Saturday, October 31, 2015


Flatiron Ranch, west of Browning, MT

Anne Grant sends me this message:  "I was recently honored to be selected as the first Elouise Cobell Fellow for UM's College of Humanities and Sciences. My current position is to document the history of the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust, which Elouise founded and is the first of its kind in the country.

"As I am delving into various histories, I thought you would be the perfect source of information regarding the actual property prior to the FWS’s conservation easement and before it’s purchase by The Nature Conservancy."

Of course, I'm flattered and pleased, though I had almost nothing to do with this ranch.  This post is the first info I sent.

Gradients, contrasting qualities that make it inevitable that what’s on one side will go to the other side, are the dynamic energy that make lots of things happen, from the movement of air around the planet to the balance of molecules and elements like salt in a body.  Also, values that are high on one side and low on the other can cause commerce or migration like the circulation of bison around the grassy prairie.

As it was explained to me, for an ecologist the value of the Flatiron Ranch is that the snow water at the top of the Rockies goes downhill along the waterways but also in underground filtering that is not seen until it “daylights” in small lakes or wells.  In the case of this foothills location, at the highest elevation the water is near-ice, clear and pure.   But by the bottom nearest the highway, the underground filtering has changed by adding earth minerals until it is a rather more alkali water.  Most people wouldn’t notice, but the plants and animals, including birds but not larger mammals, sort themselves out according to their preferred alkali/acid balance.  Different plants collect around the high ponds than at the fish pond by the ranch house.  This makes the ranch ideal for studying ecology, the interrelationships among living things and the mineral earth.  Ecology is one of the most powerful ideas of our times.

Students of ecology at the ranch.

Any waterway is a path and a boundary so Flatiron Creek is a natural way up and down the mountains for game animals and their predators.  That means that grizzlies and mountain lions, coyotes and wolves, also went up and down that way.  There was a ridge maybe a half-mile from the ranch house where grizzlies came, visible from the house with binoculars.  Bob could not resist salting that ridge with the carcasses of animals, usually road kill from human doin’s.  Whole cows hit by cars.

Some contemporary Skunkcaps

On the botany walk around the ranch that was my first real introduction to it (after Bob’s death) the scientist guiding us said that one of the keys to grasslands was sporadic but thorough grazing.  This evolved to fit with the buffalo, who came in a big herd, mowed everything down to the bottom, left a lot of dung and then moved on, maybe not returning for a year or more.  The guide showed us that grass that hadn’t been grazed for a long time became entangled and too thick to grow.  Until then I had assumed that the biggest danger was overgrazing, but he taught us that it was “wrong grazing.”  The Savory system of moving cattle around the pastures was meant to imitate bison and resulted in good growth.  Savory grazing means using movable fence, maybe electrified to keep the cows moving, while bad management put up fences that kept the cattle in one place until they got tired of not enough grazing and broke down their own exits.

The pond by the ranch house was fenced with cyclone mesh to keep a pet deer or two inside.  Bob planted fish and his own grandchildren snuck in there to catch them.  Many Canada geese nested around the ranch and in the spring an observant person could locate the places.  Bob would sneak in cautiously and steal a live egg, which he would keep warm in his shirt until it hatched.  When it came out of the shell, it would imprint on Bob and faithfully follow him around all summer.  In the fall, after a little indecision, it would migrate with the others.

Bob Scriver and "Eegy."

He learned to do this when we had a pet eagle that we’d raised.  When she began to lay eggs, they were sterile because eagles mate on the glide very high in the sky.  So Bob had the bright idea of substituting a goose egg from the Hutterite colony.  The first time was a tragedy, because he hadn’t remembered that domestic chicks were from the kind of birds that -- as soon as they are dry -- get up and walk off.  Since the eagle’s nest, such as it was, which was more a collection of sticks than any sort of structure, was up high, that was the end of the gosling.  The next time Bob built a little fence on the nest ledge and a walkway down to the bottom.  

If he was too busy to find a nest of Canada geese, he would just go by the Hutterites and buy a domestic egg.  Once I stopped on a vacation trip and found him sitting at his work table with a white duck nicely settled on his foot.  The ducks and geese turned out to be pretty good mousers.

Bob's Badger Tipi has disappeared.
This photo was taken at the Flatiron Ranch.

One summer Bob got the notion that we should go fishing, even though he was allergic to fish and itched for days after he mounted one.  We went out to Skunkcaps, which was just across the highway, a continuation of the Flatiron waterway except spread out into marshy flood plain with many beaver mazes in it, shallow water winding through the willow brush that shaded it.  I had no experience at fishing at all, and Bob’s dated back to boyhood.  We cut sticks, tied on fishing line and a hook, and caught grasshoppers for bait, squeezing their heads to make them a bit logy but not kill them.  The idea was for them to kick on the surface of the water as though they'd just fallen off the overhanging grass.

A mighty Skunkcap.

We went right in the water, waist-deep, having a terrific time on a hot summer day and not catching a darn thing, partly because we kept talking.  Finally we caught one small fish and carried it up to the Skunkcap’s cabin.  This was the old-timers, Alonzo and his wife, old enough to have been blinded in the epidemic of trachoma that plagued the Blackfeet until Doug Gold brought out a doctor friend from Pennsylvania who treated a lot of people and taught the school superintendent and the agent how to use a wooden matchstick to roll back the eyelid so ointment could be put under it.  The germ was chlamidia, a variation on the sexual infection that likewise preferred tender places.  The blindness resulted when the eyelid swelled so that the eyelashes turned under and scraped the cornea, damaging it the way scratched glass would lose its clarity. 

Alonzo and his wife were both close to blind.  Bob announced with fake importance that we had brought meat to the table and put his little fish on it.  The old timers came to feel around for what might be there and began to laugh hard at our lack of fishing skill.  The little cabin was pretty empty and we felt sheepish for not thinking ahead to bring food for them.  We knew them pretty well, since they lived a couple of doors down from Scriver Studio in another log cabin.  Alonzo would bring wood from his allotment on his horse-drawn wagon, which had been stripped to running gear and wheels.  I’m not sure there was a seat.  Otherwise, he would hitch a ride into town and come to the studio when he was ready to go home, patiently sitting out front until it was closing time so we could run him home in the pickup.

Eloise Cobell, heroine

Alonzo was said to be one of the few old time Blackfeet who wasn’t afraid to hunt grizzlies.  Maybe they visited his ranch and he shot them there.  Bears were taboo but if they’re trying to come in one’s house, one’s priorities are adjusted.  Bob was a fur buyer and Alonzo’s sons brought in many beaver, otter and muskrat hides.  Now and then maybe a mountain goat, but no one asked any questions.  That was part of the social ecology, addressing a gradient for a family with no income through Bob, the middleman, to the elegant furrier clientele, maybe at Beckman’s in Great Falls.

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