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The work year starts when the ice breaks up on the Missouri River and ends when winter returns.

Rattlesnakes are a given, as are drought, floods and needy river boaters and campers.

That’s life’s rhythm for Illa Willmore, who ranches near Roy while spending an estimated 1,200 hours each year volunteering at the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument.

“I step lively if I see a rattlesnake. There’s always rattlesnakes down there,” she said.

On Thursday, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials presented Willmore with one of seven 2013 “Making a Difference” awards to honor volunteers who help maintain and preserve public lands.

She traveled from Roy in north-central Montana to the BLM offices Billings to accept the honor by video conference from Washington, D.C., ceremonies that included a speech by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Illa said she hadn’t expected another award because she’d received one in 1997.

“I thought once is enough. There are other people who do far more than I do,” she said.

Heeding the call

In 1992 with her children raised, she signed up when the BLM asked for help maintaining the campground in the James Kipp Recreation Area. The Fred Robinson Bridge is a popular pull-out spot for people canoeing or rafting the Missouri.

“They accepted me, not knowing they’d have me for 21 years,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

From March through November, Illa helps clean and police the campground while recording the area’s history, weather, culture, plant and animal life and even some personal musings in logbooks kept at the visitor contact station.

With her name and phone number posted at the campground, Illa is basically on call to campers, fishermen and boaters.

She lives on a cattle ranch 11 miles south of the river with her husband, Warren Willmore, whose parents homesteaded the land in 1915. At age 18, Illa, who lived in Oregon, came to Montana with her mother, who came to visit one of her best friends, Warren’s mom.

Was it love at first sight?

“I guess. I’m still here,” she said. “We’ve been married over 60 years. I feel like I’m a Montana native.”

When heading out alone to check on some 50 camp sites, the 5-foot-4-inch ranch woman has never carried a gun.

Once she confronted a Billings man who was driving all over the grass. He wasn’t drunk, “just arrogant and overbearing,” she said.

“He made me back up, but I can’t say I was afraid of him,” she said. “You’ve got to instinctively know when you have to back off.”

Having no fear of snakes also comes in handy.

One year a bull snake, which at first glance looks like a rattler, took up residence in the women’s bathroom.

“I couldn’t keep him out. I had to get him out of there three times a day,” she said.

And once she saw a man holding a huge python.

When she walked over, the snake handler said he traveled around with reptiles to show to school kids and wanted to give them some exercise in the campground.

“He let loose a python and a big turtle the kids would ride,” she said. “It would slither around and he’d pick it up again.”

Occasionally, the boaters offered cultural education.

“I went down once to get the exit papers from some floaters and they were all skinny dipping. I figured they must be from Europe because they do those things there,” she said.

In the 1950s, Illa and Warren lived on open rangeland.

“When I first came here there was no highway, no electricity, no water,” she said. “You could get on a horse and ride all day and not see a fence. That’s all changed.”

The highway wasn’t extended north from Roy to the Missouri until 1960 and their isolated ranch didn’t have electricity or telephones until the road was built.

Weather, river change

The nearby Missouri River has changed its course considerably in her lifetime, she said, and gone are the fierce three-day blizzards that kept people from leaving their homes or barnyards.

But the soft parade of sunsets and wildlife continues, with an occasional mountain lion showing up. Elk, absent 60 years ago, are everywhere now, she said, and there’s usually lots of deer.

During the record floods of 2011, Illa sent daily reports to the BLM, relying on years of her detailed river measurements, including when the Missouri was about to top its banks.

“When it reached that level, I said, ‘It’s time to get the people out.’ It was nothing special.”

But the BLM credited her with an orderly and timely evacuation of the campground.

Every year, about 30,000 volunteers contribute more than 1.1 million hours at BLM sites. Four generations of Illa’s family have worked as BLM volunteers, and her granddaughter, Amber Willmore, and weekend crews are helping out more at the Kipp campground.

Now that Warren is 92, Illa said she needs to spend more time with him at the ranch.

“I don’t spend nights down there they way I used to,” she said.

The 79-year-old will spend another summer walking around familiar river bottom lands, her bird book in hand.

Only Illa will be patrolling more quietly.

“I used to sing at the top of my lungs, but I lost my voice, probably yelling at cows,” she said with a chuckle. “Or God heard me and probably took it away.”

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Locations

Business editor for the Billings Gazette.