OLAUS MURIE AT THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL MEMORIAL PARK
Murie, a noted wildlife biologist, wrote this short memoir after a late-autumn visit to the park in 1949. The manuscript, heretofore unpublished, is dated December 16, 1949.
The Little Missouri had been to me a legendary stream. I think I could hardly have described my vicarious impression of the river, so vague can a purely imaginary picture be. Now, here before me, was the reality.
It was the 4th of November , when winter should have settled [in] with snow flurries, somber skies, and [the] threat of more to come. But we were enjoying a remarkably pleasant week of clear blue skies.
Allyn [Hanks]1 had driven us through the Badlands of North Dakota, over crude roads leading north from National Park Headquarters. Eventually we had pulled off the road. Vic, Jim,2 and I followed him as he pushed his way through weeds and rose bushes, among the gray cottonwoods, until we assembled on the river bank. Over there, across the river, somewhere back in those cottonwoods, was the site of Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch.
It was hard for me to comprehend all that our guide was telling us, for my thoughts went back to boyhood days, when I had sought adventure in "Hunting Trips of a Ranchman." I recalled the virile writings of our hunter-naturalist President, how they had pictured in the boyhood mind the antelope and bison, the calling of geese, the sage grousethe appeal of far placesthe boyhood yearning for adventure in wilderness. With a sort of wonder at the chain of events, I mentally reviewed more recent sequences. North Dakota now had a national park. Congress had created the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. I understood it was to commemorate the wilderness life of an outstanding President. And here we were, a group of us, with an assignment to study the wildlife of this new park, its historic and wilderness aspects, and to make recommendations on what might be done to restore the animal life that was part of the scene in Roosevelt's day.
We looked about us on the river bank. Several cottonwoods had been cut up by beavers years ago, and we looked at the gnawed lengths. There were the tracks of a white-tailed deer in the mud near the water. The muddy river, flowing silently by, was at low stage this time of year, but we could see the high scars in the cottonwoods where the ice in spring flood had cut and bruised them. And over across there was the historic site. What a memorialthe muddy banks and muddy water of a small river, and a line of twisted, leafless cottonwoods! Behind them rose a low bluff, rising to the upland beyond.
But its very simplicity was eloquent. There at one time had stood a significant log cabin. By recognizing this humble spot on the bank of the Little Missouri we do more than establish a reminder of a prominent national political figure. It pleased me that this was not a mountain spire, a figure carved in a cliff, or some other obtruding feature. By selecting a spot where had once stood a cabin, representative of the bigger scene, a spot no different from the rest of it up and down the river (rather less striking, in fact, than the rest of it) we effectively recognize an adventurous era, a significant experience of mankind, a stretch of country that is capable of instilling in us something that can hardly be named in ordinary prose, but may only be guessed by the poet.
A bald eagle appeared and settled for a moment in a big cottonwood. Then he rose in the air and we ourselves seemed to feel a lift as we watched him soar upward on the air-currents near the bluff. He swerved downward again and we watched his shadow moving across the cliffthen up again, and he slanted off behind the hill.
Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. That is the imposing title bestowed by Congress . I don't know who drew the boundaries, or why they were drawn as they are. The park is made up of three different pieces. The South Area, containing park headquarters, abuts on highway 10 at Medora. It comprises a picturesque section of the badlands, with the Little Missouri running through it, and consists of [ ] acres. Northward, down the river, is the site of the Elk Horn [sic] Ranch, a small acreage dedicated to preserve that historic location. Still farther down river is the North Area, another rugged section of the badlands, containing [ ] acres.
As we looked over the area during these autumn days and contemplated the grasslands, the supply of browse, the thin line of trees, the forage resources contained within the park boundaries, we could have wished the area was a little bigger, that the two [main] areas were somehow connected. We discussed concepts such as biological units. We scrutinized the species of bushes present and judged their palatability for various "big game" species. We gratefully estimated the carrying capacity of some remnants of original grama grass prairie which had been included within the boundary. Bison? Mountain sheep? Elk? What would they do to the limited supply of red ozier dogwood, plum, cherry? They would have to be fenced in, and stray cattle fenced out, for farms adjoin the park on all sides and we can t have bison and elk running loose over the countryside.
We were thrilled to find flocks of sharp-tailed grouse, apparently thriving. What would reintroduced grazing and browsing animals [do] to the security for grouse? I was acutely conscious of the small population of such grouse [in] the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming some years ago, and how they dwindled year by year, until they disappeared. Had the intensive winter feeding of elk on this refuge, over a long period of years, affected the food supply of those grouse by destroying the willow growth?
Such are the considerations. Such is the problem in trying to keep some sort of biological balance in a national park of limited area. The natural vegetation is also a part of the biological assets. These bits of short grass prairie, for instance, in a land that is steadily going under the plow. When prairie has given way to plowed fields elsewhere, and has become but a memory in the minds of men, how precious then must be these fragments.
I pictured in my mind the future visitor to the badlands, we'll say the visitor who is attuned to the message [of] wild open country. I pictured him climbing up to a grassy plateau, and sitting there on a knoll to contemplate the scene. There would be the scent of the sod at his feet. He would look with interest at the curled heads of the grama grass, the grama grass of Roosevelt's day, the grama grass of the tumultuous days when this country was formed.
Here is history! Our visitor looks across the badlandsthe broken, tumbled badlands, domes and bluffs and color banded rims. Traces of lignite coal are there, speaking of ages still farther back in time. And the colored [scoria?], the product of native clay baked by burning coal seams. Traces of petrified forest. A landscape of clay and sandstone, persistently, patiently carved by muddy water, through infinite ages, until these rugged land forms took shape, worthy of being declared a National Park by a modern Congress. Our visitor will visualize the broad undulating North Dakota plains, here in the west broken open and dissected to reveal for him the long Nature's history of the State, which is elsewhere deeply hidden beneath plowed fields, and [the] dwelling[s] of the Dakota homeland.
The first morning we had gone up Munsen Creek, and came to a prairie dog town. At the far edge we saw two coyotes trotting about, and examination of some droppings we found revealed that they had previously fed on prairie dogs and wild plums. A few days later we saw a badger and coyote in another "dog town," and they had apparently nearly depopulated this prairie dog village. The badger glared at us before he disappeared down the enlarged burrow he had taken from a prairie dog. In the stream bottom nearby we found the tracks of a bobcat.
A guard in the North Area told us of seeing a badger, a coyote, and a bobcat in a prairie dog town. The bobcat had a prairie dog in its mouth. The acquisitive coyote made a run at him, but the bobcat ran up a tree a little way and calmly devoured his game. When he came down, the coyote again made a run at him and they disappeared in the woods. The badger had been nosing about at the far end of the "town."
These are the experiences this new park holds for the appreciative visitor who will quietly seek them out. These were the thoughts we had in mind as we went over the country day after day, sizing up range land, seeking proper habitat for mountain sheep in case they should be brought back, trying to anticipate the impact of one animal population on another, the impact of both on the plant life, and the impact of hordes of people on all of it. We tried to visualize as much of the historic animal life, restored as nearly as practicable, on a sustained basis, all within the boundary of land allowed by the act of Congress.
We were continually intrigued by the prairie dogs. We visualized mountain sheep restored to the area, at home once more on the pinnacles and bluffs overlooking [the] grassy bottom domain of the prairie dogs; bison lazily moving about on the adjacent bits of prairie. In short, our study was a mixture of routine biological study and intense personal enjoyment of what we found. After all, in a national park the end product is the enjoyment of the natural scene by people. Our studies and recommendations should necessarily contribute to those ends.
To me one of the most enjoyable experiences occurred on the last day of our stay. The superintendent had invited a group of people from the state, representatives of various organizations[the] State Historical Society, Soil Conservation Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and particularly the North Dakota Game and Fish Commission. They were most enthusiastic about the prospects for the National Park. Heartening, indeed, was the assurance from the head of the Game and Fish Commission: "We are all for it. When you need help, just call on us."
I remembered what I had been told about the dedication on [June 4, 1949]. The people of North Dakota had turned out 30,000 strong, and the parking problem was something to be concerned about. Evidently North Dakota appreciates its National Park. When a people understands and cherishes a natural treasure, I believe they are in the frame of mind to get the most out of it in historical significance, enjoyment, and inspiration.
I like to remember one evening on the rim of the deeply chiseled valley in the North Area. We had been looking down on the winding course of the Little Missouri far below us, with its typical line of cottonwoods, and bordered by the typical badlands formations. I had thought of those high school days in Minnesota, when I had borrowed Roosevelt's books from the library. I remembered Frederic Remington's drawings, remembered the burning desire to find this western scene. Will the people of today, the people of tomorrow, continue to feel the pull of land that beckons to a sample of our country as it was, a country of space and beauty and a sense of freedom?
The sun went low and dusk was creeping over the valley below us. We watched that poetic quality of light envelop the cliffs and rims about us, and settle over the river bottom where we glimpsed the gleam of water in the bends.
Not a serrated mountain range here, not a mossy forest, not a lake studded paradise. Rather an open country; its trees are twisted and storm worn, and grow sparingly along the river banks. A raw country, a country in the making perhaps. This very fact, this character, the attributes of chiseled buttes and domes, the clay and the prairie grass, the eagle, the prairie dogs, deer, coyote; the flocks of grouse at the heads of the wooded drawsall these spell one phase of our westnot to be compared with different onesto be taken and enjoyed for its own singular beauty and character. Ordinary country, but with an aura of the westsomething that drew Roosevelt, the adventurous ones.
Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004