanting satellite transmitters in wolverines confirmed the reclusive predator has a home range of 800 to 1,000 square miles, and can climb Glacier National Park’s highest peak in a 90-minute jaunt.
Foresman also talked to school teachers and librarians to see how kids might use the book. That led to pointing up the difference between golden-mantled squirrels and the state’s four species of chipmunk, for example (both have stripes running down their backs, but only chipmunks extend the stripes through their eyes).
The book also is the primary reference source for Montana’s State Natural Heritage Program, which has an online animal and plant identification site, fieldguide.mt.gov.
“I would highly recommend it,” said Bryce Maxell, a senior biologist at the Montana Natural Heritage Program in Helena. “The second edition is greatly improved. It’s very user friendly for a wide variety of readers.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.