A Cloud of Swans
Montana deserves all the romance its name embodies: lush green valleys in high mountain pla teaus full of wildlife, wildflowers, and wilderness. Meandering rivers are the haunts of fly-fishermen, and big family ranches are still held in place.
I’ve just returned from two weeks in the Centennial Valley, about an hour west from Yellowstone National Park. The Centennial Valley is one of the longest east-west running valleys in the United States. Imagine 600 square miles stretching from horizon to horizon, dawn to dusk. During the harsh winters, there are only 8 full-time residents that stay in the valley, fewer than there were fifty years ago. The Centennial Valley was the thoroughfare for stagecoach guests on their way to Yellowstone National Park. At one time, there were more than 100 homesteads here. Now, only 15 family ranches remain, with most of the land either in conservation easements held by the Nature Conservancy or folded back into public lands held in perpetuity by the Department of the Interior.
It is one of the least populated areas in the lower forty-eight states and among the most beautiful. When you stand with your back to the Centennial Mountains that run north and south, you face the Gravelly Range. It is here you truly have the sense that you are witness to the original signature of the American West.
Of course, this is an illusion. Human habitation has been continual here for the past 10,500 years, evidenced by the wealth of archeological materials found, from clovis points to tipi rings. But you can imagine it.
Centennial Valley as a place first appears in the journals of the trapper Osborne Russell in 1835. He guessed this to be the headwaters of the Missouri River that eventually flows into the Mississippi River, and he was right. Standing on the grassy banks of Hellroaring Creek, I was tempted to spit in the water, knowing that 3,745 miles later, a part of myself would eventually find its way into the Gulf of Mexico.
Water defines the valley, with Red Rock Lakes creating a mirror bordered by wetlands that lure migratory birds down. Word has it that these two lakes, upper and lower, were originally known as Blackwater Lakes because there were so many ducks covering the surface you couldn’t see the water.
People plus place equals politics. And there has been plenty of politics here, beginning with the plight of trumpeter swans. Swans were in high demand at the turn of the twentieth century for their white plumage used for women’s powder puffs. Shot to the brink of extinction, trumpeter swans were reduced to only 69 individuals left in North America by 1932. As if by a miracle, a few nesting pairs were found at Culver Pond and scattered throughout the marshes of Centennial Valley.
In 1935, President Frank lin D. Roosevelt, following in the footprints of his cousin Teddy who began a decree of “bird preserves” establishing more than fifty wildlife refuges during his presidency, created the Red Rock Lakes Migratory Bird Refuge for the sole purpose of protecting the last remaining trumpeters in North America.
The federal government immediately began a feeding program for the swans, providing grain throughout the winter. This was no small task in a landscape where snow flies by September 15 and doesn’t leave until May 15, with extended bouts of frigid temperatures that fall to 30 degrees below zero. This program continued from 1935 through 1992. The population of trumpeter swans at Red Rock Lakes grew to more than 1,000. The once endangered swan was now flourishing. But the feeding program changed the ecology of the swans from being a migratory bird to a sedentary one. The grain program was stopped to support a different kind of swan management, one that was based on restoration of another sort, the restoration of natural life cycles. The population declined dramatically after the grain program was halted, but then leveled off.
Today, there are 18 nesting trumpeter swans on the refuge. Some residents in Centennial Valley are critical of the new management, saying it is putting the swans at risk. But the biologists feel comfortable with the stable population in the name of sustainability and overall health of the species. Jeff Warren, the refuge’s lead biologist, says, “Farming wildlife is not a good idea for perpetuating wildlife.” There are now more than 40,000 trumpeter swans in North America populating all four flyways.
“Come to the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge in October,” Jeff says. “You will see clouds of swans, both trumpeter and tundra swans.”
Migratory birds are what connect the North American landscape together, wildlife refuge to wildlife refuge, from the wetlands of Great Salt Lake to the prairie potholes in the Dakotas to the Arctic and back down again to Mexico. We are not going to save wild nature through postage-stamp-size refuges, but we might just save much of it by saving migratory species of waterfowl that connect these dots together.
At dawn, I watched flocks of lesser scaups fly over me on the edge of the wetlands, a winged frenzy against a blue sky. We now know from radio transmitters that one scaup, a duck weighing less than a pound, will fly more than 3,000 miles to Mexico and back. I find this miraculous, and it heightens my relationship as a human being connected to the wild world, so often invisible to us. I once made a vow as a child growing up on the periphery of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on the edge of Great Salt Lake that as long as there were long-billed curlews in the world, I would have hope. They are still with us, returning to the place where they are born, though their numbers are declining as we turn the grasslands brown-side up for agriculture and development.
Consider the word philopatry, which means the behavior of remaining in, or returning to, one’s birthplace. It is derived from the Greek for “home-loving.” I think about the places I call home: the Northern Rockies and the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem that extends down the spine of the Tetons, as well as the Colorado Plateau that holds the Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona as a center-point. In both landscapes, I know the names of those I live among. They are not just my own species, but grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, elk, bison, moose, and pronghorn inhabiting seas of sage and forests of aspens and lodgepole and white-bark pine.
And when I migrate south with the bluebirds, I stand on pink sand watching coyotes trot a zigzag path between pinyon and juniper, flushing out black-tailed jackrabbits from the safe harbor of sage. Collared lizards sunbathe on sandstone, sacrificing their tails to red-tail hawks searching for prey. The shadows of yucca grow long near the base of redrock cliffs.
Perhaps this is the gift of the Centennial Valley that stretches its arms like wings of the great white birds whose story is one of restoration. It is our story, too. In the midst of modernity where our lives are moving too fast through too many time zones on the wings of planes touching down for only the most superficial of encounters, I long to return to a deeper sense of residency. I long to inhabit a place where our spirits are restored and our minds are freed from the weight of thinking too much and feeling too little. We are all hungry for greater connectivity to a world larger than our own.
I need to hear the howl of a wolf, which is possible in the wilds of Montana.
I yearn to see a grizzly bear in the alpine meadows searching for seeds of the white-bark pine, now ghost forests, dead from the infestations of pine-bark beetles.
And the vision of returning free-ranging bison to the Centennial Valley is more than a dream: It is another act of restoration.
In the interior West, these desires and declarations are highly political. What if in our nation’s fear of the Endangered Species Act, so common among rural Westerners, we find we are the endangered species, having forgotten our own need for wild places where we remember what it means to be human, where empathy becomes a strategy for survival?
When we speak about the economy of this country, we need to extend our definition of health and wealth to include the well-being of all species. We can return home to the wild and free and beautiful. This is the legacy of our public lands, be it our national parks, our wildlife refuges, and the open spaces that connect us to both our past and present histories.
So here is my question: What might a different kind of power look like, feel like? And can power be distributed equitably beyond our own species?
Open lands open minds. We can begin to live differently.
On our last night in the Centennial Valley, a friend and I walked the grasslands near Lower Red Rock Lake. The sun was resting on the horizon, and the marsh was glistening between fingers of water. Gold on blue. We suddenly found ourselves in a circumference of owls, short-eared owls hunting in the creases of shadow and light. We counted seven owls that flew like dark angels over the heads of pronghorn antelope bedding down for the day. In this moment, we felt the peace of a harmonious world in a valley of restoration. I found a feather and held it as a talisman.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “ The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.
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