Leaving behind that issues for awhile, we would be remiss if we failed to mention the amount of sincere respect and admiration we have for the people who live and work in this harsh yet spectacular landscape. It is wild and dry, with hard bentonite soil that can be as unforgiving when wet as it is when dry. The farmers and ranchers are challenged with knowing when to drive on which roads, when that perfect time is to sew the seeds, harvest and work the land, and how to move the cattle through the numerous drainages.
We have also found that our presence in the area was cause for local concern. While the project we are completing is in the public interest, and on public land, many of the people think we are out to designate more wilderness areas (read about the issues with this and other conservation projects in this region), but we're not, that's a job for Congress; we are out inventorying the land in search of areas with wilderness characteristics in the same way that the BLM is required by law to do.
In fact, the BLM has just completed it's own surveys of lands with wilderness characteristics and it will explain what it found later this fall when three Resource Management Plans are released for public review and comment; the draft Hi-line, Draft Miles City, and Draft Billings area Resources Management Plans. In one case we were flatly denied access to BLM across a piece of private land because we were specifically looking at that area for it's wilderness characteristics. The people who denied us access lease the land for grazing and are very much afraid that the government is going to kick them off their land and turn the area into a national park. . . I'm not making this up. There were other's who voiced similar concerns.
Much of this area also borders the Charles M Russell Wildlife Area, or "CMR." This area is prime habitat for elk, big-horn sheep, mule deer, and antelope. However, we have seen almost no pronghorn, mule deer, or whitetail despite this being prime habitat. The antelope and whitetail deer suffered almost a 95% die-off during the winter of 2010-11 due to record snow. So much snow that the only way the animals could move around was to use the rail-road tracks. Hundreds of pronghorn (antelope) were killed at a time when the trains came through. Still more fled the deep snow south across the frozen Fort Peck Lake and were unable to return in the spring when the ice thawed - some even drowned attempting to return to this area. Later that spring, the whitetail deer suffered a disease which devastated their numbers. The loss is evident as we have seen only a handful of pronghorn or deer when historically we'd have seeing hundreds a day.
Bentonite . . . what is it? Bentonite is the dark, hard, cracking, dry soil that comprises much of this landscape. As I look over the area much of it is bentonite bad-lands, some flat, some steep sided, but all clay! Bentonite is clay. We passed an abandoned bentonite mine that we were told produced one rail car load before closing down. This soil, if you can call it that, is tough when dry, and clay-like when wet. It can absorb as much as several times its dry mass in water and makes a perfect seal when wet. It is used in products such as kitty-litter as well as for the lining of bore holes for drilling wells.