The Montana Endangered Species Mural Project

April Craighead of the Craighead Institute in Bozeman, a wildlife biologist and leader of the project says: “The Montana Mural project aims to promote conservation education on Montana’s 12 threatened and endangered (T&E) plant and animal species through art; specifically, through murals. I hope that the murals will bring to life these species and inspire people to learn about and support conservation efforts before they are gone forever. The inspiration for the mural project comes from the work of Avi Gitler and the National Audubon Society in New York where they are painting 314 species of birds that are affected by climate change (see I wanted to replicate this process in Bozeman on a much smaller scale, so I chose Montana’s 12 T&E species.

“Montana’s T& E species range from the delicate Ute Ladies’- Tresses orchid, prehistoric sturgeons, the majestic whooping crane and grizzly bear (which is still listed) and many more. All the species are unique and can be found residing in or utilizing Montana’s varied habitats throughout the state. With funding from the Sweet Pea Festival, and a private donor we have artists’ renditions of 10 of the T&E species and our first mural of the whooping crane was completed by Juliene Sinclair ( in August 2019. A pair of whooping cranes bursts from the side of a NE neighborhood shed with vivid colors and whimsical feathers that float along length of the shed. The next mural to be painted was the white and pallid sturgeon by Robert Rath and resides on the west side of Bozeman. Both sturgeons are represented, highlighting their massive size and prehistoric looking scales.

“Montana’s 12 T&E species are found throughout the state in a wide variety of habitats and are threatened by a range of activities including, habitat destruction, logging, agriculture, habitat fragmentation, grazing, recreation and changes in stream flows. Many of their populations are relegated to a few isolated habitat patches or drastically reduced population numbers. Under these circumstances a random weather or other catastrophic event could extirpate an entire species in Montana. 

“Through the eyes of the artists and their renditions, I have a whole new perspective on all of these species and how exquisite they all are. Because of this project, I have worked with wonderful people and groups that are deeply committed to these species and are trying to conserve them. I can imagine them on walls, sheds, and buildings in Bozeman where they will be act as representatives of their species and sentinels of what may be lost.”   

Rath describes his experience: On a warm June day I received an e-mail invitation from The Craighead Institute and the Sweet Pea Festival to submit a mural idea raising awareness for Endangered Species in Montana. I expected the first instinct of other artists would be to paint the beautiful and cool animals like grizzlies, lynx, and bull trout. Looking down the list, I found the sturgeon, and instantly had the idea to embrace the sharp and spiky nature of these charismatically-challenged fish in a way that makes them hip and fresh. I figured the hippest and freshest thing in Montana are craft beers, so maybe a sturgeon drawn like a beer label might be a good solution. I illustrated my idea and sent it off. 

I was pleased to hear my sturgeon had passed a first round of judging and would be represented at Bozeman’s popular Sweet Pea Festival. One image for each entry on the Endangered Species list would be displayed, and festival attendees could vote for the art they liked best. Still assuming endangered all-stars like grizzlies would get all the votes, I was just glad the pre-historic sturgeon would be included.

So I was shocked to hear my pale ale-inspired sturgeon received the most votes, and would be the next mural to be done. Another surprise was finding out that I’d be painting on the garage of my friend and Distinctly Montana cohort, Valerie. Neither of us were aware that she’d be hosting my work, or I’d be decorating her garage door. 

Then we waited for all schedules, home inspections, and, above all, weather conditions to align so I could get to work. Project sponsor April Craighead was keen to get the mural finished this fall, but as weeks of unusually rainy, snowy, and cold conditions passed, the odds that it would happen were becoming as endangered as the sturgeon itself.

Finally, the forecast called for a small window of nice-enough weather, and I sprang into action. Frantically working like I was being chased by a grizzly, I painted the mural in two days. Temperatures were dropping sharply as I finished, and the next morning a huge snowstorm hit.

It was a true honor to have my work selected, and I’m happy to give the low-key sturgeon their moment in the sun—literally, as Valerie’s south-facing garage gets full daylight exposure every day of the year. The process was also a fine adventure, and I was excited to have been a part of it.

For her part Valerie Harms, owner of the home where the mural is displayed, said: “When
I read in the newspaper about the Craighead Institute’s project, I immediately contacted April. Two reasons: I am an ardent endangered species advocate and I used to work for the National Audubon Society in New York City. At NAS I received a major education in conservation.  After I moved to Montana 25 years ago, I supported wilderness, wildlife, and habitat needs.  When I contacted April to offer my garage door as background, I was surprised to hear that the selected artist for the mural was Robert Rath, with whom I’d worked for 10 years at Distinctly Montana magazine. Another coincidence. On behalf of endangered species I have written letters and attended meetings, but a mural seems a potent, long-lasting way of getting the message across.”


The Species Act, Endangered

The law signed by President Nixon in 1973 has been credited with helping prevent the extinction of more than 220 species, including bald eagles, grizzly bears, and gray wolves. It requires the government to list species that are endangered or threatened. It also protects plants and habitats. It has been the noblest and most ambitious conservation law that received large margins of support in both chambers of Congress.

President Trump’s rules would allow officials to consider the cost to save a species, remove blanket protections for animals newly listed, and make it easier to remove species from the protected list. The goal would remove regulations from logging and oil-drilling industries.

Currently 17 states (not including Montana) have sued the administration to block rules from weakening the Endangered Species Act, saying the changes make it tougher to protect wildlife even in the midst of a global extinction crisis. Recent report documenting the loss of 1/3 of wild birds in N. America and Canada—2.9 billion birds lost in the last 50 years.

For more info, contact:

April Craighead

Wildlife Biologist

Craighead Institute

201 So. Wallace Ave. 

Bozeman, MT 59715

[email protected]

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