Profile: Cowboys Are Their Weakness Montana politicians can't ignore this pro-wilderness rancher by Marilyn Berlin Snell
In Big Sky country southeast of Glacier National Park, where the grassy waves of the Great Plains crash into the Rocky Mountain Front, the fiercely independent — some would say ornery — Rappold clan has made a go of ranching since 1882. "It's a challenge every day to live here, whether it's the wind, the cold, or the bears," says third-generation Montana cattleman Karl Rappold, 53. He's been tested by megafauna and weather as well as by the prospect of natural-gas rigs and roads tearing up the Front. Nature he'll deal with; it's the cost of dwelling in one of the most pristine and species-rich regions in the Lower 48. But drilling? "Not on my heritage."
The Rappold Ranch, 7,000 acres of private land and 300 head of certiŽed Black Angus, borders the Bob Marshall Wilderness and is part of the last remaining area where grizzlies still venture down into the grasslands from the backcountry. The family has reached an understanding with the bears and doesn't put calves in the upper pastures during the spring, when grizzlies are newly out of hibernation and hungry. In turn, the bears haven't bothered their livestock since about '59, Rappold says.
He also allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do "carcass distribution": Wildlife biologists collect dead animals from feedlots and scatter them during the first part of May along the high pastures, to keep the bears up in the mountains. "Some people don't like that we do this," he says, "but my theory is that if a bear's full, he's not gonna look at my cows. We operate our ranch so that we can coexist with them."
In addition to grizzlies, the ranch hosts black bears, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and white-tailed and mule deer — "and that's just the hunting species," Rappold says. There are also wolverines, Canadian lynx, mountain lions, and wolves. With the exception of bison, every species of mammal that roamed the area when Lewis and Clark came through can still be seen here.
These lands are hospitable to animals because the weather is inhospitable to humans. Chinook winds, originating off the PaciŽc coast, shoot up over the Rockies and down the Front with the power to boost temperatures by 50 degrees in a matter of hours. "Highly strung people may begin to shake or Ždget; susceptible people may get headaches or suffer nervous disorders," says one early account of the winds' impact. When the chinooks don't intervene, winter temperatures can dip to 30 degrees below zero.
This is the country Rappold's grandfather chose to homestead. A German immigrant, Charley Rappold tended bar in Helena until he had a grubstake put together, then headed north with a team of horses, a wagon, and provisions, stopping only when he was a comfortable distance from other human beings. Charley arrived in October and didn't have time to build a proper shelter before the snow set in, so he shot some bears, draped their hides around the wagon, and slept between the wheels that first winter.
In the spring he took his ax into the mountains and used his horses to drag logs down to a little furrow along Sheep Creek, which was semi-protected from the elements. Charley's initial claim, signed by President Grover Cleveland, covered 160 acres. Once settled, he got a mail-order bride, then another after the first one died in childbirth.
Charley's son, Johnny, was every bit as tough. He was born and raised on the ranch, and by the time he died at 89 — never having left the area — nearly every bone in his body had been broken at least once. By most accounts he was the best hunter in the region, but he almost put an end to his storied abilities before they developed. At the age of eight, after a day tracking game, he let his rifle slip as he entered the cabin.
"The gun went off, and the bullet went through his mouth; it blew his gum apart and took out his teeth, went back of his nose, and lodged behind his left eye," says Karl. "There wasn't a doctor around, and by the time one finally came through, the bullet was so lodged in there that they just left it. My dad died with a .32 Winchester slug buried in his head."
Rappold grew up on the ranch as well, in a modest home adjacent to his grandfather's log cabin, whose roof is now splintered, bowed, and teetering on collapse. His only prolonged absences were weekends and summers during an eight-year stint riding saddle broncos and bulls on the rodeo circuit. He quit after his daughter and son were born. "It just wasn't worth the risk of getting killed on a bull anymore," he says.
Now he and his wife, Teri, run the ranch — his son, Johnny, manages the Boone and Crockett Club's Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch just south of them — and still do all the cow work on their horses, "putting in a lot of 14- and 16-hour days." Rappold says he knows pretty much every inch of the Front. "I've spent a lifetime exploring it and still do to this day. I never get tired of riding over it on my horse."
Advocates for gas drilling in the area discovered the hard way that Rappold had no intention of maneuvering his horse around earthmovers, trucks, and drill pads. In one of the precious few environmental victories during the Bush administration, last year the Department of the Interior put oil and gas exploration along the 100-mile stretch of the Front on hold for at least four years, until a study of the area is complete. In announcing the suspension, assistant Interior secretary Rebecca Watson said, "The Rocky Mountain Front is important for wildlife...We need to step back and look at the issue on a landscape level to be sure we conserve our resources in a balanced way."
Watson's commonsense statement — a tempering of the department's hard-line attitude toward energy exploitation on public lands — was in no small part shaped by Karl Rappold.
In 2000, a Canadian company called Startech announced plans to activate its lease and drill in the Bureau of Land Management's Blindhorse Outstanding Natural Area along the Front. Conservation groups immediately organized to oppose the bid. Though a 1999 poll by the Great Falls Tribune found that, by a 2-to-1 margin, Montanans wanted the Front protected from oil and gas development, conservationists were ignored by state and federal officials.
At first the Rappolds sat on the sidelines. "There have been battles on this issue since the '80s," Rappold says. "We knew what was going on, but we were busy running the ranch." When he realized that his property was within view of the proposed project, however, his attitude changed. "All of a sudden it started to concern us; it was time to get involved." Teri, a former professional model with a sweet and generous disposition, began talking to women's groups and ranch wives. "I don't really like doing that sort of thing, but I got pretty good at it," she says. As a fourth-generation Montanan from the area, Teri's views about protecting the Front were respected.