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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Dispatches From the Road: Big Sky Country

Courthouse News’ Western bureau chief laments a lack of wildlife encounters during a recent day trip to Yellowstone National Park – save a lackadaisical porcupine and the ubiquitous elk – in his latest dispatch from Big Sky Country.

(CN) - "Thank you, Teddy Roosevelt."

My off-the-cuff statement became a mantra as we made our way through Yellowstone National Park.

Though Roosevelt neither designated Yellowstone as a national park (that honor goes to Ulysses S. Grant) nor signed the legislation creating the National Park Service (Woodrow Wilson), Teddy is remembered as "the conservation president."

He doubled the number of sites within the system, signing legislation that created five new national parks, including Crater Lake in Oregon and Wind Cave in South Dakota. He is also the only president to have a national park named after him: the Theodore Roosevelt National Park lies in North Dakota, where the great plains meet the badlands.

My companion on the park visit thought it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "that New Deal guy" as she called him, who created the park service. I knew that was wrong, and that the first president named Roosevelt had a large impact on our national conservation effort, but I mistakenly thought he was responsible for the creation of the park service. Perhaps we should be thanking Grant, or even Wilson, but I believe our mantra was symbolically, if not technically, appropriate.

Teddy did sign the Antiquities Act. The sometimes controversial law has allowed Roosevelt and successive presidents to proclaim national monuments, a power used to protect vast and varied landmarks and structures including prehistoric Native American ruins and artifacts, Muir Woods in Northern California – home to an old-growth coast redwood grove – and, more recently, a vast swath of the Northern Woods in Maine, which this bureau chief covered (in what he hopes is the only political opinion column he ever writes), a vast expansion of a marine monument first designated by former President George W. Bush near the Hawaiian Islands and the Atlantic's first marine monument.

While traveling the West, Roosevelt lamented the near-eradication of native species, including bison and elk, and the loss of forests and other fragile ecosystems.

He wanted to visit the untamed lands of the West not only to enjoy the splendor but, as an avid sportsman, to hunt big game before they disappeared.

Though many people in his day considered natural resources inexhaustible, Roosevelt, for his part, wrote, "We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation."

We began our journey into the park from the suddenly gentrified city of Bozeman, Montana, approximately a 90-minute drive from an entrance in the northwestern corner the park.


My companion was a Bozeman native whose earthy exuberance never quite meshed with the urban environs of San Francisco's Tenderloin district, where we spent many hours conversing over dark beers at a now-shuttered neighborhood bar – another victim of the Bay Area's own encounter with gentrification, much of it blamed on the emerging tech industry. At last check, the property remains without a tenant: a lesson for this landlord and others.

She had slowly warmed to my near-demands over the past weeks while planning the visit that we see Yellowstone, or "The Park."

We had barely left the Bozeman city limits when my friend's phone rang. She pressed the button for speakerphone and yelled "Gypsy," her name for a common friend from San Francisco who was an almost constant presence at our lost bar.

We talked for a short time on speakerphone before letting him continue with vacuuming his car (the call had been a mistaken, if prescient, pocket-dial) as we made our way along the highway, my friend pointing out the various points of interest along the way, including the large snowcapped mountains of the Bridger Bowl Ski Area; the camel-haired valley that is home to the hamlet of Livingston, where my friend said she might have to move when she can no longer handle the bustle of booming Bozeman; and a spot in the distance where a religious cult held court years back.

Throughout my journey across Big Sky Country I was constantly amazed by the scenery, with a new and different surprise around almost every corner, the varied landscapes influenced by altitude, nearby hills and water, or lack thereof, but the scenes became even more grand as we approached the park.

I could understand why rich out-of-staters – "many of them from California," my friend said with a telling glance that I returned with a raised eyebrow – had been gobbling up properties in the aptly named Paradise Valley, where some less than gracious newcomers had tried to set up boundaries to prevent others from accessing their properties. One owner set up a boundary on the Yellowstone River to try to keep people out, a no-no in a state with strong waterway-access laws.

Beyond the valley we drove through Gardiner, which in fall reminded me of the ski town of Truckee, California, in the summer: both bustling during their respective busy seasons but otherwise almost ghost towns, the infrastructure and shuttered storefronts reminding you just how busy they aren't now.

We saw what must have been a few dozen elk loitering around the town, including right outside hotel windows.

As I stared, my companion said in the most blasé manner, "Those are the town elk. They're like pigeons in Gardiner."

She added that we'd see plenty more and other more exciting wildlife as we made our way through the park.

After entering the park proper we saw our share of geysers, of rock that looked like ice and ice that looked like rock, and some ice that looked like ice, and snow. Sometimes it was hard to tell what was what.

But no wildlife.


As my companion wondered aloud how we hadn't spied even a single bison, I joked that I had managed to spend 10 days in Alaska the year before and hadn't seen any wildlife. I reckon the herd of reindeer being raised for possible future food stock, at a hot springs outside Fairbanks, doesn't count.

At one point she thought she might have spotted something in the distance, across a meadow, through the binoculars. It was just a power line.

A few stops later we were walking along one of the many boardwalks the park service has laid out to protect the delicate ecosystems and, I imagine, prevent an unwitting tourist from stepping on an active geyser, when my friend stopped short, put out her arm to stop me and whispered, "Porcupine."

A few feet away, in the low brush just off the boardwalk, a large creature chewed slowly on what appeared to be a twig, lifted a black foot that must have been the size of one of my young nieces' feet, and slowly ambled off in the opposite direction, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

I swear the quills were an almost fluorescent green. In all her years in the region, through all her visits to the park, my friend had never seen a porcupine.

I had spotted some from a distance at the edge of the woods behind my childhood home in Maine. I still remember one high up in a tree, which I thought a strange place for a porcupine. (Apparently it isn't, but what do I know of porcupine behavior?) Ours in Maine were much smaller, probably the size of a large raccoon, and the quills closer to a burnt sienna, if memory serves. (Sometimes it does.)

We continued along the boardwalk, appreciating the views, snapping too many pictures.

When we returned to the spot after completing the loop our porcupine was long gone, probably off chewing on a twig, unaware that he had made our day.

As we approached the park exit near dusk hours later, the car in front of us slowed to a crawl. A lone bison sauntered across the road.

I reached for the button to roll down the window. My friend, misunderstanding my intentions, told me not to get out, lest I get gored. I said I understood but wanted to try to get a picture. Try I did, but with the bison on her side of the car, my picture ended up being part fuzzy car edge and part bison.

But at least we'd seen one, though both my friend and the fellow Big Sky locals to whom I told the story were surprised that we'd seen only the one all day.

Then again, I am the guy who managed to spend all that time in Alaska and not see a speck of wildlife.

As we passed out of the park and toward our destination – a steakhouse in Livingston – I murmured, "Thank you, Teddy Roosevelt."


My friend replied with her own "Thank you, Teddy Roosevelt."

About our coverage of Big Sky Country:

Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of the United States District Courts for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for more than a decade and of Idaho state courts since 2008, which includes daily in-person coverage of the Ada County District Court. CNS began regular in-person coverage of Montana state courts earlier this year, including in the counties of Yellowstone, Missoula and Lewis and Clark. Courthouse News plans to begin coverage of Wyoming state courts in 2017.

Ada County, Idaho Facts

County Seat: Boise (also the state capitol)

Population: 390,000

Named After: Ada Riggs, first pioneer child born in the area, and the daughter of H.C. Riggs, a co-founder of Boise.

Ada County is home to Boise State University, whose football team plays on a distinctive blue field.

Canyon County, Idaho Facts

County Seat: Caldwell

Population: 188,000

Named After: Either the canyon of the Boise River near Caldwell or the Snake River canyon, depending on the source.

Yellowstone County, Montana Facts

County Seat: Billings

Population: 155,000

Named After: Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri, the longest river in the country, which spills into the famed Mississippi River north of St. Louis.

Missoula County, Montana Facts

County Seat: Missoula

Population: 111,000

Named After: Nmesuletkw, the Salish (Native American language) name for the local Clark Fork River. The name roughly translates as "place of frozen water."

Missoula County is home to the University of Montana.

Gallatin County, Montana Facts

County Seat: Bozeman

Population: 89,000

Named After: Albert Gallatin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasurer from 1801-1814.

Bozeman is home to the main campus of Montana State University.

Lewis and Clark County, Montana Facts

County Seat: Helena (also the state capitol)

Population: 63,000

Named After: Famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

Interesting Fact: Helena was found by four men, known as the "Four Georgians."  The men arrived in the area after searching in vain for gold throughout western Montana, and decided to give their luck one last shot. They struck gold in downtown Helena on what is now a street called Last Chance Gulch. Word of their success brought other miners to the area. This bureau chief was told some were from Georgia, at least one written source claims all were from Georgia, but the clerk at the tourist information shack said none were and were so named because they used a style of mining known as Georgian.

Read more coverage of Big Sky Country News

Feds Fight to Keep Superfund Settlement Talks Secret

Montana Trapping Ban Faces Long Odds at Polls

Feds Suspend New Mining Permits near Yellowstone

Campaign Disclosure Win in Montana Has Big Implications

States Join in Fight Over Feds' Gas-Venting Restrictions

Idaho Charges to Send Kids to Public School

Judge Delays Intervening in Mont. Lawmaker's Free Speech Case

Bull Trout Roil Waters in Federal Court

Memorable Big Sky Quotes:

My progress through a grocery checkout line in Bozeman was delayed when the cashier ventured away from her station to hug a young girl. When she returned I asked how she knew the girl. "I don't, but she asked if I wanted a hug, and I never pass up on that offer."

"Shoot, shovel and shut up." (A joke [but not really] told among ranchers concerning how the wolf population is sometimes managed. This bureau chief heard it from a local reporter.)

"Then the city sued to take the water rights from the private company, claiming eminent domain. You don't get much more liberal than that: taking other people's property." (Said to this bureau chief by a farmer from northeastern Montana during a discussion at a bar in Missoula. At the time, Missoula was the only major city in Montana that did not own its water supply. The state supreme court eventually upheld a lower court order approving the city's use of eminent domain.)

"The thing those people don't realize is the organic pesticides are much more harmful to the environment than the ones we use." (Said to this bureau chief by the same farmer's wife. This bureau chief, for his part, just wanted to watch playoff baseball and drink his porter.)

"You can't eat the view." (A local saying relayed to this bureau chief by a local reporter.)

Photos: Chris Marshall

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