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Back in the 1970’s, Donna Demetriades went to look over some land in southeastern Montana up around 7,000 feet. She remembers a doe mule deer leaping up from behind a knoll and bounding downhill toward where the Douglas fir and aspen opened onto a mountain-cupped basin of sagebrush, grass, and wetlands. She and her husband, Tony, ended up buying that property at the high end of the Centennial Valley. They named it Running Deer Ranch. Its hillsides and the brushy banks along Hell Roaring Creek turned out to hold much bigger hoofed residents. Before long, the Demetriadeses were naming them, too: Mozart, Mahler, Mussorgsky, and so on down the M-list of classical composers because…. well, because it was more fun than just calling them all Moose.

Moose aren’t the only several-hundred-pound locals. The first time I went to look over the same land, there were elk tracks in the late autumn snow on the slopes and the paw prints of a young grizzly near Hell Roaring Creek. Helloooo There! Naturalist Inbound! Howdy Howdy Heidi Ho! When you’re poking around in thick, head-high willow by a fresh grizzly path, you should be hollering something – no matter how goofy it sounds – to avoid surprises.

Over the years, Donna and Tony built a cabin, corrals, and outbuildings. They raised cattle and chickens and explored the countryside by foot and horseback. After a while, they purchased adjoining property and ended up with nearly 280 acres – along with a grazing permit for approximately 1,000 acres of federal land here at the head of the valley. Then they put conservation easements on their property, re-named Roaring Creek Ranch, permanently placing it off limits to subdivision, commercial activity, road-building, and hunting. Just recently, they agreed to transfer those protective covenants and the responsibility for overseeing them to the Wildlife Land Trust. When I asked why, Donna said, “Everything comes from a personal feeling of affection for the place. We fell in love with the land at first sight. It was like falling in love with a person.

Tony said, “You borrow this grand space for a while and make it feel like your own. And yet you know that it’s not really yours. We feel very strongly that this land should always stay the way it is.

The Demetriadeses complete each other’s sentences easily, trading thoughts with a glance; after all, they’ve had decades of practice. When we met in 2009, Donna was 85 and Tony 79. This doesn’t mean their decision to donate conservation easements was made without long and careful discussion and the support of their three sons, Ted, Larry, and Don, who will eventually become the ranch’s sole owners. To more fully understand how the family thinks about this piece of the country, it helps to zoom out for a larger view – way out, until you can envision the Missouri-Mississippi River system, which drains the majority of the United States. Measured from the Missouri’s farthest origin, this is the third-longest waterway in the world. That origin – that utmost source – is Brower’s Spring at the upper end of Hell Roaring Creek, roughly 1,800 vertical feet above where we were talking. Its cold, clear flow cascades down the Centennial Mountains through the timbered gullies and cliff-sided canyons of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and a Wilderness Study Area on federal domain overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The first piece of private ground the Missouri’s headwaters touch is the Roaring Creek Ranch – mile seven along a 3,745-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

I was just up there between Brower’s Spring and 10,200-foot Mt. Jefferson, hiking the Centennial Mountains Divide. It’s also the Continental Divide, which bends from its generally north-south trend to run east-west for some distance here, marking the border between Idaho and Montana. On the Idaho side, I could make out the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River glimmering on its way to join the Columbia and empty into the Pacific. A short distance beyond that lay Yellowstone National Park. To the north of my viewpoint rose the peaks of the Montana’s Gravelly Range and Snowcrest Range. Between those mountain chains and the Centennials lay the immense sweep of the Centennial Valley. I could see Hell Roaring meeting other tributaries there to form Red Rock Creek, the main source that feeds a series of lakes enclosed by 45,000-acre Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Set aside in 1935 in the valley’s heart, the refuge was primarily intended to help save the last trumpeter swans, numbering perhaps fewer than 100 south of Canada at the time. Nearly all of the survivors were in the Red Rock Lakes and along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake. They escaped the widespread slaughter of large-plumed birds in the early 20th century mainly because they stayed in such high, remote settings along the Divide instead of migrating to more populated areas with waiting market hunters. Today, these waterfowl with six-foot wingspans number around 400 in the tri-state area of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Thousands more now breed elsewhere in the Rockies and Pacific Northwest.

A few miles downstream from the Demetriades spread, I stopped to watch a pair of trumpeters and their young of the year glide like tall-prowed, white gondolas through Shambow Pond. Hundreds of ducks and a handful of white pelicans speckled the surface of Upper Red Rock Lake beyond. Tree swallows scythed through the air above them while mountain bluebirds looked on from fencepost perches. Moose – Mendelssohn? Menotti? – muscled through the willow stands. Bands of antelope grazed marshy meadows farther out, and a pair of coyotes trotted across the sagebrush flats to one side.

In the waters of the lakes and their tributaries you might see rings of ripples from the rise of a type of fish normally found much farther north. They are arctic grayling, a rare Lower 48 holdover from the Ice Ages. Tied to cold, well-oxygenated water, they keep to the lakes most of the year but migrate upstream to spawn, a pattern fish biologists describe as adfluvial. Confined now to this single watershed at the very start of the Missouri, the arctic grayling of the upper Centennial are the only native adfluvial population south of Canada and represent a genetically unique strain. To protect the fish when cattle graze the area in summer, The Nature Conservancy temporarily fences off the riparian zone along Hell Roaring Creek, including the section that riffles through the Roaring Creek Ranch.

With virtually every native species still present, the Centennial Mountains and Valley together host one of the richest wildlife communities in the West. They also serve as a natural avenue for animals to follow when traveling through this part of the Rockies. The valley floor and foothills are a kind of nexus for deer, elk, and moose moving between seasonal ranges in the tri-state region. Even the occasional bison from Yellowstone Park shows up. Antelope migrate between summering sites in the valley with its abundance of new green growth and lower elevation winter ranges in the Madison Valley.

The carnivores – wolves, wolverines, cougars, lynx, black and grizzly bears – tend to keep to the high country contours, which provide more cover and safer passage. Because of their unusual east-west alignment, the Centennials act as a key landscape bridge between Yellowstone and habitats farther west in Montana. The route also offers dispersing animals an opportunity to continue on into the Salmon River and Selway-Bitterroot wildlands of east-central Idaho. If grizzlies from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem can naturally recolonize those Idaho wildlands, it would go a long way toward boosting the numbers of this threatened species. At the same time, it would increase the likelihood of one day connecting Yellowstone’s bears, which are now isolated, to existing populations in northern Idaho, northern Montana, and, ultimately, Canada, ensuring a healthy flow of breeding animals and genes.

The east-west route has served people as well. After Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, trains would deliver early visitors to the lower end of the Centennial Valley near the town of Monida. Stagecoaches would take them east to the upper end, then across a low pass through the Centennial Mountains, and on to the wonders of the park. By 1915, 40 percent of Yellowstone’s 20,000 annual visitors were making this 70-mile horse-drawn trip to reach the reserve. Today, far fewer folks use the dirt road that follows more or less the same route. It crosses the Centennials about three-quarters of a mile from the Roaring Creek Ranch. If you walk a few yards past the Demetriades’s mailbox, you’ll find the old stagecoach tracks still visible as ruts worn into the hillside among sagebrush and wildflowers.

The last time I went to visit, Donna and Tony pointed out a square shape high up on one of the cliffs guarding the mouth of Hell Roaring Canyon. It was a “hack” box for peregrine falcons, part of a program begun in 1982 to re-introduce these fastest of all birds, classified as endangered at the time. Given its combination of steep mountainside perches and wetlands abounding with waterfowl, the valley seemed to offer excellent prospects for success.

“We came back from a trip to the market one day and found a helicopter by our creek,” Tony recalled. “They placed the babies in that hack box up there, and two tenders hiked up every day for weeks to feed them until they fledged. This went on each year for ten years. We let the tenders live on our land.”

“This year,” Tony continued, “one of the old tenders came back for a visit and found a wild falcon with a chick perched on the hack box. He was so delighted to have seen that, he was almost jumping up and down. And just two weeks ago, two juvenile peregrines were buzzing me when I went for a walk.” One morning, I got to see a peregrine swoop low over Roaring Creek Ranch and then tear off for the heights on wingbeats so strong, they seemed like they might leave tracks on the sky.

The flow of wildness continues and even grows by the year in this place. Obviously, the 280 acres the Demetriadeses have protected aren’t going to secure the trend alone. But they’re not alone by any means, and that’s really the point. In addition to bordering national forest and BLM property, the Roaring Creek Ranch either adjoins or is close to parcels protected as open space and wildlife habitat by The Nature Conservancy, Montana Land Reliance, other land trusts, and a grazing association. The pattern continues downstream. Of the Centennial Valley’s 385,000 acres, 285,000 are public domain. And of the 100,000 privately held acres, “Two-thirds of the properties have conservation easements on them,” explained Louise Bruce, field director of the homeowners’ group, the Centennial Valley Association. “People didn’t want to see this wide-open part of the West subdivided into little ranchettes.”

The trend started decades ago when John Taft donated easements on 1,500 acres bordering the refuge to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to be managed for the benefit of wildlife. He arranged the original conservation easements on the Roaring Creek Ranch. An ardent supporter of The Wildlife Trust and former Humane Society of the United States board member, Taft also persuaded the Demetriadeses to transfer the easements to WLT in 2009, knowing how closely that organization’s interest in safeguarding the natural community matched the family’s goals. This is how you reconstruct and revitalize an ecosystem: not alone but in concert with others across a landscape big enough to accommodate migrating moose and far-roaming grizzly bears. You do it by integrating the wildlife values of public and private spheres instead of treating private property as a separate category destined to be de-natured. “You can’t stop progress,” Americans often say. Maybe not, but you can redefine progress to mean leaving room for other creatures that call the land home.

I grew up in Athens,” Tony said. “It was a completely urban setting. Pioneering and self-sufficiency were not venerated there.” He moved to the U.S. and met Donna in California. They started vacationing in the Rockies and continued coming for years before they decided to get a place of their own. “We drove up the Henry’s Fork and saw Mount Sawtell in the distance and said ‘This is heaven,’ ” Tony went on. “We’d been looking around for a small acreage, and the one we found up here was the one for us.” Tony joined the faculty at Montana State University in Bozeman as a professor of mechanical engineering. The family lived in town during the school year and summered at the ranch.”

“We get up every morning and knock as hard as we can on the first piece of wood we find,” Donna told me with a laugh. “Oh, we’ve been so lucky for so long to be here. A lot of times, we’re the only people in the Alaska Basin as the uppermost end of the Centennial Valley is called, and we love it.”

“I look out the window and know it will look this way for our kids and our kids’ kids a hundred years from now,” Tony said in turn. “We know the countryside will stay like that for our family, for the United States, and in fact for the whole world. The Germans occupied Greece during World War II. I know what privation is. But here, we gave up certain development possibilities because we wanted to. It’s different when you deny yourself things to accomplish greater objectives.  We’re willing to do with less to do something good.”


 

Douglas H. Chadwick, a Montana-based wildlife biologist, has written hundreds of articles and 10 books on natural history and conservation. He is also a founding board member of Vital Ground, a non-profit land trust that protects habitat for the grizzly bear, an umbrella species whose huge range includes those of many other wild creatures. As an unpaid volunteer with the Glacier Wolverine Project, he makes exactly the same wages as the animals do. Doug Chadwick has written a number of articles in support of the work of the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust as well as other organizations such Patagonia. HSWLT appreciates the support of friends like Mr. Chadwick and is pleased to collaborate with organizations who share our mission of protecting habitat.

 

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