I’ve visited the East Rosebud River every summer I’ve lived in Montana.
Flowing North out of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the East Rosebud winds for some 30 miles before it’s joined by other aspen-lined tributaries- eventually flowing into the Stillwater and the Yellowstone River near Columbus. The water runs cold and clear, with very little diverted for agriculture and nearby development. By late August, when other streams feel like luke-warm kiddy pools, the creek remains cooled by the high elevation snowmelt fed from the 10,000 foot Beartooth plateau. Rainbows, cutthroats and brown trout feed voraciously – even during the middle of the day, feasting on the thousands of grasshoppers blown in from the gusty winds that come down the granite canyons to the south. The bird life is equally spectacular – western tanagers, yellow warblers, rare broad-tailed hummingbirds and far off, the eerie call of what sounds like some prehistoric teradactyl, the trumpet of a sandhill cranes fill the valley.
The river is lined with thick willows, redosier dogwood and aspen thickets, forming a nearly impenetrable fortress from would be wade fishermen. The stream still flows how an old mountain stream should; the cutbanks constantly shift during spring runoff and the willows and beavers take care of the rest. Its fine gravel bottom reflects sunlight from mica and quartz instead of beer cans and bumpers. In 1989 the Forest Service deemed a seven mile section of the creek suitable for federal Wild and Scenic designation, although Montana hasn’t awarded a new wild and scenic designation since 1976.
Between the challenging access, icy cold waters, hairpin turns and beaver dams, the river (although probably more accurately, a creek) does a pretty good job of keeping itself a secret. I’ve only taken a handful of good friends fishing there in the 20+ years I’ve made my yearly pilgrimage and I’ve never seen another soul on the river.
We usually haul over my family’s venerable aluminum Grumman canoe. A now ancient relic that my folks acquired in the 70s and has probably explored more Montana rivers than I could list. It’s virtually indestructible. A tank of a canoe, it’s probably worth more in scrap metal than its resale value as a watercraft, but it has never let us down, even after dinging rocks loud enough to alert every fish in the river.
But even the best kept secrets don’t last. I should have known better—it’s often the secret places that are most overlooked for their recreational and wildlife values when energy development and resource extraction come along– and the East Rosebud is no exception. A Bozeman energy development company has recently announced their interest in exploring the possibility of developing a hydropower site on the river. A dam would be located just upstream from my “secret spot”.
It seems to be the catch-22 of all the great hunting and fishing spots that I’ve frequented in Montana. If it’s an easy place to get to, and the wildlife is abundant, the secret won’t last long—but at least it will exist for future generations. It’s the places that take a little extra effort to access – via two track, rutted dirt roads, singletrack trails and bushwacking– not highways and hotels– that tend to hold the best kept places. These places are naturally guarded from becoming huge tourist destinations, but not guarded from development- and Montana’s got plenty of them.
Maybe this year when I make my trip to the East Rosebud I’ll bring a couple more friends along and hopefully in return they will show me some other tucked away secret Montana place.
Kit Fischer writes on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation.
As Montanans we rarely have to define what is wild—we’re surrounded by it. Many of us see deer in our backyards and swarms of songbirds in our feeders on a daily basis. Within a half hour from most of our homes we have clear, healthy streams, lush forests and prairies. But when it comes to Wildlife- the critters that inhabit these spaces, we’re often conflicted as to how wild an animal truly should really be. Or as more often is the question, how wild do we want Montana to be?
As Montanans we are the envy of the nation when it comes to wildlife. We’ve restored nearly every species in Montana that existed when Lewis and Clark ventured up the mighty Mo over 200 years ago. The only large mammal that hasn’t been restored to any of its native prairie habitat in Montana is the bison. In the past 75 years we’ve brought them all back—deer, antelope, elk, moose, bears and even wolves—but we stopped short from restoring the species that likely outnumbered all of the others combined.
Last month the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks started what may prove to be the crowning achievement of Montana’s wildlife restoration legacy. The department has formally committed to investigate whether there is room in Montana to restore a remnant of the bison’s legacy by finding a home for wild, wide-ranging bison in Montana. Last month public meetings were held in all corners of the state to gather information from the public to determine the scope of a statewide bison restoration plan.
From these meetings one fact became abundantly clear: Montana is the only place in the country where talking about restoring wild bison could happen. The northern great plains of MT and the Missouri River Breaks, including the 1.1 million acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife refuge ,are the best place in the state to restore wild bison – also the best place in North America. In a world where energy development and natural resources are a top priority, landscapes are changing in months, not decades. In Montana we are proud to say our public lands and our public wildlife have always been a top priority.
Millions of people visit our state annually to vacation in a place we are lucky to call home. Visitors are equally stunned and inspired by seeing the once endangered bald eagle now as common as an osprey. In Yellowstone Nat. Park, traffic jams occur daily as tourists gawk at bison graze unalarmed near the roadway. But how wild are these animals?
Yes, we already have bison in Montana: Yellowstone National Park, The National Bison Range and dozens of private herds across the state. But their wildness is confined by fences and in the case of Yellowstone- limited habitat and tough winters push them in great numbers into agricultural and populated areas. Is this the kind of wildness that we’ve come to accept in Montana?
In the Missouri Breaks we have an opportunity to start from scratch – with genetically pure, disease-free bison. We can put them in prime habitat, where they will tend to stay. And the CMR is a place where bison can be managed more successfully than in Yellowstone, where bison are bound in an endless controversy of disease and confusing multi-agency management. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks now has the ability to develop a program that will celebrate the wildness of this animal- managed similarly to our state’s other big game animals.
We all know that FWP will proceed carefully and deliberately with any bison restoration efforts. Landowners will be consulted, landscapes will be examined, and a public process will go forward where all concerned will be involved. Working together, Montanans and our wildlife agency can resolve conflicts, solve problems make local economies more diverse and restore a wild, wonderful and useful animal to some of its native habitat. Working together Montanans can find ways to restore bison with minimal conflicts for local agriculture. People throughout America will salute Montana for its achievement.
Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by.
Kit Fischer writes on behalf of The National Wildlife Federation.