A February blizzard makes us shuttle quickly between the sprawl of conference venues, chain motels with folksy names, and restaurants grafted to casinos. In spite of temperatures in the minus 20’s and windgusts coming off the Pryor Mountains, some fifteen hundred of us range managers, ranchers and grassland scientists have gathered here from all over the larger West. Hats, coats and programs in hand, we select between talks on “Optimized Plant Frequency as a Surrogate Measure for Species Abundance” or “Habitat Selection by Free-ranging Feral Horses,” or “Rodents as Agents of Ecological Change,” each of which is in a different conference building.

This is the sixth Society for Range Management (SRM) Annual Meeting I’ve been privileged to attend over the years. I’ve just finished presenting my paper, “Effects of Biological Control Insects on Diffuse Knapweed,” so I’m free to shuttle between concurrent sessions, following threads that interest me. How bison grazing habits differ from those of cattle. How wolf re-introductions improve the health of rivers (by terrifying the elk that overuse riparian vegetation). How tallgrass prairie will disappear if it isn’t burned regularly.

A big event at SRM is the notoriously tough Range Plant Identification Contest, for range management students from Universities across the West. Time was when this Contest was owned by students from places like Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, but now the upstart Mexican and even Canadian students are horning in on the action. After the Contest is over, organizers let us ordinary mortals come in to have a look. We heave a sigh of collective but silent relief; thank god we don’t have to enter the Contest and put our ignorance on display.

We take a half-day bus tour to see a bit of the Yellowstone country. As we head east out of Billings on I-90, the amiable tour guide points out the town’s coal-fired electrical generating plant. “Uses two railcars of coal per day,” she says, more with pride than concern. I cringe, thinking of the poorly insulated walls and single glazing back in our room at the Howard Johnson. We leave the bus to do a frigid sprint to the top of Pompey’s Pillar, to see William Clark’s 1806 initials carved into the sandstone. According to the Doctrine of Discovery, this was one of the ways of taking possession of a country, by signing your name to it. You also had to inform the locals of the name of their new ruler.

On the bus trip back, I strike up a conversation with a grizzled veteran of some twenty-five previous SRM meetings. I ask him why Billings, why February. “We did one in Hawaii once,” he replied, “but the reviews weren’t that good. We’re hard-bitten ranchers and range guys, and I guess we’re more comfortable in places like Casper or Albuquerque.”

I saw his point. There’s no better place to focus the mind than Billings in February.