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Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-day series on the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

BYNUM – No volcano ever vented from Volcano Reef.

No prehistoric coral reef every flourished here either. Standing on the edge of the Rocky Mountain Front, expectations fracture just as the Earth’s crust did when it piled layers of billion-year-old Precambrian rock on top of Cretaceous and Jurassic rocks one-fifth that old.

“The main reason I’m here is what we’re looking at,” said guidebook author and outfitter Bill Cunningham as he led the way into Blackleaf Canyon. “From the Yukon to Mexico, this is the best of what remains of the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s the last part of the Front that is still wild enough to support plains grizzly bears. It has the second-largest migratory elk herd in the country, and the largest herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.”

And yet, most of the mountain peaks Cunningham loves have no names. The Rocky Mountain Front has features that could shame next-door Glacier National Park, but none of the fame.

To keep it that way, Cunningham and a growing band of ranchers, townspeople, hunters, environmentalists and business owners have drafted a plan they want to send to Congress. They hope their Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would preserve both the livelihoods and natural wonder of what the Blackfeet Indians called “the backbone of the world.”

Walking into the sheer-walled crack of Blackleaf Canyon, you’d almost expect to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid come galloping the other way, escaping a posse. Instead, you run into Genevieve Shea and her husband Dave, who spent 36 years as a backcountry ranger in Glacier Park.

“Unless you’re in Many Glacier, to me, you’re not as close to the mountains as you are here,” Genevieve said of the Front trails. “Once you start hiking here, you’re right in the mountains. And you hardly ever see anyone.”

That may stem from the Front’s curious style of hospitality. Blackleaf Creek runs milky gray with mountain sediment. There’s no lake at the end, and very few fish. Glaciers carved much of the Front, but they failed to leave the cirque basins that bejewel more popular parts of the Bob Marshall Wilderness or Glacier. So anglers don’t flock here.

From the air, pilots like Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight see something unique about these narrow canyons.

“When you fly these mountains up north in Canada, every drainage where they could put a road has one,” Gordon said. “It’s the same in Colorado. What I notice most here is the limited access.”

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The prairie east of the Front holds some of the last unbroken sod in Montana. About 2,000 species of plants grow in Montana. The Pine Butte Swamp, a little wetland due west of Choteau, holds 700 of them.

That’s important because domestic grass such as timothy hay has a 4 percent protein content when it cures. Native rough fescue grass on the Front cures to 14 percent protein.

Hunters such as Hal Herring can taste the difference. He used to live in Darby before moving to Augusta. He said the steaks he’s cut from Front elk taste much better than those he shot in the Bitterroot Mountains, where the herds eat more forbs in thick timber.

Cunningham said Volcano Reef got its name from the explosive quality of the wind, which can blow 120 mph. That’s hard enough to knock a seasoned backpacker like him flat on the ground.

Yet that wind also scrapes the snow off the mountainsides and exposes the grass. Archaeological research has found that bison used the Front’s canyons. Pendroy taxidermist Roy Jacobs said the studies looked at bison bones, and could distinguish whether the animals were eating fresh or cured grass. The bison were there for winter range, he said.

The wind’s not so good for humans, of course. Dupuyer rancher Karl Rappold’s family homesteaded the Front 128 years ago. His spread now enfolds a little graveyard from another homesteader. Rappold said the wind drove the wife crazy, and she shot her four children and her husband before turning the gun on herself.

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That said, people are flocking to the Front now.

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“In the last decade, the traffic has tripled from what it was in the ’70s and ’80s,” Rappold said. “In the ’90s, I’d see one or two cars a day by my gate. Now sometimes I think I need a traffic light to get out of the ranch.”

Some of those folks came for the promise of big money in the oil and gas fields that dot the map of the Rocky Mountain Front. Jacobs worked on an oil rig as a young man, recalling how three or four months at the pump paid enough to hunt and fish for the rest of the year.

“We thought for eternity we had this big oil and gas basin we could tap when the prices got right,” Jacobs said. “We thought everybody was going to be rich. They drilled 104 wells on the Front. They got show on two isolated pockets.”

Former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns started the congressional effort to buy out the gas leases with a privately funded foundation. Democratic Sen. Max Baucus finished the deal after Burns lost his re-election bid in 2006, and now most of the oil-and-gas work has stopped along the Front.

Last winter, energy companies voluntarily retired 29,000 acres of exploration leases on public land along the Rocky Mountain Front. All told, about 175 square miles of wildlife habitat has been protected from energy speculation.

As Cunningham headed into Blackleaf Canyon last week, he passed a work crew laying straw revegetation mats on some old natural gas drilling sites. On top of Volcano Reef, he pulled down a little cairn of rocks marking the summit.

“By our presence here, we’re making the place a little more wild,” Cunningham said. “It’s not often we can do that.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

Coming Monday: Getting a head start on noxious weeds on the Front.

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