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Aerial view of CMR Wildlife Refuge

Charles Russel bronze statue
Charles M. Russell.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

"...travelled some distance by land and killed a white bear."

- Gass
29 April 1805

It took the Corps of Discovery two weeks in spring, 1805, to cover the land now contained by the refuge during their trip west. This isolated prairie grassland marked their transition from flat open land to rocky, river bottom soil. The new land was spotted with sagebrush and populated by weathered sandstone outcroppings and ponderosa pines. Wildlife was abundant and the expedition never wanted for food.

Patrick Gass' journal of April 29, 1805, recorded the Corps' first sighting of bighorn sheep. He also explains one of the mysteries of the Lewis and Clark journals -- their references to "white bears."

"Captain Lewis, and one of the men, traveled some distance by land and killed a white bear. - The natives call them white, but they are more of a brown grey."

His description of the grizzly bear fits the grizzled appearance of the white highlights of the adult bear's fur. Lewis and Clark named the White Bear Islands near Great Falls in honor the fierce bears they came to admire and later fear.

At the turn of the 20th century, the triangle now formed by the Milk River Valley, the CMR Wildlife Refuge and Fort Peck became home to some notorious outlaws. Kid Curry and other rustlers struck from the Little Rocky Mountains, running cattle to and from Canada. Curry's gang turned to train robbery in 1901, blowing a Great Northern Railway safe to bits. They escaped with worthless invalid bank notes. Curry's fame increased when he joined with Butch Cassidy to form the Wild Bunch.