Helena IR - 06/23/02
Tribes seek to reclaim range marked by mining history.
ZORTMAN -- Jerome Main leans back, lacing his fingers behind his head. A powwow baseball cap shades his eyes.
"I was born and raised here. I used to hunt here," he says of the Little Rocky Mountains surrounding this north-central Montana mining town.
But the mountains Main cherishes have been scarred by a century of mining. Runoff from mine tailings has tainted the streams and groundwater. And much of the land is owned and managed by the federal government.
"It will never be the same," says Main, the Assiniboine representative to the Fort Belknap Reservation's tribal council.
Despite the scars, the Little Rocky Mountains are still a wondrous place.
The mountains have long been a cool oasis on the north-central Montana prairie, located between the Milk and Missouri Rivers and just east of the larger Bears Paw Mountains.
For Native Americans, the mountains are a focal point for religious ceremonies, sun dances and vision quests. According to John Brumley, a Havre archaeologist, there is evidence of natives using the area over the past 4,000 years.
But the lure of gold has most dramatically shaped the mountains' modern history. In 1884 gold was discovered in Alder Gulch. Miners Pete Zortman and Pike Landusky were the first to strike it rich. Landusky was killed in a bar by Harvey Kid Curry, the outlaw who ended up with the infamous Butch Cassidy.
Zortman's and Landusky's names were later attached to two huge cyanide heap leach mines on the Little Rockies' southern face.
The low-grade ore extracted from the mountains produced only about .015 ounces of gold per ton. So to make one small gold ring, miners had to process about 13 tons of rock.
Yet the mine owner, Pegasus Gold Corp., still managed to pry out more than 1 million ounces before claiming bankruptcy, abandoning the mines and leaving the state with a mess.
Seeking a return
Despite the problems, Main and other members of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes of the Fort Belknap Reservation want the mountains returned.
"We just want it back. It's Indian country," Main says.
Most of the southern half of the mountains, about 25,000 acres, is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The tribes own the northern portion of the prairie mountain range.
The federal government carved out a section of the mountains in a disputed agreement in the late 1800s to acquire the gold underground. More than 100 years later, the treaty still angers tribal members who say their ancestors were forced to sign the deal or face starvation.
Whether the deal was fair or not, Bruce Reed, BLM's Malta field manager, said the Little Rockies are not likely to be returned to the tribes.
"The BLM is on record that we wouldn't support the return because of the value of the minerals," Reed says.
It would also take an act of Congress.
But Main is determined and confident. He hopes to see the lands restored to the tribes in his lifetime.
If the Little Rockies were turned over, tribal council member Will Crasco says the land would be restored and developed for recreation similar to a national park.
"Our feeling is that we can better serve everyone -- Indian and non-Indian -- with tourism, which is better than mining," Crasco says. "Mining is a one-shot deal and then you have to deal with the mess."
With trails, hunting, hiking, camping, horseback riding and all-terrain vehicle opportunities, the mountains offer a variety of options for recreationists.
The annual gathering of the Gold Panners Association of America is also a draw.
Bighorn sheep have been introduced and mule deer and the occasional elk can be found in the mountains.
"It's sort of a general playground," says Rich Adams of the BLM.
The area has two campgrounds, Camp Creek near Zortman and Montana Gulch near Landusky, which receive heavy use in the summer.
"It's a beautiful place," says Brumley, who has explored the area for artifacts. "It' s one of the only places in northern Montana with eroded limestone cliffs. Mission Canyon is one of my favorite settings in Montana."
Cliffs crowd many of the narrow canyons that carve up the pine-covered high country. The range's peaks offer visitors wide views across the eroded prairie badlands.
Despite the wealth of natural beauty, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribal council members are saddened.
"We'll never get it back to the way it was," Main says. "But we want to make the land whole again. We have to bring the land back as near as we can to its natural state."