Making memories, one stock tank at a time


This year, I was lucky enough to spend Thanksgiving back home with my parents in central Montana. Holidays at home are plenty stuffed with the traditional trappings: board games, gravy boats, hungry pups making cute under the table, food-induced snooze fests in the living room. But what I most look forward to when I’m home for the holidays are family outings with my dad.

These jaunts are a family “tradition” only in the sense that they are customarily untraditional. Past outings have included arrowhead-hunting forays to local prairie dog towns, truck runs to the county dump to drop off junk and comb for treasures, and -- some years ago, when my neighborhood was suffering a spurt of McMansion-esque development -- clandestine monkey-wrenching trips to empty lots where we would pull up real-estate signs and survey know, typical father-daughter stuff. This year's holiday outing, I soon learned, would share the same spirit of frontier silliness-cum-enterprise that characterized those past excursions.

A raptor carcass and two dead mice in a concrete stock tank in Montana's Pryor Mountains.

A few days before Thanksgiving, my dad "read somewhere" that the Bureau of Land Management was encouraging volunteers to install wildlife escape ladders in open, state-land stock tanks. Though specifically designed to serve cattle, sheep, and horses, stock tanks also attract birds, lizards, mice, skunks, and other wild critters that are drawn to the concrete and plastic oases during summer months and drought periods. Unfortunately, thirsty animals often fall into the tanks and, without obvious escape routes, swim themselves to exhaustion and drown. According to a technical bulletin from the Idaho BLM, many small animals "become exhausted and drown if forced to swim more than 30 feet."

So, Thanksgiving morning -- while my mom hauled potatoes and stuffing boxes from the cupboard -- my dad and I hauled a makeshift scrap-wood ladder to a stock tank located on a sweep of rancher-leased state land near our house. The open, circular trough sits at the end of a walking trail that my family frequents. Over the years, we have seen a number of dead animals in the tank; sometimes the creatures are floating, sometimes--when the tank is empty--their dessicated bodies are plastered to the tank's grimy floor.

Together, my dad and I positioned our ladder against the tank’s rim, securing its bottom step with a lichen-kissed chunk of sandstone.  As we worked, I vividly recalled a time some years before when we'd found a raptor, face down, in the tank. Wind gusts ruffled its feathers and pushed it slowly around and around. Clusters of shiny orange and black carrion beetles sequined the bird's breast. The insects clung to the carcass like castaways to a lifeboat, though a few had jumped ship and thrashed madly at the tank's slick sidewalls. It was a morbid scene, but lovely too… though not, perhaps, for a thirsty cow looking to refresh itself.

Indeed, in a 2009 press release, Chuck Otto -- manager for the BLM's Pinedale, Wyoming Field Office -- says "(E)scape ladders are especially effective in stock tanks in remote areas, and not only prevent wildlife deaths, but keep the water cleaner and healthier for livestock."

We finished the "install" and took a few minutes to admire our handiwork. "Well, maybe it will give the little critters a chance," my dad said. "But I think I'm gonna to try to make another one, a better one." Sigh. My dad...the constant carpenter.

A chilly wind rose up, buffeting our hair and the tufts of white gold prairie grass that lined the trail. We took it as a sign to head back to the house. Another father-daughter outing accomplished.

Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern for High Country News

Images courtesy Thomas Lyman and Marian Lyman Kirst