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Presettlement Wildlife and Habitat of Montana:
An Overview


This bibliography of literature and papers, pertaining to pre-settlement habitat, wildlife (including fish), and changing landscapes of Montana and adjacent areas, is divided into four sections. The first section contains a brief summary of the major expeditions or individuals to traverse Montana during the 1800s. After each summary, references are listed that provide information on the expedition and/or individual. Some of these references are original journals or a later synthesis of an original work. Frequently, these later works are easier to obtain, include useful footnotes, and/or are an abridgement of the original document in a more readable form. We have also included maps of the approximate routes taken by many of the expeditions for a quick graphic display of the areas traversed.

The second section is a tabular summary of major explorers and expeditions. It is intended to provide for cross referencing explorers or expeditions with dates of surveys, areas surveyed, and quality of natural history notes. We have also included a table alphabetically listing 19th Century forts and trading posts and their approximate location as an aid when reading original journal notes.

The third section is a roster of individuals who recorded natural history observations and/or made plant and animal collections in Montana during the 1800s or early 1900s. We relied heavily upon Ewan (1950) and Ewan and Ewan (1981) to assemble this roster.

The fourth section consists of an alphabetical listing of books, papers, and documents we found pertinent to pre-settlement habitat and wildlife in Montana and adjacent areas. This listing includes many additional references not found in Section One.

The impact of exploration and settlement in Montana by people of European descent occurred in distinct phases, with the first phase actually preceding their arrival in the west. The earliest reports of Indians in Montana showed that they were well supplied with horses and firearms. Notes recorded around 1740, by la Verendrye, showed that horses were already in the Northern Plains (Burpee 1927) and in 1805, LaRocque noted over 200 guns in the Crow camp with which he traveled (Hazlitt 1934). Although many of Montana's Indian tribes were nomadic, with the aid of horse and gun they were capable of influencing wildlife abundance and distribution - a fact noted by many journalists (note especially Work's journal - Lewis and Phillips (1923) and Maximilian's narrative - Thomas and Ronnefeldt (1982)). In addition, they probably altered habitat through fire; there are numerous accounts of Indians using wildfires as methods for communication, warfare, and driving bison.

The first two decades of the 1800s saw brief penetrations of white men into the Montana wilderness to assess its potential for the fur trade. Although some fur trading occurred with the Indians, it wasn't until the 1820s and 1830s that large numbers of trappers (estimated 1,000 in Montana) and Indians were engaged in the fur trade. Following the decline in beaver in the late 1830s, bison skins became the primary commodity exported from Montana. During the 1840s and 1850s, Indians were the principal supplier of bison hides to the fur traders. It was also during this period that the American government first began a systematic reconnaissance of Montana.

The 1860s brought a new wave of white immigration seeking gold, bison hides, and land settlement. During the 1860s and 1870s, it is estimated that 5,000 hunters were on the Montana prairies shooting bison. During this period, there were railroad surveys, road surveys, military campaigns, and inventories of streams for gold and navigation potential. Conflicts between white settlers and Indians increased dramatically as bison numbers diminished and traditional Indian lands were taken over by settlers. Large ranches were already present in Montana by the early 1870s. The Northern Pacific Railroad Surveys, in the early 1880s, marked the last of the large expedition type general surveys in Montana. Around 1910, Montana's Federal land on the eastern prairies was opened up for homesteading, signifying the beginning of a new phase of development.

Although there were literally thousands of people living, working, and traveling through Montana during the 1800s, relatively few recorded their observations. Of those who did, natural history observations were usually not their primary objective. Frequently, the main goal was to map, trap furbearers, subdue Indians, sport hunt, or search for gold. Surviving journals are full of accounts of dealing with Indians, personality conflicts among coworkers, and the day's weather, but little attention was paid to wildlife even in a general sense. Even some of the professionally trained biologists often recorded surprisingly little. For example, the Garfield University expedition of 1889 had four people in Montana for nearly one month and produced only a short list of collected plants.

One aspect which most journals were very consistent in reporting was the quantity of grass available for transportation livestock and the amount of timber available for camps, boats, and construction. (Bison and grizzly bears also tended to attract the attention of many journalists.) On these points, it is possible to reconstruct trends over the years for a certain locality in the decline of bison and grizzly bears, or loss of timber due to steamboat traffic. In some cases, it is even possible to obtain a comparative view of grass condition between two areas at the same time and establish the impact of bison on annual vegetative growth.

This bibliography is primarily a guide to people desiring to learn more of what wildlife and habitats might have been in Montana at the time of white exploration and settlement. Before pursuing serious research on this subject, we would recommend reading Wedel's (1975) paper on perspective of the historic observer in influencing their recording of observations. This paper compares Spanish explorers' notes on their first encounter with the eastern Colorado prairies to the observations of Stephen Long and Zebulon Pike. The Spanish view of the prairie was that it equaled the best of Spain and already was populated by a cattle (bison) more docile than their own and in far greater numbers. The American explorers, coming from eastern deciduous forests, labeled the Colorado prairies "the great American desert". This latter view definitely altered the settlement of the Great Plains.

In developing the annotations, we did not attempt to review all available written material on an expedition or individual. Instead, we read enough material to make an assessment of the subject (presented in the annotation) and to list papers, books, and documents which pertain to the expedition or individual. In some cases, we have limited the citations on secondary sources, such as for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which seemed to have no end of commentators. The annotations are, for the most part, restricted to Montana expeditions and individuals, although we have listed a few important expeditions coming close to Montana. We have included the major expeditions to Yellowstone National Park because most of these originated in Montana and the Park contains the headwaters for three major Montana Rivers.

This bibliography is by no means a definitive work and should be considered as only a starting point from which to begin a serious investigation into presettlement habitat and wildlife of the region. We have listed some references even though we did not have the complete citation or could not locate the reference, in the hope that the lead might be useful to someone else. However, the major explorers and their works are listed here in chronological order and, hopefully, will provide a view of wildlife, habitat, and the changing landscapes of Montana's past.

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