As aspens shimmer in autumn sunshine along the eastern slope of the Northern Rockies and a red-tailed hawk floats above the trees, naturalist Nikki Mann describes how the birds evolved to ride with the wind against the Rocky Mountain Front.
“Red-tailed hawks in this area fold their wings and swoop more like falcons, due to the very high and extreme winds along the front,” Mann tells guests of Pine Butte Guest Ranch. “In other areas, most people observe them slowly circling in thermals to get from place to place. Here they’re much more agile … to get around in the extreme winds.
The Front, in central Montana near Choteau, is the only place in the Rockies she’s observed this behavior to such an extreme degree. As if on cue, a bird of prey screams its steam-whistle screech then dives out of sight—a feat that can reach up to 120 miles per hour.
Mann and other instructors share their knowledge through The Nature Conservancy’s educational efforts to portray the significance of landscapes, wildlife, plant life and human life. The non-profit conservancy has owned the historic guest ranch for more than 30 years.
“This area below the mountains is a savannah habitat,” says Mann, a 27-year-old Nevada cowgirl who has worked here two years. “Mountain bluebirds love this habitat. Their territorial fights are unbelievable. We’ve watched battles between males, their beautiful flax-blue feathers flying everywhere.”
Bluebirds, Mann notes, are the area’s biggest insecticide, devouring mosquitoes and other bugs. Luckily, after the first frost, usually in September, the bugs are gone so won’t trouble guests during weeklong workshops.
This fall’s workshop line-up includes “Hiking the Rocky Mountain Front,” Sept. 5-12, “Geology of the Rocky Mountain Front,” Sept. 12-18, and the “Fall Naturalist Tour of the Rockies,” Sept. 19-25.
Leading the “Geology of the Rocky Mountain Front” is Smithsonian Institute Geologist-Paleobotanist Scott Wing, whose specialty is spotting remarkable geologic history of the mountains along the eastern front of the Continental Divide.
“The course is a journey of the earth’s history as seen through what’s available in the Rocky Mountain Front,” says Wing, noting the Paleozoic reef and deposits are from an inland sea. “Workshop attendees will see spectacular cliffs in the Madison limestone deposited as reefs in shallow seas more than 310 million years ago.”
Participants take daily walks that reveal major geologic formations in the today’s mountains and prairies. Visitors may find marine and dinosaur fossils and other terrestrials among limestone reefs, sandstone buttes and glacier-carved landscapes. Hikes range between 2-7 miles at elevations of 4,000 to 6,500 feet.
Each course runs $1,800 per person and includes lodging, meals, airport shuttle to/from Great Falls and all activities. Workshops are limited to 16 participants.
Experts include grizzly bear researcher, Charles Jonkel, and birder, author and artist David Allen Sibley. If the fall 2010 workshops don’t match travelers’ schedules, ranch manager Jim Culver says spring 2011 workshops include wildflowers, birding and two others.
“From mid-June through August, we offer traditional dude ranching, but the difference is that education continues yet it’s more informal than workshops,” says Culver, who entertains guests one evening each week with guitar, songs, and stories.
While the Pine Butte staff offers Western hospitality, the wranglers, guides, kitchen and other staff still function under the Nature Conservancy’s self-assigned charge “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.”
The ranch is among the state’s oldest dude ranches, established in the 1930s by Kenneth and Alice Gleason. Then called the Circle 8 Ranch, the 1,000 acres enticed dudes to lope along trails of the Sun River drainage, climb to Indian Head Mountain, and fly fish the Sun River, which flows from the Bob Marshall Wilderness a few miles west.
In 1978, the Gleasons sold the ranch to TNC. A lovely tribute to the Gleasons and their guest ranching is on display in Choteau at the Old Trail Museum, open Memorial Day through Labor Day and by appointment. The collection is worth a stop, containing exhibits on local dinosaur digs, Indian artifacts, novelist A.B. Guthrie Jr., Old Agency on the Teton, the Old North Trail, Metis people, and Choteau’s last hanging.
What occurs on the ranch is awe-inspiring. For 16-year-old Meg Smith of New York, the wildlife was worth remembering.
“One night we went out to a hill with a telescope and looked through it for hours,” she said during a spring visit. “We saw elk, deer, a moose, and a grizzly bear with cubs. The only moose I’d ever seen before was in Yellowstone last summer. The grizzlies moved quickly but it was interesting to watch them.”
Her parents agree the week at Pine Butte was unforgettable. Her mom, RoseAnn Fogerty, learned about it in The Nature Conservancy magazine, and “it sounded like our kind of place.”
“We contribute, and have a high regard for the organization’s work,” she said.
Fogerty noted that they’d like to return to rural Montana for another vacation. After all, not many rural ranches offer a solar heated outdoor pool, organic vegetables from the greenhouse and gardens and a mission to reduce its carbon footprint by 20 percent over the next year. Plus many like-minded guests.
She also likes the ranch’s hiking options, since, while her husband and daughter are good riders, Fogerty is more comfortable on foot.
The staff includes about a dozen employees, three dogs and a herd of saddle horses. Each camper is assigned to a horse.
“I didn’t really get to meet any other horses besides my own, Dan,” says Meg, who rode as a child but never loped a horse until Montana. “He was a pretty cream-colored horse with a black mane and tail. When there was a riding spot two times a day, I would do it, or if it was an all-day trip, I would go on that.
She couldn’t identify a particular trail she preferred, but enjoyed riding everywhere.
“The scenery is a bonus; all trails were pretty and full of flowers and marks of animals that had been around,” she said.
Wildlife includes grizzly and black bears, wolves, mountain lions and nearly all the native mammals that roam Montana. Pine Butte Swamp Preserve, the 17,000-acre front yard to the guest ranch, attracts long-billed curlews and sandhill cranes among the 200 bird species and 700 plant species.
The distinctive wetland is the result of the intersection of glacier, geology and climate, which includes Butte, loomof500 feet above the prairie. Guests learn how the quality of habitat is maintained through weed control and prescribed fire, plus traditional agricultural operations.
An old one-room school, the Bellview Schoolhouse, serves as the preserve’s education center. Birding tours and natural history workshops are available.
Fall’s warm days and cool evening eventually give way to snowy winters when the guest ranch closes until spring.
The Conservancy is considered the world’s wealthiest environmental organization with some $3 billion in assets. Founded in 1951, TNC has 1 million members and protect more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide. The nonprofit is based in Virginia; Montana headquarters are in Helena.