Story by Tim Leeds
CHINOOK - The old theater in Chinook is full of waiting animals.
A wide range of Montana animals - a bear, a moose, elk, a cougar, geese, a raccoon, beavers, swallows and more - are waiting to be placed into exhibits there showing their natural habitat.
The theater is now the Blaine County Wildlife Museum, a work in progress.
The work has finally reached a stage where the exhibits are being built. A diorama of a bison kill site - including bison at the top of a cliff, at the bottom of the cliff and suspended in midair - decorates the back wall where the movie screen used to be.
It took a long time to get to that point, said Debra Davies, a member of the museum's board of directors.
"We've been at this for 10 years, but when we moved in here it needed some major work," she said.
The museum has many purposes, but the primary one is to attract tourists to Chinook, Davies said.
The board also wants to attract people who live in north-central Montana. The educational aspect of the museum is another main reason for the project, she said.
The museum won't open until the three major displays and the gift shop, including works by Montana authors and artists, are complete, Davies said. Board members aren't sure how long it will take to raise money to complete those projects.
Jude Sheppard, a member of the wildlife museum board and curator of the nearby Blaine County Museum, said people don't seem to want to rush the project.
"They see we want to do a top-notch museum," she said.
The board has held an annual banquet and auction to raise money for the effort. This year's is slated for May 3. All of the money raised in the first several years went to renovating the theater, which was donated to the board by the Blaine Bank of Montana in 1991.
The board hired contractors the first year to rebuild the theater's roof. In the second year, the seats were removed and a new floor was installed. Other work that had to be done before displays could be built included new walls and a new furnace.
Now people are viewing the display and the waiting animals, and are impressed, Sheppard said."I take school kids up there all the time now," she said.
Sheppard said she often offers to take people who come to the Blaine County Museum to the uncompleted wildlife museum.
"We have some great animals," Davies said.
Sheri Nicholson, who chairs the wildlife museum board, said the museum has close to 150 animals to exhibit, although not all are at the museum yet. Some birds are coming from Lewistown, and an albino elk calf is waiting in Kalispell, she said.
The banquet is a success every year, Davies said, and often has a sell-out crowd. It usually provides $10,000 to $12,000 a year for the museum efforts.
This year's banquet will have a new feature - a visit to the museum, located across the street from Tom and Nancy's Food Farm on Indiana Avenue. Usually, many people come to the banquet without ever having been in the museum, Davies said.
The museum will be open from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., with registration there for a special drawing.
A preview of the art and other items to be auctioned will run from 6 to 7 p.m. before the banquet, in St. Gabriel's Catholic Church.
The prime rib dinner will begin at 7 p.m. in the church, followed by the auction.
The board is still seeking donations for the auction. A specially made rifle crafted at Paulsen Gun Stocks south of Chinook and donated for a raffle is on display at Western Bank in Chinook.
Another fund-raiser for the museum is adoption of the animals. People pay a fee to have a plaque, with any desired message, mounted with the animal. The price depends on the animal and its display. Many of the animals have already been adopted, Davies said.
The board is also turning to grant writing to find funding for the exhibits.
"We're working on a grant right now for one of the small ones," Nicholson said.
Work is under way on the next major display at the museum. A mural has been painted as the backdrop for a wetlands display, which will include water fowl and beavers.
Nicholson said a special feature of the wetlands display will be a bisected beaver dam. The beavers will be displayed in the dam, with the glass front of the display cutting the dam in half.
The water will be done with acrylics, which looks real, Davies said. Acorn Displays Inc. of Minnesota is creating the displays for the museum.
A tour of the museum will begin with the gift shop in the theater lobby, followed by a nocturnal animal display in the hallway leading to the main display area in the theater auditorium.
The next main display on the tour will be "From the Mountains to the Plains," starting with mountain animals, ranging into hill and then plains animals. It will include mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer and antelope.
The next major display on the tour will be the wetlands display, with the bison kill display the final major exhibit.
Smaller displays will feature other animals, including prairie fowl, swift foxes, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, and cow and calf elk.
The museum acquired many of its animals for a total of $20,000 after a Livington museum closed, Davies said.
Tickets for the banquet cost $30 in advance and $35 at the door. They are available from any of the museum board members, and at retailers including Western Bank and Wells Fargo Bank in Chinook.
On the Net: Blaine County Wildlife Museum: www.chinookmontana.com/WildlifeMuseum/wildlifemuseum.html