Home on the range

  • Marian Lyman Kirst


This year, I was lucky enough to spend Thanksgiving back home with my parents in central Montana. Holidays at home usually include the traditional trappings of board games, gravy boats and hungry dogs making cute under the table, followed by food-induced snooze fests in the living room. But what I most look forward to when I'm home for any holiday is an outing with my dad.

My dad is a funny guy. An ex-mountain climber and guide with degrees in English and education, he's kind of a philosopher-outdoorsman. When I was in high school, he would happily embarrass me in front of friends with recitations of "The Highwayman" or "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Growing up, I accompanied my parents on hiking and fishing trips into Montana's Beartooth and Pryor mountains. I wanted to be at the mall. But my dad convinced me that looking for fossils and horned lizards was way more fun.

Those jaunts also included arrowhead-hunting forays to local prairie dog towns and truck runs to the county dump to drop off our junk and comb through other people's discarded treasures. Some years ago, when my neighborhood was suffering a spurt of McMansion development, my dad and I also took clandestine monkey-wrenching trips to empty lots to "rearrange" real-estate signs and survey stakes -- just typical father-daughter stuff for us. This year's holiday outing, I soon learned, would involve that same enterprising spirit.

My dad said he'd "read somewhere" that the Bureau of Land Management was encouraging volunteers to install escape ladders for wildlife inside stock tanks placed on state-owned land. Though specifically designed to bring water to cattle, sheep and horses, stock tanks also attract birds, lizards, mice, skunks and other wild critters that are drawn to these concrete and plastic oases during summer months and periods of drought.

Unfortunately, thirsty animals often fall into the tanks, and without obvious escape routes, swim themselves to death. According to a technical bulletin from the BLM in Idaho, many small animals "become exhausted and drown if forced to swim more than 30 feet."

So this Thanksgiving morning, while my mom hauled potatoes and boxes of stuffing from the cupboard and started cooking, my dad and I hauled a makeshift ramp he'd made out of scrap wood to a stock tank on a coulee-cut sweep of rancher-leased state land near our house. The round trough sits at the end of a walking trail that my family frequents, and over the years, we've noticed a number of dead animals in the tank. Sometimes the creatures were floating, and sometimes, when the tank was empty, we'd peer in and see desiccated rodents or feathered bird skeletons plastered to the tank's grimy floor.

My dad and I climbed into the tank and positioned our ladder against its rim, securing the bottom step with a lichen-covered chunk of sandstone.  As we worked, fiddling the ladder to a critter-walkable angle, I vividly recalled a time some years before when we'd found a raptor, face down, in the water-filled 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 somehow beautiful, though not, perhaps, for a thirsty cow looking to refresh itself.

Indeed, according to a 2009 press release, Chuck Otto, manager for the BLM's Pinedale, Wyo., field office, said that "escape 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 make another one, a better one." Sigh. My dad -- the constant carpenter.

A chilly wind rushed up the valley to greet us, buffeting our hair and the white-gold tufts of prairie grass that lined the trail. We took it as a sign to head back. As we walked, I thought about what our next Western-style adventure might be: metal-detecting behind the house, maybe, or spelunking local ice-caves. I realized, then, that I didn't particularly care what trips awaited us, so long as we continued to take them.

Marian Lyman Kirst is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org), where she is an intern.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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