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].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.