Monday, May 29, 2006

Ernie Kraft

Bringing in the small bunch at Moiese Bison Range -- Bob on the far left.

Sometimes I feel a little lonely, pegging away at my first books, trying to recapture things that happened forty years ago. But now that’s been fixed. Ernie Kraft has finished and published the book about the National Bison Range at Moiese that he was working on when Bob and I rode in the roundup back in the Sixties. Like me, it took retirement to provide the time and impetus, but unlike me, he spent more than thirty years in that one job, understanding it more deeply every day, missing the “giants” who -- since they were older -- have disappeared, and loving it with his whole heart. It’s not just that the older men are missing now, it’s that the whole concept of the range as it was then has changed.

First of all, the range is semi-woven into the history of the Salish-Kootenay-Flathead tribes in the valley so that political influence has complicated everything. Second, genetics has also been politicized so that a certain kind of person (who would emphatically reject any hint of human racism) feels that “cow genes” contaminate bison and that any hint of this (which is pretty inevitable since cattle and bison herds mingled on the open prairie for a long time) makes a bison worthless.

The third element is from government bureaucracy which assigned a series of “scientific” managers who knew nothing about bison (often they came from waterfowl refuges) and worried too much about lawsuits and accidents -- seriously muting the relationship between the range and its neighbors, which turned out to be bad for politics. Probably much worse than the occasional casualty. Anyway, the highest casualty rate appears to come from the replacement of horses with all-terrain vehicles highly unsuited to a place in the foothills where the rocks are sharp enough to slash tires and a job where survival means turning faster than a bison, which a horse can think quickly enough to do.

Ernie was hired in 1955 for $1.09 an hour. The foreman believed in horseback management but Ernie’s first test was a pick-and-shovel job installing a four-foot-tall culvert. He passed.

The 18,541 acre Bison Range is on the wrong side of the Rockies from the original range, but was bought from the Flathead, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille who had originally crossed the mountains to hunt bison on the prairie. The first dozens of animals came mostly came from the Conrad Estate in Kalispell. That Conrad was a brother to the Conrad for whom my Pondera County Seat was named -- a lot of their money came from whiskey-running on the Whoop-Up Trail which runs just east and north of here. The Conrad who stayed on this side never had so elaborate a lifestyle as the Conrad who settled in Kalispell. The latter’s mansion appears in the movies now and then, for instance “Heaven’s Gate.”

Ernie says “a little girl” made a speech to him about the genetics of the herd -- which now numbers in the hundreds -- and did a sample blood draw which did reveal a few animals with cow genes. At the next roundup they were exterminated. You can do that when you have every animal recorded and ear-tagged. Ernie ponders this and many other things. His way of handling the Indian questions was simply to end the book in 1990, rather in the way the most dangerous old bulls were simply left in their coulees during the roundup.

Cy Young, Babe May, Grant Hogge, and other truly impressive and competent men worked with Ernie. When occasional guests rode they included braggarts, knotheads, and other incompetents, including myself. Riding over there was probably the high point of Bob Scriver’s exciting life -- and his horse’s life, too. When we got close to the range, Gunsmoke would begin to dance in the back of the pickup, which was hard on the driver’s ability to steer.

C.J. Henry was the enlightened and far-sighted manager who allowed us to ride, because he understood that artists and writers could make the Bison Range intelligible to the country. Peter Matthiessen was there, early on. C.J. allowed Bob to come to the annual slaughter, which meant he could measure and really study the “hands-on” anatomy of several sizes and ages of animals. Ernie brought his own pencil-and-paper and also recorded the measurements, which means that his own sculpture has that same authentic quality. He sells his own bronzes from his home in Charlo.

There’s a good interview with Ernie at

If you had a transcript of our phone conversation after I found this article, it wouldn’t be easy to read because there were so many things we could just remind each other about without having to tell the story. Like the Texan who turned out to be wearing a toupee and got drunk enough to put it on backwards. Or the pet baby bison and baby antelope that grew up together -- don’t know what that did to their self-images.

Ernie knows a lot of stories he said he didn’t dare put in the book. For instance, he asked if I were the woman rider some blowhard had forgotten about in the buckhouse when the fellow began telling the “boys” in great detail about how he repeatedly made love to Marilyn Monroe. The woman rider was in an upper bunk and lying flat, so he couldn’t see her until she sat up. That sorta cut his story short. I think the woman was probably Nancy McLaughlin, Ace Powell’s wife, and, if so, she was more amused than shocked.

On the Western History listserv there is an argument at the moment about how accurate the cable series “Deadwood” is. The Romantics are defending the “f” word and enthralled by the transgressive Alpha male in town. I think probably “Deadwood” is about as accurate as that bunkhouse braggart’s stories about Marilyn Monroe and about as meaningful.

I’d rather read “Untold Stories of Bison Range Trails” by Ernie Kraft. It oughta be showing up at Barnes & Noble any day now. About twenty bucks with about sixty photos, many historical. It’s not just stories about exploits, but also some very careful in-depth research. You’ll miss the best part, which is Ernie himself: open-hearted, thoughtful, polite without being prudish, loving and competent.

I'm not the sole survivor after all.


Byrd said...

I enjoy reading your blog alot. Could you please give the URL for the Western History Listserv? Thank you.

Linda M said...

I enjoyed reading your stories. I found your blog while doing a search on Nancy McLaughlin Powell. I have some Nancy McLaughlin art and am interested in her history, personality, etc. Do you have first hand knowledge of her or people who knew her? said...

Rest in peace, Uncle Ern! 12/27/2013.