Like Sitting Bull and frontiersman Luther Kelly, today’s Yellowstone Valley inhabitants like the view. We like to watch ravens coast the updrafts. We like to trace mule deer paths through brushy ravines, to glimpse the quick scurry of a sagebrush lizard, to sniff out rumors of bobcats and lions.
From Kelly’s grave atop the Rimrock cliffs, the prairie swells northward, past the Billings Heights housing tracts, to the burned-over Bull Mountains. South, across the river, rise the humpbacked Pryors, and, to the southwest, the massive granite blocks that make up the Beartooths; crossing those shattered plateaus will get you to Yellowstone Park. Nearer at hand, muscled by refinery stacks and storage tanks, downtown Billings tucks into a river bend.
Going to the river is like traveling hundreds of miles east. Down there, the deer are whitetails, not mulies. Eagles and songbirds nest in healthy cottonwoods, compliments of the free-flowing Yellowstone. Eyed by great blue herons, softshell turtles patter between gravel bars.
Last Christmas Bird Count, I tallied ducks from a riverfront siding while chickadees nabbed spilled grain around parked boxcars. The jackpot proved not so lucky for one raccoon. He must have been feasting when the BNSF freight—carrying wheat perhaps, more likely coal—rounded the bend. Coal, oil, and gas comprise Eastern Montana’s version of the bounty signaled by the Treasure State’s motto, oro y plata. A few weeks ago, local politicians fawned when a Denver entrepreneur announced plans to turn the Beartooth front into the next Bakken play. Boom and bust. Ask that raccoon.
People around here say spring greenup makes the prairie “look like Ireland.” Not really. But the snow-streaked mountains, the outlandish yellow-orange blooms of prickly pear, canyon wren songs tripping down sandstone, are more than enough. Walking the rimtop path between winter’s ice and summer’s fires, we dream of mountain hikes, worry about bark beetles, worry more about fracking, and cling to one more year on this Last Best edge.