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It has been a long time in the making, but the Bureau of Land Management is more than halfway toward its goal of acquiring a 560-acre parcel of land along the eastern front of the Beartooth Mountains, south of Red Lodge.

“It saves the viewshed of the mountains and saves the old trails that go across it,” said Crow historian Howard Boggess, who worked with the BLM to preserve the acreage. “I really enjoy going up there and just walking around because there’s a lot out there.”

With money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the BLM was able to purchase 300 acres at a cost of $1.4 million, or about $4,666 an acre. The land was being held for the agency by The Conservation Fund, which acts as an intermediary, as it can move more quickly to acquire land. The Conservation Fund purchased the entire 560 acres from Grove Creek Ranches LLC.

“We originally looked at a land exchange, but that didn’t seem to be able to work out because of the acreage difference,” said Craig Haynes, a realty specialist with the BLM’s Billings Field Office.

The money to purchase the rest of the property has already been approved within the Department of Interior’s 2010 budget.

“We want to thank The Conservation Fund for making the acquisition of this property a reality,” Jim Sparks, Billings Field Office manager, said in a statement. “The public and environmental benefit from this purchase is immeasurable.”

Historic area

The 560 acres was originally surrounded by Custer National Forest property to the west and BLM lands to the north, east and south. Those BLM lands are part of the 960-acre Meeteetse Spires Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Under the designation, much of the land is removed from consideration for mineral, oil and gas leasing and vehicle use is regulated. The new lands would be managed under the same prescription.

The area’s history was part of the reason for the special protection. According to Boggess, the spires contain petroglyphs and pictographs created by American Indian tribes. In addition, tepee rings and ancient stone trail markers are spread across the landscape, as are sacred prayer sites.

“There’s stuff in there more than 1,000 years old,” he said.

The area was part of the Crow Tribe’s homelands but was also a traditional route used by the Shoshone and Nez Perce tribes as they moved through on their way to hunt buffalo on the plains of what is now Eastern Montana. Later, Euro-Americans adopted the same route. The Meeteetse Trail was a 100-mile stagecoach and freight route built by the U.S. Army in 1881 that connected Red Lodge and other mining communities along the Beartooth Front to Clark, Wyo., and eventually the town of Meeteetse, Wyo. Meeteetse means “meeting place” in the Shoshone language. Years later, the route was moved farther west, near the base of the mountains, to avoid wet gulches.

“You can still see the old stagecoach route,” Boggess said.

Plant protection

The land is also important because it is one of the last remaining places where the plant Shoshonea pulvinata grows. The plant is found in only three locations in Montana — two in the Pryor Mountains and one on the Beartooth Front — and fewer than 12 places in the world. Once considered for endangered-species listing, the perennial herb grows in dense mats of green, its yellow flowers blooming in late June or early July. It is a member of the parsley and carrot family.

Hunters may also be interested in the area for its wildlife.

“That’s good elk country,” Boggess said.

Mule deer also make use of the sagebrush-covered hills and coulees of the north and south forks of Grove Creek. And birds of prey, such as golden eagles, make use of the Meeteetse Spires.

The spires are soaring limestone outcrops at the base of the Beartooth Mountains. The cliffs were formed by sediments piled up 1,000 to 1,500 feet deep at the bottom of what was once an inland sea. About 80 million years ago, the Beartooth Mountain range thrust upward about 15,000 feet, raising the once-reclining limestone to its current prominence.

Taken all together, it’s no wonder Boggess is happy to see the landscape conserved for future generations.

“I thought it was an important thing to preserve,” he said.

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

 

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