This is Big Sky country at its best. Ample spring rains have rejuvenated the life force that runs strong in CMR, whose heart is the mighty Missouri River and the massive Fort Peck Reservoir the river has created. Riparian areas are lush green from plentiful moisture. Willows, alders, cottonwoods and emerging clover glow with the colors of new growth. A profusion of wildflowers carpets hillsides and meadows. And of course there's "the" river. With the above-average spring runoff, the muddied Missouri is now rolling along like a train, swift, high and loud, on its 2,500-mile destination with the Mississippi River at St. Louis.
On this day the refuge's manager, Bill Berg of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is escorting our small entourage on a sightseeing tour of the expansive CMR refuge, the second largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 and arguably its crown jewel. Perched on a high overlook we're able to gaze into the chasm below and survey what is only a minute fraction of the huge refuge. "The remoteness and vastness of the refuge catches some people by surprise," cautions Berg as we board his four-wheel drive wagon. Indeed, it's easy to get miles away from civilization in the depths of CMR. At the same time, experiencing CMR in its entirely is a nearly impossible task.
In sync with the state's Big Sky reputation, scale becomes exaggerated here, too. The refuge extends 134 miles up the Missouri River from Fort Peck Dam in north-central Montana to the Sand Creek Wildlife Station to the west. It boasts 1.1 million acres in addition to the 245,000-acre Fort Peck Reservoir, which was created in 1939 after a massive dam construction project by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The World Almanac lists the Fort Peck Dam the largest embankment dam in the United States, and the reservoir ranks as the fifth largest in the world. There are 1,500 miles of shoreline, most of it extremely remote. Without a boat or sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle, only ardent outdoor enthusiasts are able to explore the inner sanctums of CMR -- exactly the reason why wildlife flourishes here, says Berg.
"CMR's geography is well-suited to wildlife diversity," he explains. "We've kept development at a minimum to maintain wildlife habitat. Because the primary goal is to provide a wildlife refuge, there are only 12 public access points in CMR," he says. "These permit recreation like boating, fishing, exploring and seasonal hunting. The fact that access is relatively limited keeps wildlife and habitat healthy and intact," Berg says.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife administers the CMR National Wildlife Refuge with 20 full-time employees. Part of their job is to coordinate with other agencies and help administer certain public uses, such as fishing, hunting, educational programs and others. Average number of visitors per year tally between 100,000 to 150,000 -- a relatively small number compared to the size of CMR.
Many visitors are sportsmen -- intrepid anglers and hunters who have enjoyed CMR for years. Big game hunting for elk, antelope and deer rivals the best anywhere, while catches of bass, walleye, northern pike and catfish can approximate fishing paradise. Nature photographers, backpackers, campers, boaters and sightseers all revel in the quality experience that CMR provides.
But the bulk of the CMR staff's duties concerns preserving the habitat for wildlife. This involves complex issues ranging from securing water rights and obtaining easements to complying with federal endangered species regulations and conducting scientific studies of wildlife populations.
These days, Berg and his team are spending more manpower on cattle grazing issues in CMR. Because of its often detrimental impact on native wildlife, grazing reductions are becoming more wide-spread. "In certain instances, cattle grazing can be a useful management tool. But left unchecked, over-grazing destroys critical habitat used by birds and fish," he explains.
Wet weather and muddy conditions dictate our day's itinerary, and Berg has chosen to navigate the refuge's only improved road -- the popular 20-mile self-guided auto tour loop. Considering the weather's affect on other roads, no one questions his judgment about traveling into the secluded backcountry.
Our several-hour journey takes us on a descent into Missouri Breaks country, a term for the area's truly distinctive geology that sets apart CMR from other woodland and riparian ecosystems in the West.
The "breaks" or "badlands" of the Missouri are deep chasms in the earth that extend like convoluted fingers outward from the river. Over the eons, great Pleistocene glaciers spread over northern Montana, literally pushing the Missouri River from its former course (now the Milk River, 60 miles north) southward. The river cut its present channel at the base of the glacier. When the glacier began to melt and retreat, its runoff formed streams that coursed across the soil and carved narrow, deep "coulees" that are now called the Missouri Breaks.
CMR's geological history is not lost upon us, as Berg points out that natural forces continue to sculpt its contours. As we drive across from one of the larger coulees, we see that the rains have made the unstable Bearpaw Shale -- the brownish-gray soil that forms most of the local geology -- collapse into a harmless one-acre landslide. Berg never tires of his familiarity with the refuge. "It's a wild land that's always changing, from season to season, day to day," he says.
As throughout the West, the 19th and 20th centuries have thrust the most change upon this land. Native American tribes once lived along the choice hunting grounds divided by the Missouri River. Crow, Blackfeet, Sioux and Cree hunted abundant game, including some of the largest herds of North America's 60 million bison.
Lewis and Clark's epic journey along the Missouri in 1805 brought the first white people to what is now CMR. Wrote the explorers in a May 24, 1805 journal entry: "The buffalo is scarce today, but the elk, dear and antelope are very numerous. We saw five (grizzly) bears." Soon after, the Missouri served as the main route of travel when white settlers moved West. Riverboats ferried passengers from St. Louis to Fort Benton, a distance of 2,200 miles. Downriver steamboat voyages brought back cargo of gold and other precious metals mined in central Montana. As riverboat traffic increased, wild and sometimes lawless settlements grew along the Missouri's banks. More than a few desperadoes, cattle rustlers and bank robbers profited at the expense of river travelers who ventured through the CMR region. And vigilantes such as the famous "Stuart's Stranglers" took it upon themselves to introduce justice into this raw, developing land.
In 1936, the area was established as the Fort Peck Game Range. Its popularity for game hunting quickly grew during the dam construction years, when up to 11,000 workers lived in the rollicking dam site-turned town of Fort Peck. After construction was completed and the workers moved on, the boomtown of Fort Peck settled down to become an outpost of about 300 year-round residents. Many rustic old buildings still survive and are listed in the National Register of Historic Buildings.
The game range was converted to Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in 1976, named after this country's most venerable cowboy artist. "Charlie" Russell provided the rest of the world a glimpse of his beloved Montana from the late 1800s until his the time of his death in 1926. In his later years, Charlie Russell became wistful about what he saw as unbridled progress that was changing the character of his Montana. In many ways, his namesake refuge embodies the qualities that Charlie loved most about the bygone years of the Old West.
Our road tour has now reached the river bottoms -- those hospitably flat areas next to the Missouri that seem as if they were created for human settlements. Sheltered by steep canyon-like walls, surrounded by wind-breaking cottonwood trees and adjacent to all the water one could ever want, many early settlers did just that.
Remnants of turn-of-the-century bunkhouses and cabins dot several areas in CMR. Berg stops our vehicle and we clamber out to inspect one of the more recently abandoned sites in an area called Bell Bottoms.
Decaying shingles creak as the wind gently swirls around this solitary cabin. A lone Western Meadowlark perched on a rotting pasture fence post sings its song. We enter a doorway into the dim light of the one-room structure. The musty odor of antiquity is instantly apparent and conjures images of homesteaders and past lives. Rusted metal food tins, ancient-looking bedsprings and other decomposing utensils are strewn about and testify to the austere simplicity of life. As we step out into the sunlight, we survey the surrounding acreage and realize that with few exceptions, this land has changed little since the days of the former tenants.
Further along our road trip, Berg's watchful eye calls attention to several white-tailed deer partially obscured by a thick stand of alder. We slow for a picture-taking opportunity, but the skittish animals are quick to flee. We later see a small group of mule deer, which seem to better tolerate our presence. As a wildlife refuge, CMR is home for large populations of game and non-game animals that include the deer, elk, big horn sheep, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyote, beaver and others. Berg estimates the resident elk population at between 5,000 to 6,000, a success story considering native elk were eliminated because of over-hunting by the early 1900s.
The current elk herd was established through a reintroduction effort by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the state wildlife agency and private individuals in 1951 using stock from Yellowstone National Park. "During the fall rutting season you can hear bugling males for several miles," he says. "The river bottoms provide important winter habitat for elk. White-tailed deer also use the surrounding thickets for food and cover."
Eastern Montana is in the flyway of many migratory bird species, and a majority of the refuge is set up to accommodate waterfowl and other migratory birds. Since record keeping began in 1936, nearly 240 species of birds have been identified.
We stop along a riparian area choked with willows, cottonwood and other bank vegetation to view a spectacle most of us had never seen. Amid the meadowlarks, robins, mourning doves and occasional northern flicker woodpeckers there hovered, swooped and perched dozens of brightly colored mountain bluebirds. The larger and more intensely colored males were feasting on flying insects, while many of the female bluebirds seemed content to remain perched on low shrubs. We quickly snapped-off dozens of photos as the action continued, which Berg said was just another day in CMR.
Within five more minutes we observed several cliff swallow's adobe-like nest dwellings attached to steep cliff walls. Next to the road we watched sharp-tailed grouse rustle among the brush looking for food. Sightings of mountain plovers, red-tailed hawks, ospreys and Canada geese took place continually throughout the day.
The country and wildlife around CMR National Wildlife refuge has changed, and continues to change. Domestic cattle have replaced the buffalo. Agriculture and the plow have altered much of the prairie habitat which was home for smaller birds and mammals. With loss of habitat and traditional food sources, predators like the plains grizzly bear, wolf, mountain lion and coyote were decimated because they turned to cattle and sheep as a means to survive.
But a portion of the Missouri Breaks managed to escape many of the influences of settlements because of rough terrain and inaccessibility of the area. That area is today Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which has become vital habitat for the region's wildlife and migratory birds. And for hikers, anglers, hunters, wildlife watchers and anyone who enjoys the outdoors, the refuge offers a bountiful experience that's nearly unmatched in the lower 48 states.
At our trip's end we motor up the incline from the Missouri River to the rolling plains above. The day has been rewarding not only for our ability to see wildlife in its natural element, but to experience the same undeveloped land that early settlers and travelers confronted more than 100 years ago. Our group is satisfied that refuges like this across the country provide a respite from the harried life that most of us know. If Charlie Russell were alive today, no doubt he'd find a slice of the old Montana he loved in Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
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