Oh, give me a home – where the Buffalo roam!

by Dave Hanks

BISON lost their home, but, thankfully, they have been brought back from the edge of extinction. This has been done, not only in National and Provincial Parks, but by a few private individuals that hated to see them disappear.

Lands where original Bison herds were common, have since felt the plow. But, domestic crops couldn’t thrive under the harsh conditions that the natural grasses could. Nor could domestic cattle fare as well on those same ranges. The resulting effect has left many areas of the northern plains in desolate condition. Some of those areas are now undergoing rehabilitation in an attempt to return them to their original state.

Some ranchers believe that Bison have some distinct advantages over cattle. I know, from personal experience, that feed costs are what can sink a cattle operation. Bison can skirt this issue, because they can survive winter on the available grass. Cattle require extra winter feed – which can run up operating costs drastically. Bison do need more space, better fences, and you must avoid the temptation to over-stock your ranch. Bison move around better than cattle, utilizing the food source more evenly. Also, Bison can be bred with cattle to produce hybrids known as Beefalos.

One of the most devoted individuals to Bison recovery is Ted Turner. He has used some of his wealth to finance his new found passion. He owns 55,000 head on his 15 ranches. His huge, original ranch is south of Bozeman, Montana.

Restaurants that feature Bison meat realize that people can acquire a taste for Buffalo burgers. Some folks like them better than regular burgers. The meat is leaner and has a lesser cholesterol content.

At home in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

BIGHORN and a Little Bit of Eden

by Dave Hanks

There is a place just north of Missoula, Montana in the Mission
Valley by the Flathead River – a place I love to visit. In fact, it would rank
in my top ten. It is the National Bison Range. In addition to the Bison, one of
the greatest attractions is the Bighorn Sheep that reside there.

The range covers several levels: from the river bottom, to prairie steppe, to
a steep climb into a mountainous terrain. There is a 19 mile road that you can
drive to view the area. However, once on the road you cannot turn back as it is
narrow and therefore one way. It is on the descent off the mountain (which is
steep enough to give one a thrill) that you will come upon the sheep. Groups of
magnificent rams are often within camera view. Their view and ours extends out
over the surrounding valley and the small town of St. Ignatius to the east.

Ovis canadensis stands 3 to 3 ½ feet high and weighs between 125 to 200
pounds. Its name comes from the male’s massive, spiraling horns. These can be
very impressive on the more mature animals. Bighorns are a grayish-brown with a
white rump. They are excellent climbers and in summer seek the security of
cliffs that are difficult for predators to transverse. They use the habitat in
conjunction with Mountain Goats – each utilizing it in a different season. Sheep
go up in the summer and down in to the valleys in winter, which is opposite to
the goat’s movements.

Bighorn, Bison, Pronghorn, Mule and White-Tailed Deer, Coyote, and sometimes
even bears are some of the mammals. There is a great abundance of birds and
wildflowers to experience. There is also a nice park by the river to rest in
after the drive over the mountain. The bird, deer, and turtle activity in the
park will add interest if one is inclined to picnic.

I marvel at the excitement and anticipation we experience each time we visit
this place. It has never disappointed us!

(At rest in the shade)

Reluctant Cowboy

Reluctant Cowboy

By Dave Hanks

Montana in summer is alive with rodeo fever. It’s cow country and every little community has its own arena where the faithful gather religiously each Sunday. They arrive with their pick-up trucks, horse trailers, and that favorite Quarter Horse, one that means more to each cowboy than possibly his wife. However, she has one of her own – a barrel racing variety. Anyway, every Sunday the competition is on, bets are placed and money changes hands as the roping progresses.

Charlie was one of the faithful. A crusty old cowboy chiseled out of rock and rawhide. He really wasn’t old, just a couple of years more than me, but somehow he seemed ageless. If I were to return today, I would expect no change in him. Charlie was a close friend and colleague in the Registered Angus business. We spent many hours discussing the merits of various herd bulls in different breeding programs. These discussions were spiced with much laughter as he was a happy man with a dry, “down-home” type sense of humor. He worked at it and never let up. A day with Charlie was a day of holding your sides from continual merriment. However, he still looked forward to his Sundays when he could release some stress by roping a steer or two. His wife was a cowgirl from way back and rodeo was bred into their family’s soul.

One of the special events of our county’s annual rodeo was the wild-cow milking contest. Two people were involved. One on a horse to rope the cow and one on foot to race in and hold her by the head. The roper would then dismount with a pop bottle and milk enough to enable the milk to pour out of the bottle. Then he would dash to the finish line while the head-holder removed the rope from the cow. The rope must be removed or the team would be disqualified. The man with the assignment of holding the cow was called the “mugger.”

Being of large frame, somewhat stronger than average and a former collegiate wrestler, I was constantly beleaguered to be someone’s mugger. Charlie was no exception. He was always coaxing me to team up with him. After five years of finding excuses, I could think of no new ones. I consented to be his mugger in the upcoming annual rodeo. I had watched my neighbor’s son mug the previous year. He had a difficult time holding onto the cow and she had walked all over him. These were not your usual run-of-the-mill cows. They came straight off the range: rank, snotty-nosed and breathing fire. It was decided to be a wise move to practice some before actually entering the ring so out we went to a private arena to try it with a group of Mexican steers that were kept for roping purposes. However, those steers were much tamer and really didn’t prepare me for what was to come. The only benefit was in learning how to run in from the right-hand side of the horse and along the rope to position myself between rope and cow.

The day arrived and I had prepared myself mentally. Adrenaline was running and I was chomping at the bit to get at it. I didn’t know it then, but I was destined to become a legend among the local rodeo fans that day. It was a nice, temperate day with moderate cloud cover. A perfect day for sitting in the stands to watch an event and the stands were packed for the biggest event of the year in those parts.

The rodeo started and each segment passed until it was time for the wild-cow milking. I was in regular work shoes and a checkered, short sleeved shirt without a hat – hardly regulation rodeo uniform. As such, I was dutifully informed by the professional cowboys on the sideline. Because the cow contest wasn’t one of the major events, they decided that I could get by with the way I was dressed. The announcer made a big “to-do” about me as I positioned myself in the arena’s center. It seemed that I appeared quite large as he made much of that fact along with how he had never seen me before and was, therefore, an unknown quantity.

Well, so much for that. The cow was out of the chute and Charlie and his horse were off. Away I raced doing the 50 yard dash, trying to match strides with the horse. Must be in position to rush in quickly when the animal was seized! Old Charlie missed on the first loop, much to my chagrin because I had expended a good deal of energy in that first dash. The cow rounded the bend of the fence at the other end and Charlie was able to snag her on the second come-around. Once more a run, but with less vigor, to where the beast was straining at the end of the lariat. I was hoping for a small, better-natured cow, but this one was middle sized and very active.

Down the rope to grab the head and the horse slacked off. She was all mine. The head tossing and jumping began and all I could do was to hang on, which I did with bulldog tenacity. Finally I got my heels thrust forward and planted and she paused long enough to allow some milk to be obtained. But then she went wild like someone had “goosed” her with an electric prod. My partner would be disqualified if I didn’t get that rope off. That’s when problems began. I couldn’t let go long enough to grab the rope because of the wild, jerky movements of that bovine. She jumped high and came down with both front legs over my shoulders. A strange scene – man with cow on back! The crowd was loving it and cheered madly. I continued to hold on to her through it all but dropped to my knees, pulling on the neck as I went. The cow did a complete somersault over my back with all four feet pointing skyward. My body was full of endorphins, so I felt no pain, only exhilaration as I scrambled to my feet to grab the noose and pull. The cow came up, the rope came free, and I was vindicated. Everyone was surprised that the rope actuallycame off and noisily voiced their appreciation. Many shouts followed me to the end of the arena where a whole passel of cowboys greeted me. They immediately badgered me to mug for them when their turn came. I declined all but two. Those two I mugged for on the second day with much more success but less fanfare. It was gratifying to see people’s eyes light up and hear them chuckle when I reappeared in the arena.

Thinking it wise to quit when ahead, I declined more offers for my services although I had won some prize money. That decision gained credence as I sat in the bathtub a week later. Bruises on my thighs and back with strange shapes like cattle hooves forced that point home.

The next week the tales began to fly. Each getting bigger and more impressive with each telling. A superman legend had started. It was reported that I had grabbed that cow and threw her over my shoulder to her back, almost breaking her neck in the process. People passing in town would stop to ask if I were going to do anymore rodeoing. They would then recount my past feats to me. My renown had spread. It had even affected my banker. He was ecstatic, bragging to all – “Why, it was the best part of the whole damn rodeo!”

The Gray Catbird: A Meowing from the Shrubbery

by Dave Hanks

A most distinctive, memorable call issues forth from a tangle of bushes. A meowing call that will not let you rest until you have located the origin. It is loud and has been known to last up to 10 minutes at a time. Most song birds wait until the sun is up, and they have solarized, before becoming active. Not so with the Catbird, who will start his song in the dark, before the sun rises. The male’s song is loud to warn trespassers to avoid his territory. The female will answer her mate in a much softer tone.

This species is one of the largest of the song birds at about 9 inches long. It is a member of the Mockingbird family and in the genus Dumetella – which means “small thicket”. The bird has a dark gray body with an even darker eye and tail. Field identification marks are its black cap and very bright, rusty butt.

Government agencies are paranoid about the feeding of birds in their parks. In some, they won’t even let you put out water – even though the birds are frantic in their thirst. However, most birds (like most other animals) are opportunistic, and the Catbird is extremely so. This highly adaptable bird eats great quantities of insects and loves berries. It prefers moist, boggy, or streamside habitats where insects abound and the vegetation is thick. Water and sand bathing are favorite activities.

Other characteristics that set it apart from other song birds are: the building of more than one nest each year, the vigorous defense of the nests against predators, and the ability to recognize (which other species can’t) Cowbird eggs laid in their nests and then destroy them. Cowbird parasitism is a big problem to many birds – not so to the Catbird.

We experience this species whenever we are in Montana’s Centennial Valley or along the Salmon River. We have also had it in our berry bushes in early September during migration. Its song and sneaky behavior is always interesting.

A Gray Catbird. See the black cap?

Bitterroot and an Indian Legend

Not many flowers have a full mountain range and a big beautiful valley named for them. But, this is a special flower. It is the Bitterroot. It is also Montana’s state flower. There is an Indian legend about how it came to be. Once upon a time an Indian mother was crying because her children were starving. The sun, feeling sorry for her, shone on her tears and changed them into beautiful purplish/pink flowers. This flower had great utility, as well as beauty. Its big, starchy root could be eaten, and the mother’s children no longer needed to go hungry. The Lemhi Shoshone tribe also believed that the small, red core, in the upper taproot, had special powers – notably to be able to stop bear attacks.

As the name suggests, the Bitterroot’s root is bitter. But, the bitterness disappears when cooked. The starch can be dried and preserved for months. Indians mixed it with either berries or meat or both – thus enhancing all the ingredients in the mix and making a nourishing food that could be stored for long periods. They also mixed it with the inner bark of Ponderosa Pine. Large scars still remain on some of these trees. Bitterroot was a staple food for many western Indian tribes. It was also used for trade with other Indians.

This plant grows in low, mountainous, sagebrush regions. It is a perennial that grows close to the ground to escape the harmful effects of wind. It has a composite inflorescence. (This means many individual, petal-like flowers around a flattened, broad receptacle.) The effect makes it look like a single flower. The leaves, which rodents love, tend to wilt and die before the plant blooms. Therefore, it appears as a leafless flower.

Meriwether Lewis was not a botanist, but he was to collect specimens of any new plants that he found. His first experience with this plant was when they first crossed the continental divide. They frightened some Shoshone Indians, who ran away leaving some baskets of dried Bitterroots. Lewis found the whole plant in Montana on the return trip. The plant was named for him.

We have observed this plant on the high mountain trail of the National Bison Range and at Craters of the Moon. It is one of Carolyn’s favorite flowers.

bitterroot flower

Lewisia rediviva

A Spring Mountain Greeting

GLACIAL LILY, also sometimes called Dogtooth Violet, is the flower pictured. It is one off the very first blooms to show itself after the covering of snow melts from its mountain home. Whenever we’ve chanced to be on the Idaho-Montana continental divide, or in the Colorado Rockies, just after the snows of winter have permitted it, this flower, in full bloom, has always been there to greet us. It’s such a delightful and graceful flower that it’s difficult to pass it by without photographing it.

This inviting species consists of a beautiful yellow, nodding inflorescence connected to a 6 to 15”, slender stem. There are 3 petals and 3 sepals that curl back and upward and six stamens hanging down. The anthers are large and prominent. They range in color from yellow to red to white or purple. Other variations of this bud may be reddish. Two or three large, long, broad, lanceolate, basal, lily leaves extend from the plant’s base.

The plant sprouts from a long, starchy corm. Indians often used the bulb as a food source. The bulb is also a favorite of Grizzlies, who dig for it with their well-equipped claws. High in calories, the energy derived is important for the bear’s summer body weight increase.

As we often frequent high and wild areas, we come upon this plant frequently. It is usually found in dense patches of many individuals – an enticement to a bear. As it is usually cool after snow-melt, coming upon this flower will warm your heart with its charming design and bright color.

Glacial Lily

Glacial Lily


Have you ever had an animal in your life that left an indelible impression? Perhaps it was a wild one that crossed your path while on excursions in the outdoors. However, it’s more likely to have been a family pet of long standing. My family had such a one. His name was Waldo, and he has a permanent place in our memories.

I’ve always liked big dogs – especially big, friendly, shaggy ones like St. Bernard’s. This feeling was probably prompted by pictures and stories imprinted on me as a small boy. We never felt we had room for one until acquiring a cattle ranch in Montana. Magazines were studied, letters written, and plans laid to obtain one. All the way from Missouri to Idaho because Montana prohibited the shipping of pets.

The day finally arrived. Notice came that our pup had arrived and so I was off on a 80 mile jaunt to the train depot at Dubois. It was a happy station master that greeted me – glad to be rid of this thing that cried continually and begged for food. Besides, he was starting to form an attachment. Safely tucked in beside me as I drove off, his whimpering stopped. He was so glad to have an owner that he accepted me right away – licking my arm affectionately throughout the entire ride home. A great, big, wooly puppy with feet that looked four sizes too big -and was he hungry! He immediately drank over a quart of milk and his belly puffed out happily.

We were young, just fresh in the cattle business, and trying to economize. The first two years on our ranch we lived in a one room bunk house – renting the main dwelling in an effort to obtain living expenses. Well, Waldo was right at home, in fact the closeness of quarters was favored by him. He became such an intrical part of our routine that he could have been part of the family. We called him our anthropomorphic dog. The bunk house was crowded and so he slept close to our bed. Sometimes we would awaken to the feel of a wet tongue cleaning our ear, or a large face peering down into our own. My mother-in-law, upon visiting us once, was awakened in the same manner, much to her chagrin.

Waldo had a large area to roam and a mind of his own. St. Bernard’s are known for this. He was no exception. Maintaining discipline was sometimes difficult. We resorted to rolled-up newspaper spankings. He knew when he had broken the rules. A favorite ploy was to climb on top of the haystack. There he would be – sad eyes and drooling mouth looking down at us as if to say: “You won’t bother me up here”. Or he might be out mingling among the cattle -appearing as large as the calves he was interacting with.

Waldo loved people and especially kids. He was very satisfied to play with them, allowing them to climb on his back or to rough him up. Adults were not quite as receptive to him however. Two women, whose car had stalled one night, were walking across our front field to reach me to get some help. They were shocked into the present by a sudden, cold, wet nose appearing out of the darkness to press against their bare thighs. They then made rapid tracks to our house. Another neighbor, who daily regulated his water from the canal on our place, was afraid of big dogs. We never realized until years later the trauma he experienced each time he checked his water.

Once two missionaries drove into the yard in a small sports car. Noise permeated from the front of the house in the form of laughter. Rushing to the window, we were surprised to see Waldo with his front paws on the driver’s window ledge. His head was extended over the steering wheel in an attempt to lick a missionary’s face. I gave a mighty yell for him to stop but the results were most unexpected. The dog heaved his whole body through the window in a mighty leap into the back seat. A new experience, I’m sure, for the pair in that car that day. On another occasion a man in a truck with a small dog arrived in the yard. The little mutt proceeded to nip at Waldo’s feet. No problem – the cure? Totally encircling the other dog’s head in his mouth, he lifted him off the ground and shook him vigorously. When released, the poor wretch crawled up into the truck’s motor housing – not to appear until time to leave.

A degree of resiliency was exhibited by him at another time. Driving with a load of hay while he loped alongside, I made a sudden turn and caught him under the rear wheels. The total load moving over his hips. I was afraid that I had killed him but such was not the case. He disappeared for a week only to reappear, a little stiff, but recovering quite nicely.

Waldo was a dog of notoriety. People seemed to know him and to know him by name. My wife, on a shopping trip to town, left him in the truck while inside a store. Returning to the truck, she overheard two strangers who were passing by. Noticing the dog in the truck caused one to exclaim: “Hey, there’s Waldo”.

Several years later we sold our ranch and moved to Idaho. Waldo went with us. Living in a smaller more populated area just wasn’t the same and the dog suffered. In fact he didn’t last a year in his new home. Someone, who resented his presence, poisoned him.

We buried him below the garden under a big Weeping Willow tree. A sad day indeed! Since then we’ve had three other Saints: Brandy, Bengy, and Brutus. However, none were able to match the personality of our old original friend.

The Angus Cow

There is something that I hold dear
     It’s a roomy black matron that I revere

Rugged, but feminine is this beast
     Extremely adaptable, to say the least

It’s the Angus cow of much renown
     There is no equal to be found

She’s maternal and fertile, and easy to calve
     A quality that is certainly good to have

Her calves are vigorous and jump to their feet
     And when fed-out, yield high quality meat

She’s easy to care for with maintenance minimal
     And contrary to belief, she is very gentle

On what she is fed I’ve seen other types try
     Their competition lags – Of that I don’t lie

But this cow, comes through with great zeal
     Does it with ease and preserves eye-appeal

If you ask why it’s Angus I feed
     It’s basically the cow – She’s the strength of the breed!

(Recalled from the years when I bred cattle in Montana)