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Christmas reminds us of our legacy

December 23, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder

Christmas in the Clearwater, Swan and Blackfoot Valleys of Montana is unlike Christmas in most other places on earth.

It's not that Santa Claus is more generous here than anywhere else, though some say he occasionally overloads his sleigh and has to dump the surplus in Condon and Seeley Lake so his reindeer can clear the Chinese Wall on the way to Bynum, Choteau and Augusta. I've even heard talk among rabble rousers in Great Falls that Santa will cross the Rockies from east to west this year in an attempt to even things out. But, I'm sure no pilot with Santa's experience would purposely fly into a stiff headwind on such a tight schedule.

And, it's not that the Christmas goose tastes better here, though I'm sure it does to those hearty souls who exercise the privilege of collecting a wild Canada or Snow Goose fresh from the river's edge on Christmas eve. I'm going to try that myself, one of these years.

I'm not even sure that our stars shine brighter or our snow falls whiter, though they might rank among the brightest and whitest ten percent in the lower 48 states.

To me, Christmas in western Montana is unlike anyplace else when you consider the wonderful traditions that carry on beneath the starsover, atop, through and under the snowbeyond the cozy confines of our civilized lives. Ages-old traditions that persist and flourish to this very day.

Sometime this Christmas Day, maybe while the kids are ramming into the furniture with their new remote-controlled cars, or perhaps when you need to make a quick escape after pouring the last of the eggnog, I invite you to step out on the back porch and consider where you are.

Somewhere close by this Christmas, a Canada lynx lies under the low hanging limbs of an Englemann spruce, where generations before her have also waited for an unsuspecting snowshoe hare to make a mistaken movement.

Somewhere not too far away this Christmas, though you may never see it for yourself, you can be sure that a wolverine has passed, maybe having used up an elk carcass in the Danaher, now checking to see if lions have had any luck deer hunting in the Garnets.

Listen. Hear the chickadees. You'll find them working the rosehips and snowberries. Look closely. If their black caps are pulled down over their eyes, they're the black-capped species. If they show a white eyebrow instead, they're the mountain species. In the wet forests of the Seeley-Swan, I'd also watch for the chestnut-backed chickadee, which has a brown back and sides.

Listen harder. Let your imagination kick in. You can almost hear the elk, scattered across Missoula Basin on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range. Grass tearing from the ground, jaws grinding methodicallystopping cold now and then to listenthen grinding away again, feet crunching occasionally as a slightly new position is taken, all multiplied by 600 individuals in a single group, against a backdrop of utter silence. A raven croaks for attention as it flies over. A scuffle breaks out momentarily as two cows rise up on their hind legs in defense of a little extra elbow room. Puffs of breath from each animal collect like smoke from hundreds of chimneys in Seeley Lake, and envelop the herd in a flat, white haze. Those elk are really there, and all this is really happening, yesterday, today and tomorrow, though we seldom get to see it for ourselves.

Very close by reside our seasonal visitors from the Far North. An adult bald eagle, head and tail fully feathered in white, takes its perch above the river, resting after its marathon migration from Great Slave Lake where it will return to nest in only a couple of months. Hundreds and hundreds of rough-legged hawks occupy the fence posts along our open meadows and grasslands, waiting to begin hunting for the next meal of mice or vole.

Above it all, save for the Clark's nutcrackers and golden eagles that occasionally pass overhead, stands a mountain goat, quite possibly within your line of sight if you can see the Swan Range or Missions from your present position. A breeze ruffles his long, yellowed beard and pantaloons, in stark contrast with the rigid black horns, eyes and nose. He glances casually at the cautious approach of a yearling billy and gives him a quick bum's rush, just for the pleasure of it. The yearling is used to this by now, and soon settles at a respectful distance. They watch and listen for things we'll never sense.

During a raucous windstorm on the Game Range this past fall, I convinced myself that the proverbial tree indeed does make a noise when it falls in the woods, even if no human is there to hear it. So, even more than usual, I am intrigued this season by what goes on at Christmas outside our communities, beyond modern civilization, where life takes many more forms and is played out dramatically and comically in many ways in many places.

To me, our wild legacy is an important part of Christmas. And, it's what connects a modern Christmas in western Montana with Christmases of ages past. Before there was anyone around to call it Christmas. And, it's to our credit, and the credit of our ancestors in this place, that the legacy is still with us today.

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