UL Bend Wilderness Credit: Jared White
This piece appears as part our celebration of National Wildlife Refuge Week
"A man in the States might have been a liar in a small way, but when he comes West he soon takes lessons from the prairies, where ranges a hundred miles away seem within touchin’ distance, streams run uphill and nature appears to lie some herself.” –Famed painter Charles M. Russell
I found myself repeating this quote to take my mind off the Cessna banking steeply over north central Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a preserve bigger than Rhode Island with plenty of room left for New York City.
From the air, the CMR appears to be a landscape full of contradictions. Harsh, yet somehow inviting, this land below is a contrast of steep badlands and cottonwood flats, ponderosa forests and mixed-grass prairies that extend in every direction. It’s a place carved out by eons of wind, water and ice that once sustained dinosaurs, native tribes, early homesteaders and an outlaw or two.
These days, even on a plane skillfully piloted by EcoFlight, you won’t see several sentinel species that once roamed the prairie such as plains grizzlies, bison and Audubon bighorn. They were eliminated from this part of Montana by the early 1900s. But the CMR remains the keystone of eastern Montana’s ecosystem that stretches from Saskatchewan south to the Yellowstone. And the diversity of the geography is rivaled only by the countless number of fish and wildlife that still makes this place their home.
The flight over the rugged breaks and vast prairie of the Refuge reveals what it takes to support 235 species of birds, including endangered piping plovers and peregrine falcons. And the CMR is one of the last strongholds of Paddlefish, a prehistoric holdover from the Cretaceous Period with living relatives only found in China’s Yangtze River. There’s also a restored population of elk and bighorn sheep, making the CMR home to some of the best big game hunting and last undeveloped prairie habitat in the nation.
After a half hour in the air my hands start to unclench the seat in front of me and I dive into the conversation of the Refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan over a crackled headset. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is busy responding to the 20,000 comments it received on a plan that will guide the Refuge for the next 15 years. That means thousands of acres of prime elk, sage grouse and pronghorn habitat are hanging in the balance—making right now a critical time to build on the Refuge’s longstanding conservation legacy.
The landscape and the future of the CMR loom large outside the plane’s window. An hour into the flight, the plane banks sharply back to the west toward Lewistown and I reassume my grip on the seat back in front of me. As we fly up Crooked Creek and leave the Refuge, the world below changes from native grasslands to broken stubble fields. Watching this transformation offers a stark reminder that Montana’s native grasslands are indeed some of the rarest and most vulnerable ecosystems in the nation.
Like C.M. Russell, I find this place unyielding, and beautiful. Now is not the time to compromise on its conservation. And there is no lying to ourselves about what will be lost if we do.