History Spotlight

The Forest Service and the Highwood Mountains

The Highwood Mountains were declared a Forest Reserve on December 12, 1903 by Presidential Proclamation.  The first Highwood Forest Reserve Supervisor, James Thain, was hired in 1904.  From August through December that year, he fought wildfires almost nonstop.  Much of the rest of the range burned in 1910.  A creek is named for Thain and the campground is named for the creek, although most of the camp is on Briggs Creek.  The campground was established in 1939.  On July 2, 1908 the Highwoods were incorporated into the Jefferson National Forest, along with Little Belt, Little Rocky, and Snowy Mountains.  On April 8, 1932 the Jefferson National Forest was added to the Lewis and Clark National Forest, and the modern boundaries of the Forest were established.  The Forest Service constructed a guard station in the Highwoods in 1936 to aid in administration of the mountain range.  With faster, modern transportation the Forest Service no longer maintains such a permanent presence in the Highwoods.

Historic Cattle and Sheep Grazing in the Highwood Mountains

The Highwood Mountains and surrounding area have been important cattle and sheep grazing lands for many years, with the first post office opening in the town of Highwood in 1881 to support local livestock ranchers.   In the early 1900s mostly sheep were grazed in the Highwood Mountains.  Between 1901 and 1904 four outfits ran up to 33,000 sheep in the Forest Reserve.  During this time only 951 cattle and horses were being grazed on the same land.  By the early 1920s, cattle had become the more prominent grazing animal across central Montana.  Area ranchers formed the Highwood Grazing Association in 1923, with its headquarters near the confluence of Highwood and Deer Creeks near Thain Creek Campground.  There were also cow camps on Big Coulee (nothing remains) and on Shonkin Creek in the northeast foothills.   The Shonkin Camp still has two corrals and a log cabin built in 1924.  The Association Rider, ranchers, and ranch hands bunked at the sites when they worked in the area.  They continue to use the Shonkin and Highwood corrals as sorting and shipping points for the cattle they graze in the Highwood Mountains. 

The Highwood White Wolves

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, wolves were the focus of an effort in predator eradication.  By the early 20th century most wolves had been killed, but a few had escaped the hunters and trappers.  In the early 1920s, two cunning white wolves became famous due to their ability to evade capture.  The wolves, Old Snowdrift and his mate Lady Snowdrift, preyed on livestock from the north Little Belt Mountains to the Bear Paws.  During two months in 1922, they were blamed for killing 21 cattle in the Highwood foothills.  They evaded ranchers and trappers until Lady Snowdrift was finally shot on Dexter Creek in 1923.  Soon after that, Old Snowdrift was caught in a trap baited with her scent.  He dislodged the anchor hook and drug the works through the mountains four days before trackers caught up and shot him. White Wolf Creek and Trail in the central Highwoods are named for the legendary pair.


Although little timber is harvested from the Highwoods now, in the past (after 1846) these mountains have provided a valuable timber source for the major Missouri River trading post at Fort Benton, both for fuel wood and keel boats.