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Changing the Land

Changing the Land Panel 495x329 "We have attempted to mold the land to our ideas, to what it should produce, when the land should have shaped our ideas and dictated to us what it could best produce." Harold Hagen, last occupant and owner of the Whaley Homestead

Wheat Crop on Refuge in 1966 The Bitterroot Mountain range is the backbone of the valley. The Salish call the Bitterroot Mountains “VCk Welk Welqey” which means “the tops are red.” The life way of the Salish people is a cooperative dependent relationship with the land, plants, and animals.
Salish is the name of a group of people, consisting of several tribes, and the language they spoke. The Bitterroot Valley was the permanent home of their forefathers. The Stevensville vicinity was their main winter camp.

In an unpublished University of Montana paper, Malouf (1952) reconstructed economy and land use by the tribes in western Montana using ethnographical and historical data. All tribes were hunters and gatherers, and as such they did not allow for the accumulation of surplus food and supplies. However, famines were rare. Approximately 28 species of plants were the main sources of foods, medicines, cookware, and housing. The root of the bitterroot plant was a central dietary feature. One of the best places to dig the root was a mere 3 miles north of the refuge boundary at the mouth of Eight Mile Creek. Families could dig 50–70 pounds of bitter-root in late March or April. Arrowleaf balsamroot, an abundant plant in most elevations of western Montana, was also extensively eaten. Stems were typically peeled and eaten raw before flowering, and later roots were harvested and cooked. Ponderosa pine provided four forms of food: inner bark, sap between woody layers, cone nuts, and moss hanging from branches. Narrow leaf willow, a pioneer species on river gravel bars, was used in the construction of sweat lodges and baskets for cooking (sealed with gum). Most of the common mammals present today in western Montana were hunted including white-tailed deer and mule deer.

Grube or White Barn in 1966The primary early land use by settlers in the Bitterroot Valley was cattle grazing. By 1841 extensive areas of the valley were grazed and used for winter range as cattle were moved from summer grazing and calving locations in mountain slopes and foothills back into the valley in the fall (Clary et al. 2005). In the mid-1850s, the discovery of gold in western Montana fueled immigration to the State, and a short flurry of gold exploration and mining occurred in the Bitterroot Valley. Early workers in the gold camps subsisted on wild meat and the importation of produce, meat, and dairy products. At this time some residents began growing vegetable crops to feed the miners, and this demand stimulated the first agricultural development in the Bitterroot Valley. Subsequently, the Bitterroot Valley became the “breadbasket” that nourished Montana’s genesis, and Fort Owen was the nucleus of the first Euro-American settlement. Gold exploration was short-lived in the Bitterroot region, and by the 1870s the area’s economy was almost solely based on local agricultural crops and cattle production. Ravalli County was created in 1893, and by 1914 extensive settlement had occurred in the region. Timber harvest and grazing were the predominant economic uses of the area at that time (Clary et al. 2005).

The dry climate of the Bitterroot Valley created annual variation in the availability of water to support agricultural crops. As early as 1842, priests at St. Mary’s Mission successfully planted and irrigated crops of wheat, potatoes, and oats (Stevensville Historical Society 1971), and thus by appropriation, the first water right in Montana was established. A water right on the North Burnt Fork Creek was filed in 1852 by Major John Owen, who used creek water to run a grist mill and sawmill. Water use history here.

Old Sullivan McElhaney home site (1966)-Current Headquarters Site The Homestead Act, passed on May 20, 1862, hastened the settlement of lasting, legal communities in the western territories by granting 160 acres of surveyed public land to any adult U.S. citizen or intended citizen. Peter Whaley took advantage of this law and claimed 160 acres in 1877 and completed his two-story house in 1885 that is now Refuge. A national overview of the homestead period was done by National Archives and Records.

Most of the Bitterroot Valley was unfenced in the early era of settlement from 1850 to 1910. However, in the early 1900s, the “apple boomers” who bought land in the valley began fencing most of the area. By the mid-1930s, more than 50,000 sheep and 30,000 cattle were present in the Bitterroot Valley; only about 22 percent of the valley was harvested cropland (Richey 1998). In the late 1940s and early 1950s generally wet conditions stimulated agricultural production in the Bitterroot Valley. Large-scale cattle grazing and haying operations and some small grain farming were conducted in and near the Lee Metcalf Refuge. Some native riparian forest and grassland in the Lee Metcalf Refuge region had been cut, cleared, and/or converted to alternate land uses by the mid-1900s. Two of the larger minor floodplain channels, Nickerson and McPherson Creeks (now called Ditches), were partly ditched in the early 1900s, and some minor impoundment of low elevation depressions and drainages occurred. By the 1960s, lands that became part of the refuge were controlled by about 13 landowners who heavily cropped and grazed the area. Much of the Refuge was irrigated crop and pastureland using the extensive ditch and irrigation diversion system constructed across the floodplain. These impounded ponds probably were created as water sources for livestock.

Old Farm Implement in front of Whaley HomesteadBy the late 1970s, farm sizes in the Bitterroot Valley increased greatly, but agricultural economies prevented more extensive small grain farming in the valley and landowners began subdividing holdings for residential development (Richey 1998). By the early 1990s, Ravalli County had the fastest growing population and residential expansion in Montana, expanding from about 25,000 residents in 1990 to more than 40,000 in 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau 2010). Today, most Ravalli County residents live on the Bitterroot Valley floor within a few miles of the river. Much of the increase in population occurred outside of established towns and became concentrated in areas where each dwelling or subdivision has its own well and septic system. Several hundred residential structures now essentially surround the Refuge (map here).
Last Updated: Feb 22, 2014
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