By Joan Brown for Wildlife Art Magazine
Wildlife sculptor Sherry Salari Sander and her physician husband, Loren Vranish, live just minutes from downtown Kalispell, Mont. Yet they’ve created a 300-acre wildlife refuge, right in the middle of Flathead Valley’s ever-expanding population. “We’ve made it our life’s work to make our home a bed-and-breakfast for animals,” Sander says.
The property they call Springcreek Ranch includes an uncut virgin forest and river bottom, and sits atop a huge, shallow aquifer with massive movements of water. Any pollutants on the land – such as those which might result from the 10,000 cows that once used it as a feedlot or the huge auto wrecking yard they and their neighbors succeeded in opposing – can flow into both Flathead River and Flathead Lake, and eventually find their way into the Columbia Basin. “One of our goals has been to prevent anything from contaminating the groundwater sources,” Sander and Vranish say. The name of the ranch reflects the fact that it contains the headwaters of Spring Creek, which flow into Flathead River. The cutthroat trout that come upstream to spawn in these headwaters underscores the need to protect their shrinking environment.
The couple works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Reserve Service to improve wetland habitat, looking at ways to reclaim the streambeds and establish new plantings along the springs.
We’ve cleared off lots of debris and done soil samples and water studies. The grasses are returning little by little, and the banks are gradually getting repaired. But it’s a lengthy process. The springs don’t repair as fast as the stream itself does because they don’t have the seasonal runoff to help clear out debris,” Vranish points out. “Even though the reclamation process there takes longer, it’s very important habitat to a large number of waterfowl. At times, there may be a good thousand ducks or geese here on the ranch.”
Now that the former feedlot area is totally pristine, the absence of cattle also allows re-growth in the cottonwood riparian area, which the state has flagged as one of the fastest disappearing environments in Montana.
Because the spring waters that come out the ground never freeze, the ranch also affords a year-round water source for an abundance of wildlife like bears, grizzlies, fox, owls and nesting wood ducks. “We’re just smack dab on an old game trail that comes through our place from the river. The only thing we haven’t seen – although we’ve found the tracks – is a mountain lion,” Sander says.
“The animals all gravitate here because they know what’s going on. As we plant trees, shrubs and install nesting areas by letting the grasses come back to provide cover and feed, it has become a haven in which more and more wildlife congregate. We’ve had pheasants and Hungarian partridges. And what has been really interesting is that the two sets of nesting eagles, the hawks and coyotes that have moved in are controlling the gophers we used to have.
“I looked out my window the other day when I was working in my studio, which is all glass, and counted eight big bucks – some with five points – and a couple of their new pals, second- and third-year guys. Yes, they munch, but we have barley and alfalfa – lots of grain – planted.” In the spring, Sander and her husband plan to put in still more native plants, along with willows, dogwoods and hawthorn shrubs, to increase the wood mass along the springs on the creek.
“I’ll tell you what’s awesome for me as a non-artist,” Vranish says. “It’s seeing how Sherry gets such a myriad of ideas for her sculpture from watching the wildlife, their gestures and interactions. Northerns on North Pond was inspired by the birds that come down from Alberta.”
“It’s just National Geographic here every day,” Sander adds. “I don’t even have to leave and go anywhere. I can look right outside my window. It’s just a parade out there. I feel so fortunate.”
Joan Brown is a free-lance writer living in Steilacoom, Washington.