Life can bring many strange twists and turns. Max Salisbury, horse trainer extraordinaire and mountain range rider, was an unlikely guy to testify before a Montana Senate committee. But appear he did on Feb. 15, 2019, before Senate Fish and Game Committee chaired by Sen. Jennifer Fielder.
He spoke confidently on a resolution to seek removal of the grizzly bear from the federal endangered species listing.
He addressed the committee not only on one bill, but two. Wearing the champion belt buckle won in national reining competition a few decades ago, he spoke with the savvy from years of keeping mountain range cattle separate from wolves and grizzlies.
He first encouraged removal of the grizzly bear from the federal Endangered Species List as proposed by Lincoln County Sen. Mike Cuffe, sponsor of SJR 6. As that hearing ended, Salisbury took the podium again to propose more aggressive management of the wolf in a second committee hearing.
He also invited Sen. Mike Phillips to come ride the ridges and swampy creek bottoms in the upper Wolf Creek area, which is centrally located between Libby, Eureka, and Kalispell. Sen. Phillips is one of the premier wolf experts in Montana and sponsor of a bill to give wolves more protection near Yellowstone National Park.
“I would like to ride with that cowboy,” Phillips grinned later. “Don’t take me for a tenderfoot. I have been around.”
From chasing cows and playing hockey as a youth in southern British Columbia to playing as Eureka’s star running back in the 1968 Montana East West Shrine Football Classic to nightly hand-to-hand combat in bars as an Army MP in Okinawa to helping keep the peace in Flathead County as a deputy sheriff and detective, Salisbury took a winding and adventurous route through life. He still holds the Eureka Lions single season school rushing record with 1,610 yards.
Eventually love of training horses led him to high-end jobs at breeding ranches in Arizona and California. He later moved north to manage programs in Washington and Montana, including horse and rider training and trail riding at he upscale Paws Up ranch near Clear Water Junction, northeast of Missoula. He also trained at Montana arenas from the Bitterroot to the Flathead.
Recent years found him working horses and providing horsemanship training to students from challenging backgrounds near Eureka. Summers were spent riding herd on a thousand cows and calves scattered over thousands of rugged mountain acres.
“I live out there. I ride long hours every day. Those cows and calves have to survive in the midst of growing populations of wolves, grizzlies, mountain lion, and coyotes,” he grinned,” and I have to survive along with my horses and dog.”
Trotting out of the forest after a long day, Salisbury often would slow his horse to allow his tiring cow dog to keep close proximity. She was his closest companion for years, and as twilight came, trailing coyotes and wolves kept her on edge.
“You know, the average fella munching a Big Mac in some city never knows that fellas like me help get the beef in the bun,” he chuckled.
Salisbury noted that mountain range cattle develop great protective instincts. They are tougher than you think. They will put the calves in the center of a circle with cows facing out in times of danger. They know safety with the herd.
Nevertheless, too many cows and calves go down under bloody attack of slashing predator fangs. Salisbury has seen it all.
He saw the wolf become more elusive and distant from man after hunting seasons were introduced. But he argued that range riders need to use guns to help protect livestock. Currently, the opposite situation exists, and serious penalties are given for using firearms.
“I like and respect wolves and grizzlies,” he commented. “I just need flexibility to help make those critters respect my horse, cattle, and dog.”
Besides that, he concluded, too many large predators are feeding too close together.
Neil Salisbury, Max’s father and former Eureka peace officer, rode this same mountain range in the early 1970s. Max, reflecting 70 years of horse wisdom, noted that many differences exist today.
“For example, I seldom see a moose anymore,” he said. “Elk herds have thinned out, and deer are sparse, compared to when I rode with Dad 45 years ago. Change isn’t always good. We need a balance, so I support this bill to delist the grizzly. We also need better balance with the wolf. ”
That is why Max Salisbury entered the Senate Committee room in Helena. He strode into the room, big hat on top, big shiny championship belt buckle, and new blue jeans with sharp creases. As a concession to the dignity of the Capitol, he polished his boots and left his spurs at the ranch.
He came to speak. And to be heard.
He returned to life in the wild, began repairing fences in April and moving cows to mountain pasture within weeks.
Suddenly more of those strange twists and turns came with a rush. Age and failing eyes and fading stamina overcame Lady, his faithful old cow dog.
Then came Sunday, June 9, 2019, the day after some particularly strenuous lifting, and wrenching and twisting, Max Salisbury awoke with a screaming stomach pain. A few hours later, physicians at Cabinet Peaks Medical Center in Libby found indications of cancer. Additional testing in Kalispell confirmed the suspicion in a duct between the liver and pancreas.
Traditional treatments couldn’t be used, or offered poor odds with severe side effects. So this old independent cowboy turned to natural methods. By late July, his body was wracked with pain. He moved to Eureka when no longer able to ride the mountains. He became determined to endure the pain while battling cancer with a combination of intravenous drips, nutritional supplements like CBD oil, herbs, diet, acupuncture, parasite treatment, and pain medicine.
Life wasn’t easy. Confident he would heal, he moved to the residence of his sister JoAn Cuffe and husband Mike near Eureka.
Seventy years of memories, good times and rough times, rolled through his mind. Even as he lay in the emergency room bed at Kalispell Regional Hospital while doctors ran tests, he took several phone calls from clients eager for a lesson or advice.
Max Salisbury, always horse conscious, provided doctors with equine instruction until they referred to him as a true horse whisperer. In his discussions, he occasionally recalled advice from his mother who taught school in Michigan, Canada, and Montana. “She was strict and stern,” he chuckled, “but she had to be with a kid like me.”
Max figured he had ridden 4,000 horses and handled 10 thousand more. He conducted hundreds of lessons and clinics. He won numerous championships, buckles, and trophies over several decades and competed in World Class Reining events.
“I regret any heartbreak or disappointment I may have caused over the years,” he said,“ but I tried to help people and horses have a better life.” He said he was proud of his children and grandchildren, wishing he had more time with them.
“I do regret that the monster in my belly took away any chance to show Sen. Mike Phillips the life of a range rider,” he said. “We could have become good friends. I am glad I got to speak to him and the other lawmakers,” he reflected.
Max Salisbury understood the inevitable. A church-going Christian, he was prepared to ride around the bend in the trail that leads to the pearly gates with a smile, sweep his hat off in greeting, reach for his parents and call to his faithful dog Lady. MSN
Max W. Salisbury died at 1 pm on Sept. 11, 2019, at Health Center Northwest in Kalispell.