Thursday, April 10, 2008




In the beginning was the prairie, shaped by run-off from the Rocky Mountains. The Blackfeet knew the waterways, the coulees they made, and grassy meadows good for horses. When the reservation was marked out, the rivers formed the boundaries. The fact that rivers sometimes changed channels was not helpful, but at least a stream was a clear marker. Birch Creek -- just north of Valier -- has been the southern boundary for many years, since it was moved back for the third time under pressure from ranchers.

At the end of the War Between the States, two young Confederate veterans, William and Charles Conrad (Charles having been a member of Mosby’s Raiders at age sixteen) from a Virginia plantation came to the east slope of the Rockies. They were tough opportunists who soon made a fortune among the freighters who as often carried alcohol to Indians as not. Using the capital thus acquired, the two filed homestead claims on what had been reservation, using their employees in tricky ways to file on every source of water, so that they had a monopoly and no one else could ranch there.

Employees married to Piegan women managed to get control of water rights even on the reservation. When Birch Creek moved north in some places, the Conrads were quick to claim the land that changed sides. These were open range years, but the Seven Block claimed enormous acreage. When the ranches began to fence, the Conrads moved to the new scheme of irrigating land.

Ignoring any laws (there were few then anyway) except maybe a handshake agreement with the Indian Agent and a few other bigshots, the Conrads (with federal subsidies) built Swift Dam and doing business as the Pondera County Canal and Reservoir Company constructed a complex of ditches and impoundments all along the south side of Birch Creek. (They later sold out.) In 1965 the ambiguity over who owned and should maintain Swift Dam resulted in a lack of maintenance that allowed the structure to be overtopped and washed out, sending a deadly thirty foot wall of water downstream where it killed many people. The dam was rebuilt.

Next to the little town of Valier, named for an engineer, was a small lake on the south side of today’s little “island” in Lake Frances, named for one of the Conrad wives. This became the property of the Pondera County Canal and Reservoir Company for the purpose of selling shares that divvy up the water rights. The water in that lake belongs to the Canal Company and could not, for instance, be pumped out to water yards in Valier. There is presently muttering that irrigation has been expanded and additional shares quietly sold, but this is a minor problem compared to two others.

The first is climate change which has not only much diminished snowfall that once left a huge reservoir of water in the mountains, but also causes much moisture to fall as rain rather than snow, so that it is not kept in the mountains. The prairie is also droughty, so that the need is higher and evaporation loss is greater.

The second is that the movement to regularize and legalize water rights has meant that the original Piegan peoples who needed only small amounts of water are now ready to begin irrigating their own alfalfa fields and they have first claim on the water, according to the Winters decision which gives all federally established entities as much water as they need to function according to their purpose. The purpose of the reservation is to support the tribal members. Settling this now might mean as much as a 30% loss of water for the Pondera Canal Company. The tribe knows it will only get one shot at setting the terms of this negotiation and they are good “bone game” players, so they are deliberately as ambiguous and slow as they can be, which wears on the nerves of the ranchers.

Once “Lake Frances” had been established, it attracted the attention of fishermen, whom the town businessmen see as a source of income, buying bait and meals. A little campground is constantly under pressure to expand and upgrade, with fishermen sometimes helping. Because the east front temperature sinks way below zero in the winter, ice fishing is as popular as small boat fishing in summer.

Other water-based recreation -- sail-boarding in summer and ice-sailing in winter (the constant winds clean snow off the ice but are sometimes too overpowering), jet-skiing, and so on -- brings in customers for the cafes and motels and sometimes claims lives. The emotional investment in Lake Frances is high, but locals don’t always remember that it is privately owned. Because the state plants fish, there are rules to follow.

When water levels were high, there was a genuine small island in Lake Frances where waterfowl and herons could nest in the small grove. Seagulls have also chosen the protection of the island to nest. But recently there is never enough water in the lake to keep the island separate and the fishermen have become fond of driving their boat trailers out there to launch from a dock brought from Bynum by the fishermen. A local construction company owner helpfully graveled the little trail so people wouldn’t get stuck.

Valier has been shrinking. Young people leave, ranches go into CRP, dealers dependent on ranches go out of business -- it’s a familiar pattern across the West. People seem to be moving in, but they are as different from the locals as the first Belgians brought in by their priest were from their Piegan predecessors. These new people have money, are attracted by scenery and lofty sentiments, but do not understand drought. Among them are bird-lovers, who recently discovered that there are many dead birds on that island -- whether shot, run-over by ATV’s, trampled by teens, or what. They have national connections and resources and do not hesitate to invoke the federal laws (actually international treaty laws) that impose felony penalties of fines and jail on any unlawful killing of just about any bird you could name, including the seagulls that many of the cleanliness-obsessed locals despise as messy garbage eaters.

So now we have a rich tangle of precedents, feelings, laws and preferences that date back to the beginning and that affect everyone local. The Pondera Canal Company claims it will simply shut down the island and the little campground -- maybe bulldoze the island out of existence, but it has a federal sanctuary designation which locals had thought was more of an honor than a restriction. The mayor will erect signs and barriers and suggests siccing the fishermen on the bird-lovers. The constant arguments are beginning to start feuds around town.

There is only one kind of person who benefits from all this -- the writer, especially the historian. I’ll keep you posted. No use letting it go to waste. Shall I post a bibliography?


Erik Gustafson said...


The big flood was in the summer of 1964. Rib went up there and looked for bodies along Birch Creek for a few days. I was only 7 years old at the time. I remember hearing stories of one Birch Creek rancher who sat on the ridge above his ranch and watched his wife and children crawl onto the roof of his house before it was swept away by the wall of water. He couldn't get to them and had to walk miles to town. The wife and one child survived. At the old Holy Family Mission on the Two Medicine, the priest spent a night up in the fork of a tree to avoid drowning. There used to be a theory that the floods occured every 11 years... 1964, 1975 and 86 were all flood years. If the eleven year cycle continues, we might have another flood this year.

Keep up the great writing. I really enjoy your work.

Erik Gustafson

prairie mary said...

Hi Erik!

I ALWAYS get the year of the Big Flood wrong! But I was here and Rib Gustafson was our veterinarian. (For those who are not in Montana, the Gustafson family is a colorful pack of musicians, writers and veterinarians. Rib is the patriarch. He also writes.)

It actually looks as though we MIGHT have a bit of a flood this year. Which means that it will also be a good berry year.

Stop in when you go through Valier.

Prairie Mary