BEARMOUTH, Mont. – From Interstate 90, Fred Weaver’s ranch looks rich and green.
But climb 3,500 feet up the slopes of Mount Baldy, and most of the freeway disappears. Motorists can’t see the square miles of hillside that remain sterile since they burned in the Ryan Gulch fire of 2000.
The Weaver family recently won a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for negligent firefighting. A Philipsburg jury awarded them $730,000 after concluding the fire crews could show no good reason for setting several backfires that burned more than 3,000 acres of the ranch. Twelve years later, the land still hasn’t recovered.
“You just don’t grasp it from the interstate – the volume of it,” Andy Weaver said from the ridge above Dry Gulch, where almost three square miles of timberland have yet to show any new growth. “She’s what you call scorched earth.”
Andy and his sister Vicki Weaver are the fourth generation to work the DW-Bar Ranch. More than 100 years ago, their father Fred’s grandfather George walked from Nevada to work in Philipsburg’s Hope Mine. Once there, he parlayed a house in town for a homestead on the Clark Fork River near Bearmouth Canyon.
It eventually grew to 8,000 deeded acres as the Weavers consolidated other homesteads. The family leased another 20,000 acres from Plum Creek and Stimson timber companies. Their cattle ranged from the Clark Fork River nearly to Potomac, in the Blackfoot River drainage almost 20 miles away.
All that changed on Aug. 13, 2000, when the Ryan Gulch fire made two days of tremendous runs. Its perimeter eventually included 27 square miles north of the Clark Fork River.
Despite a river at the bottom, the Clark Fork Basin around Drummond holds much less moisture than nearby areas. The Black Pine Snotel site northwest of Philipsburg gets about 12 inches of snow-water equivalent a year. So does the Elk Creek Snotel, in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest just north of the Weaver Ranch. By comparison, Stuart Mountain just north of Missoula usually gets about 34 inches a year.
In the summer, cattle and sheep can’t find shade on many of the Weaver Ranch hillsides where they used to graze. In addition, ephemeral springs that were once fed by late-summer snowpack now dry up in early spring because there’s nothing to slow the melt.
What areas do still have water and shade also have a new addition – noxious weeds. Spotted knapweed, leafy spurge and Dalmatian toadflax have infested many pastures that used to support native blue bunch wheatgrass. Vicki Weaver said 600 acres of helicopter seeding has produced little success.
Adding insult to injury, efforts to control the weeds with herbicides often resulted in cheat grass takeover. Cheat grass outcompetes other grasses but doesn’t provide the all-summer nutrition that native species have. It resists the herbicides that kill knapweed and spurge, while chemicals that affect it also wipe out the natives.
“So now under every tree, we’ve got a nice little patch of cheat grass where the fire burned away the duff,” Vicki said. “What was solid timber is now solid weeds.”
The Weavers now run about 200 cattle instead of the 250 they had before the fire. They used to raise between 150 and 200 ewe sheep before 2000. Now the land supports fewer than 70.
“We have to move the cows around a lot more or they just hammer the remaining ground,” Vicki said. “We’re really out of grass for them.”
The loss of timber cover has affected big game as well as domestic livestock. Ridgetops that once offered good winter range now lack the timber to break up wind flow.
“Now, it gets a wind crust and the wildlife can’t use it in the winter,” Vicki Weaver said. “Even the elk can’t paw through it. And you could really see it in the mule deer – they suffer much more than they used to. And they’re hanging around down by the road much more than they used to.”
Large numbers of elk and deer still graze on the Weaver Ranch. Recently, a herd of 40 elk could be seen scooting over a ridge when a pickup came within 500 yards.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Jay Kolbe said the loss of trees in strategic places changes the way snow collects and packs. It also denies wildlife thermal cover in cold snaps.
“Where it doesn’t exist, it can be a problem for wildlife,” Kolbe said. “And in winter, first-year needle growth on Douglas fir is important for deer. That kind of went away in a lot of that area, too.”
Andy Weaver said his family salvaged several million board feet of timber from the burned areas after the fire. In Dry Gulch, where three square miles of hillside burned, the slopes are dotted with stumps 12 to 20 inches in diameter. More than a decade later, virtually nothing has grown back.
“These are all limestone ridges,” Andy said. “After the fire, you could hardly walk here. It had burned away all the duff and dirt, so it was like walking on marbles.”
On one of those walks, Andy saw what he thought was a rusted bucket in a gulch a mile east of the ranch house. He kicked it and discovered it was filled with a coil of pipe. He’d found his great-uncle Harry Weaver’s moonshine still, lost for a generation until the fire burned away its hidden thicket.
Back in the summer of 2000, Fred Weaver and many others growled about the tactics firefighters used, especially setting backfires instead of digging lines to stop the progress of the blaze. The official reasoning was to save houses. Dang the houses, the ranchers said – they’re insured. Save the grass – that’s our savings account.
“This all should be greening up now,” Andy Weaver said on the barren slope of Mount Baldy. “It just makes me sick to look at it.”