December 19, 2011
Nose on the Range, Part 3: Restoration and Permanent Refuge
Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust ensures that a couple's land will remain pristine forever
Unlike most of the U.S. today, the Centennial landscape still supports virtually all its original flora and fauna in healthy populations: “a case study of good preservation done in many different ways, by many organizations,” says Koons.
In 1986, the Demetriadeses placed conservation easements on 240 acres, permanently restricting subdivision, roads, and other kinds of development. They also banned hunting, effectively creating a modestly sized sanctuary. Nearly three years ago, they transferred the property title to their three sons and chose the Wildlife Land Trust, an HSUS affiliate, to administer the easements. The family felt that their vision for this place aligned perfectly with the land trust’s goal of working with landholders to protect wild animals and the habitats they depend upon for generations to come. The couple, in turn, fulfills the land trust’s ideal of legacy-minded landowners who recognize that property value extends far beyond the monetary realm. The Demetriadeses “are extremely passionate about their land,” says Koons, “and that sense of love and honor of the land, and of place, comes the first time you meet them and talk to them.”
Although Roaring Creek Ranch is only a small link in the valley, it’s a pivotal one because of its location. The upslope boundary adjoins the Beaverhead National Forest and is close to a wilderness study area. The ranch’s lower end borders the road running the length of the valley. Step across that gravel route, and you’re on acreage soon to be added to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, set aside in 1935 to safeguard the last trumpeter swans left in the 48 contiguous states at the time. Take the road less than a mile east to where it goes over the Divide through Red Rock Pass, and you’re in Idaho’s Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Continue east another 25 miles, and you’ve reached Yellowstone Park in Wyoming.
"My hope for the future of this valley? Just to keep it the way it is. That's all I ask."
Splashing cold and clear down through the middle of the Demetriades’ acreage is the waterway the ranch is named for: Hell Roaring Creek, the ultimate headwaters of North America’s longest river, the Missouri. Roaring Creek Ranch is the first private land this flow touches on a 3,745-mile journey from the Centennials’ crest to the Gulf of Mexico.
One day while we’re surveying Hell Roaring’s brushy shores, a cluster of people appears downstream. They’re from New York City, I learn, part of an urban youth program. Under the direction of Brad Bauer, a land steward for the Nature Conservancy, the teenagers are taking measurements of the stream. Bauer describes how past overgrazing by open-range cattle stripped away the riparian, or streamside, habitat favored by many small mammals and nesting songbirds. As root systems stabilizing the stream banks were lost, erosion increased, and the pebble beds preferred by fish for spawning began to wash away.
More than a decade ago, the Conservancy joined with private landowners and public agencies to start repairing the damage. One of their goals is to restore habitat for imperiled arctic grayling, who once spawned in Hell Roaring Creek. With the Demetriades’ blessing, they put up electric fencing to keep the ranch’s riparian zone off-limits to passing livestock. Next, they planted willows, and—“Well, look around,” Bauer says. “It’s really come back. The brush will add shade to cool the water for grayling. Our other goal is to get the creek flowing in lots of its old, shallow channels again instead of in a few deep gullies.”
Upstream, we’re scrambling Pepin-style on all fours through a steep-sided canyon when we look up to see a pair of peregrine falcons circling a promontory. Beginning in 1982, the Demetriadeses allowed biologists to camp on the ranch each spring and summer for 10 years while attempting to reintroduce these rare birds of prey to the Centennials. The effort paid off. I have yet to visit the valley without being able to watch peregrines outrace the wind. Scientists conducting moose censuses and water quality studies have also enjoyed the Demetriades’ support and hospitality. And here we are sipping their coffee on a break from surveying large carnivores. It’s inspiring to learn how many ways one family can contribute to the natural community around them.
“We never get tired of walking this place,” Donna Demetriades says as she sets out cookies. “These animals, these views; they’re always here for us to enjoy—and to love. My hope for the future of this valley? Just to keep it the way it is. That’s all I ask.” She knows what sort of things prove most valuable over time. She ought to. Donna is 87 years old.
Tony Demetriades, a mere 81, adds, “You watch a moose in the morning, and your day is set. We like the bears and the badgers—all the animals. They can exercise their right to live here. This place is protected forever. That’s a mind-blowing idea, you know.”