Departing Bismarck in winter

Departing Bismarck in winter

Our bioethics seminar at the University of Mary wrapped up this morning, and after lunch and mass I headed to the Bismarck airport where I caught my 2:15pm flight to Washington, connecting through Chicago. The view as we were departing Bismarck was beautiful, with light snow covering the ground and the radiant blue of the Missouri River providing a sharp contrast. I thought of The Christmas Plains by Joseph Bottum, a series of stories and reminiscences of life on the Dakota plains:

It was in the meadows along the little lake at Cottonwood Springs, a hundred yards or so up from the dam, that I saw the fox, red-brown against the December snow. For decades after the Black Hills were named a “national forest reserve” in 1897, the government would exchange small pieces of land with ranchers along the edges, trading pastures for tree-grown lots. The result was a more natural, serrated line of dark spruce and ponderosa pine on the forest’s border, but the reduction of open spaces within the protected woods—the loss of meadows like the one where I saw the fox this winter—also limited some of the land’s support for small wildlife and the animals that hunt them.

Not that those western territories ever held a large population of predators. Cutting through the middle of the Dakotas, the Missouri River marks the boundary of the ancient glaciers that scraped out, to the east, a gentler countryside of softened plains and easy lakes. West of the river lies a different world, one that the Pleistocene ice never cleared. The Badlands and Black Hills, Bear Butte and Devils Tower—a rough landscape of broken prairie and high plateau that stretches five hundred miles from the Missouri to the Tetons.

And that country is just too thin, the winters too hard, to feed many hunters. A single horned owl, fluffing its feathers on a gnarled cottonwood branch, will easily dominate two hundred acres of night hunting ground. A nesting pair of red-tail hawks will control a daylight range for an entire season. And the superior small-game hunting of the coyotes, the depredations of the occasional mink or weasel down near the creek beds, the scavenging of the omnivore skunks and raccoons, and how much life is left in a lean land, especially over the winter?

Still, there was the fox, in a South Dakota meadow this past December, clear eyed and healthy, his dark brush lightly marking his back-trail in the snow. If you’ve ever seen mountain lions, you know how they pace: arrogant and powerful, as though they had greased machines coiling and uncoiling just beneath their skin. Coyotes slink through the yellow grass of the prairies, rough haired, scrawny, and cautious. Raccoons scurry, skunks blunder, and minks—well, it’s hard to describe the behavior of minks. They seem to live a kind of vicious insanity, oddly matched with their rich fur and sweet faces. Foxes, however, are the strolling kind. Flashing white at their throats, with those black stockings around their paws, they pad through the fields like dandies ambling along the Paris pavement: inquisitive yet self-possessed, eager yet sensible, bold yet judicious.