Earlier in the summer, Jarret Kostrba was sitting on a bench just outside Ghost Cave at Pictograph Cave State Park as the sun was coming up.
Watching light fill the valley — one of the perks of being the park's acting manager — Kostrba looked to his left and was surprised to see a large bobcat silently padding by.
It was clear the cat had neither smelled nor heard Kostrba — it was so close he could have probably reached out and touched it. Instead Kostrba just watched for a moment and then carefully pulled out his phone to snap a picture. The sound of the shutter startled the bobcat and it ran off into the morning.
It was a singular experience and one that makes the state park special for Kostrba.
"We care a lot about this place," he said.
Others have taken notice of that care — Kostrba was recently named Young Professional of the Year by the Montana Recreation and Park Association.
Kostrba smiles at the name of the award. He's 32 and jokes that he's the oldest Young Professional in the state.
But then he gets serious.
"It's really an honor," he said.
He's been at Pictograph for three years and worked as acting manager for the last year.
"Jarret has a bright future ahead of him," said Chas Van Genderen, administrator of Montana State Parks. "He stepped in a year ago ... and very quickly brought that park's operations to a new level of excellence."
In some sense, it's bittersweet. Before Kostrba, the park was managed by Darla Bruner, famous for her passion and good nature. She died in July.
"She left some pretty big shoes to fill," Kostrba said, noting that it had been a tough year for park employees grappling with Bruner's death.
Moving forward, Kostrba has worked to expand offerings at the park that would have made Bruner — an avid local history buff — happy.
He and his staff are working on arrangements with the Museum of the Rockies and other institutions to bring back to the park artifacts that were originally taken from the caves early in the last century.
The short-term loan agreements for the artifacts will help the park offer better interpretive displays and improve the interpretive materials there, something they've already been working on.
The park is also working on better documenting and explaining the history behind the discovery of the caves. Most of the current material only goes back to the 1930s, when amateur archaeologists discovered deep deposits of prehistoric artifacts in the cave's ﬂoor.
But there's a lot of local history that goes back further, documenting earlier explorations of the caves, which Kostrba is hoping to highlight in the coming years.
"There's a lot to offer," Kostrba said.
He's a big believer in the state parks system. Kostrba is Montana born and bred and joined the state parks service seven years ago. Before Pictograph he worked at Cooney State Park.
As a natural outdoorsman, working with the state parks system has been the ideal career.
"I really think Montana State Parks does a good job representing my native state," he said.