Since moving to Billings in the 1960s, Clayton McCracken has been drawn to the Pryor Mountains south of Billings.
“The Pryors are such a fascinating place. It’s a place of awe and wonder. You can’t go up there without being in awe. You wonder, ‘How did this come to be?’” McCracken said.
“In some ways, some of what I’m doing is a way of paying back to the Pryors what the Pryors have given me.”
What McCracken, an 82-year-old retired physician, is doing is working to wipe out invasive and noxious weeds that are infesting the Pryors.
For the past three summers, McCracken has loaded his red Jeep with supplies and gear and headed out alone to battle Canada thistle, houndstongue, leafy spurge, spotted knapweed, Dalmatian toadflax and Russian thistle.
McCracken engages in one-on-one combat, dribbling herbicides on individual plants and digging up, bagging and hauling out seed heads.
“I wish I were in better shape. It’s been really taxing,” McCracken said, days before heading out again, in late August, into the Pryors. And this summer has been “ungodly hot,” he said.
McCracken is involved with the Pryors Coalition, group of individuals and organizations that formed about 10 years ago to preserve the Pryors by finding a balance between traditional uses and responsible motorized use.
A website called The Pryor Mountains, presented by the coalition, describes the Pryors as an “island of mountains rising from the prairie, formed by erosion of uplifted limestone instead of glacier carved granite. The numerous, rugged and spectacular limestone canyons provide viewpoints from which to share the solitude with the intermittent, quiet and haunting call of the hermit thrush.”
Located 40 miles south of Billings, the Pryors are geologically, ecologically, meteorologically and culturally unique, the coalition said.
Three federal agencies manage the Pryors, which is an area of about 120,000 acres. The Forest Service, administers about 63 percent of the Pryors; the Bureau of Land Management has about 32 percent of the land and the National Park Service has about 5 percent, the coalition said.
McCracken’s work against weeds came after he participated in a 2012 Pryors bioblitz that was organized by Rocky Mountain College professor Kayhan Ostovar and the Yellowstone River Research Center at RMC.
The blitz was an intensive, 24-hour period in which researchers and citizen scientists combed the Pryors to see how many species of plants, animals and birds could be found.
McCracken was on the botany team, which identified 336 plant species, including 27 non-native plants to North America. The team also found weeds.
While standing in the dinner line during the blitz, McCracken said, the conversation turned to weeds, how awful they were and why didn’t the Forest Service and BLM act.
Somebody suggested that instead of asking the agencies to do something, people “should be asking, ‘what can we do.’ That started a small group,” he said.
McCracken and Susan Newell, a retired Forest Service employee, appointed themselves chairs of the Pryors Weed Campaign and reached out to the federal agencies. Newell has organized weed pulls, while McCracken volunteered to treat weeds for the Forest Service.
The Beartooth District ranger and the supervisor of the Custer Gallatin National Forest “worked it out so I can do this,” McCracken said. The agency knows the problem and is doing the best it can with its funding and staffing, he added.
McCracken said he works for the agency as summertime temporary volunteer “with a lot of caveats.”
The Forest Service trained McCracken on using herbicides and he files reports on his activities.
McCracken approaches weed eradication the way he did with community health when he began his medical career with a job at the Indian Health Service in the 1960s — early diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.
“All of those are part of a weed program,” he said. “I tend to preach that whenever I get an opportunity.”
McCracken said his is “a common sense” approach when land management agencies have limited budgets. The Forest Service, he said, is learning that the best way to spend limited resources is to treat small infestations early on and that eradication is “the best use of their money.”
Time in the field
So far this year, from June through August, McCracken has made seven trips, totaling 31 days and 25 overnight stays, into the Pryors. Twenty nine of days have been spent treating weeds.
As the Labor Day weekend approached, McCracken prepared for another trek into the Pryors, this time work on Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed, which began to appear in 2013 along the road in the Crooked Creek Canyon.
In 2014, McCracken made 14 trips into the Pryors, which included 32 nights and 45 days. He treated weeds on 29 days.
With it taking almost three hours to get to the Pryors, McCracken said, “it just didn’t make sense to drive back and forth and get in a day of work.”
McCracken camps from three to five days — until he starts to smell. “That’s kind of my limit,” he said.
And he prefers to go by himself. “I’m a loner. That works best for me,” he said.
Doesn’t his wife worry about him?
“I think she’s given up worrying,” he said.
The Forest Service, however, keeps tabs on him and makes him radio in twice a day, he said. And there are a few places where he can use his cellphone.
He keeps an old can of bear spray in his Jeep and occasionally sees black bears. “I know there are cougars in some parts, but they’re not going to bother me,” he said.
Since he was 10 years old, McCracken has camped alone and spent time outdoors. He likes to keep things simple.
He usually spreads a pad and sleeping bag on the ground but has a small tent he can set up quickly if needed. McCracken finds places where “the sun will shine on you very early,” he said.
He never builds fires. They’re messy and a waste of time, he said. For meals, he eats sandwiches he’s packed. “So I don’t have to spend any time cooking,” he added.
On hot days, McCracken will work on weeds in the morning, take a nap if he can find shade then resume work in the evening.
So far, McCracken said, he’s had two “major successes.”
In the Sage Creek area, McCracken found a patch of Dalmatian toadflax, a butter-and-eggs flower that spreads through a root system. Somebody planted it years ago on a grave and it spread, he said.
“It’s been a horrendous problem,” McCracken said.
Nobody knew about the patch until McCracken found it and began treating the estimated 50 plants. “I was able to kill most of them,” he said. Now when he stops, he looks every time and treats the weed if he sees one.
“That will eliminate that infestation. This is something as a volunteer I can do,” he said.
A second success, McCracken said, is off the East Pryor main road in the Burnt Timber Ridge area. The route is where people drive to see new wild horse foals. People would drive through a mud hole and leafy spurge seeds would wash off.
McCracken found a 3 foot by 15 foot patch and has successfully treated it. If he hadn’t treated the patch, McCracken said, it would be “all through Burnt Timber Ridge.”
But by far, McCracken spends most of his time on Canada thistle. The weed is in the mountain meadows along Crooked Creek Road where McCracken has been treating it for three years.
“And it’s working,” he said.
Canada thistle spreads through rhizomes that grow underground and send up sprouts, McCracken said. The “sprout” stage is the perfect time to attack the plant with herbicide, he added.
McCracken dribbles about a half a teaspoon of herbicide on the new plants. “My hope is that I can eventually starve out that rhizome system,” he said.
Dye in the herbicide helps McCracken identify which plants he’s treated. And by not spraying and creating an aerosol, he also avoids harming other plants.
Canada thistle may get most of McCracken’s attention, but it’s not the worst weed. He saves that distinction for houndstongue.
“It’s an awful, awful weed,” he said.
Cattle will eat the thistle but not houndstongue, he said. At one time, houndstongue was used as an herbal medicine, but it destroys the liver, he said.
Tiny hooks on the seeds make it the “original Velcro. It’s the ultimate hitchhiker. They just stick to anything,” he said.
McCracken filled the palm of his hand with houndstongue seeds and slapped his chest. Dozens of seeds stuck to his heavy-duty canvas overalls.
McCracken said he’s learned that best way to get rid of houndstongue is to “grub it out.” He’ll pull on vinyl gloves over his cuffs then the cut down the seed stalks, bag them and haul them out.
“Then I can go in and spray,” he said.
By working together with a rancher who has a grazing allotment and with the agency’s range management specialist on a houndstongue-invested meadow, McCracken said they’ve been able to “breathe life back into the meadow.” The Forest Service sowed the bare spots with wheatgrass.
The Forest Service also in late summer started spraying along the roadway, after the plants have gone to seed. “Might not these seeds still be viable? That’s a real problem,” he said.
“It would take the Pharaoh’s entire army to grub out all the houndstongue in the Pryors. Volunteers are needed,” he said.
McCracken believes he’s making a difference in the Pryors. “What I’m doing is not a model, but I’m learning so much. I’m hoping they (the Forest Service) can take what I’m learning and apply it,” he said. “It’s always a joy to go in there.”