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HEART MOUNTAIN — Rising 3,000 feet from the valley floor, this mountain topped by a massive slab of limestone remains a puzzle to scientists and a powerful icon to those who live in its shadow.

A sacred site to the Crow Indians, Heart Mountain is visible from miles in every direction — a beacon by which generations have navigated Wyoming's Bighorn Basin.

Lasting impressions

It is a unique place that leaves a lasting impression on those who visit, with each person in turn imparting his or her own special meaning on the mountain.

And with much of the mountaintop and surrounding property set aside as a preserve by the Wyoming chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Heart Mountain continues to build a legacy of learning and discovery for visitors.

"This mountain is so important to our culture and our way of thinking about where we live, our sense of place," said Anne Young, a Nature Conservancy trustee who was instrumental in establishing the preserve in 1999.

Young and a group of around 15 scientists, naturalists and conservationists spent a day last week touring the mountain during a field trip organized by the University of Wyoming and the Conservancy.

The participants' diverse fields of expertise point out the wide range of lessons the mountain offers, from a vault of geological secrets to a treasure-trove of animals and rare plant species.

It was for exactly that range of biodiversity the Conservancy purchased the Heart Mountain Ranch from the Bischoff family seven years ago, said Laura Bell, the Conservancy's Absarokas program director.

Rare purchase

The north and east slopes of the mountain and surrounding sagebrush steppes owned by the group encompass 15,000 acres, including 4,700 deeded acres and around 1,000 acres of irrigated pasture. The Conservancy rarely purchases land outright.

The property boasts one of the greatest concentrations of rare plants found on private land in Wyoming. Known to the Shoshone Indians as Home of the Birds, it is prime habitat for sage grouse, and is home to golden eagles and peregrine falcons.

Elk frequent the mountain, as do mule deer, antelope and mountain lions.

Bell said the Conservancy has worked to maintain the property as a resource for a wide range of users, including hunters, hikers, researchers and ranchers, who take advantage of a grass bank program.

The grass bank offers high-intensity, short-duration cattle grazing to ranchers who rotate their stock off public lands to allow for conservation projects in the interim.

"It's a way to leverage our irrigated acreage to achieve great conservation results in other places where they are needed," Bell said.

Visitors may hike the mountain, as long as they sign in and leave gates opened or closed as they find them.

Schoolchildren and scouts are frequent visitors, and former Japanese-American internees from the nearby World War II-era relocation camp have returned over the years to climb the peak that had loomed in the distance.

For UW professor emeritus and paleogeologist Jay Lillegraven, the mountain is a living research lab, where he is examining fault lines between the 55-million-year-old Willwood formation and a surrounding uplift arch.

The mountain and its surrounding geology continues to challenge and even confound scientists, as it has for years, with Lillegraven working on a new theory that an arch of nearby hills is younger than the underlying formation.

"That's the exact opposite from the dogma I've taught students for 29 years," said Lillegraven, excited by the prospect of correcting what he now sees as a longstanding scientific error.

"This is prime country for unsolved problems," said Malcolm McKenna, curator emeritus of the paleontology division of the American Museum of Natural History.

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"But that's the best time to be a scientist, when you find that you've been wrong," said McKenna with a sly grin, standing on a windswept clearing near the top of Heart Mountain.

"Any scientist worth his salt knows that when a theory begins to fall apart, that's a chance to get out there and think through a problem," said McKenna, whom Lillegraven calls the world's foremost expert on the Bighorn Basin's ancient animal life.

Throughout the day, Lillegraven, McKenna and their colleague, Dennis Knight, a retired UW professor of botany, scrambled from place to place along the mountain.

They offered a host of lessons learned from Heart Mountain, ranging from adaptive traits of native plants to the natural place of fire in a forest ecosystem to the effects of rapid erosion in the Rocky Mountains.

The trio of retired scientists reveled in the endless variety of spontaneous examples of the mountain's research and teaching opportunities.

But it is during the quiet moments between their inspired mini-lectures that they joined the rest of the group in the favorite activity of the day — staring out over the vast expanse of the valley below, or up at the limestone slabs above.

The visceral impact of the mountain experience itself is undeniable, even for those who have studied it from the smallest bug to the largest hillside.

"It's really a magic place," Young said.

Young said preserving the area against possible development as a golf course and recreational community was a success story, but that funding for such efforts remains a challenge.

"I really believe that, as a people, we have lost our sense of place, and we don't think enough about where we live," she said.

"Because of that, we had to protect this place. This mountain tells so much of a story," she said. "We all look out our windows at it every day. And if we can learn the value of a place like this, where we live, then maybe we can make that connection in other places, too."

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or (307) 527-7250.

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