and Evolution of the Blackfoot Challenge
"Partners in Practice: The Fine Line Between Success and Failure"
Transactions of the 62nd North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference
Presented by: Gary L. Sullivan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Great Falls, Montana
Blackfoot Challenge Project
The Blackfoot River Valley
is a 1.5-million acre watershed that extends from the top of the Continental Divide
westward for some 132 miles. The geologic, hydrologic and topographic features of
the drainage combine to produce a mosaic of habitat types. Prairie grasslands, sagebrush
steppe, coniferous forest and extensive wetland and riparian areas contain more than 600
species of vascular plants, including six rare plant communities and the Howells
gumweed, a globally threatened species found nowhere else on earth.
The habitat diversity of
the watershed supports a wide variety of fish and wildlife species. Wetland
complexes provide important breeding habitat for 21 species of waterfowl and numerous
other water birds. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, grizzly bears and 10 candidate
species (for possible listing under the Endangered Species Act), such as the bull trout,
are found here.
Despite the pristine
beauty depicted in the movie, "A River Runs Through It," the Blackfoot Valley
has endured a long history of poor mining, logging and livestock grazing practices.
The cumulative impact of such land-use activities has degraded water quality in the
Blackfoot River, resulting in declining fishery and reduced angling opportunities.
Today, fragmentation of the landscape into summer homesites, golf courses and other
commercial developments poses a much more serious, long-term threat to the area.
Identifying Common Ground and Key
With such important
resources at risk, it is easy to understand why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted
to be involved in resolving resource problems in the Blackfoot. Yet much of the
degraded and threatened habitat occurs on private land. Local landowners were also
worried about the state of the Valley, but for a different reason. Their concerns
centered around losing a rural way of life, as large family ranches are split up and sold
off for development purposes. Unsustainable land-use practices, subdivisions and
commercial development posed a common threat to both wildlife habitat and rural
lifestyles, thus giving everyone motivation and ownership in finding solutions to the
problem. Increased dialogue between agencies and landowners helped identify
key community leaders who were often looked to for advice and assistance in solving local
problems or concerns. In 1991, these same local leaders were instrumental in
organizing the first community meeting where all the stakeholders were brought together to
discuss the future of the Blackfoot.
During the following year,
Fish and Wildlife Service personnel became more active in the community, attending local
meetings and developing personal relationships with the key community leaders "across
the kitchen table." Numerous discussions took place at Trixis Restaurant
and Bar in Ovando, Montana, which serves as the social hub for many landowners in the
watershed. Community meetings were held to identify local resource concerns,
priorities and opportunities to work together. All of this required a significant,
up front commitment of agency staff time and resources with no guarantee that the project
would be successful.
Building Trust through Tangible
During this time, Fish and
Wildlife Service staff were also busy working with local landowners to deliver
on-the-ground projects. Under the Services Partners for Fish and
Wildlife program, funding and technical assistance were provided to improve fish and
wildlife habitat on private lands. Initial projects were small, involved low risk
and had a high probability of success, such as installing artificial nesting structures
for Canada geese. As landowner trust of the Fish and Wildlife Service grew, larger
and more complex projects were completed, including restoring wetlands, streams and
riparian areas, developing grazing systems, and implementing other stewardship practices
that improve water quality and complement landowners agricultural operations.
successful short-term projects opened up opportunities to work with landowners to protect
important habitat on private land with perpetual conservation easements. In
addition, easements allow landowners to continue their traditional agricultural lifestyles
and help maintain the rural character of the area. Most important Fish and
Wildlife Service staff had the flexibility to use a variety of innovative tools to solve
local resource problems.
Establishing a Grassroots
Organization and Communication Network
As projects and potential
partners grew, the need for a more coordinated strategy was identified. The
Blackfoot Challenge organization was formed and guided by a diverse steering committee to
represent all the interests in the watershed. Its mission is to "coordinate efforts
that will enhance, conserve and protect the natural resources and rural lifestyle of the
Blackfoot River Valley for present and future generations." In 1994, the group
hired an executive director and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
The Blackfoot Challenge
continues to serve as an information clearinghouse for land-management activities in the
drainage. Monthly steering committee meetings, fax/electronic mail linkage and
quarterly newsletters sent to some 400 local residents provide an important communication
network between partners. In addition, the organization sponsors educational
workshops and tours throughout the year to encourage local evolvement and ownership in
resolving resource problems in the watershed. Active participants in the
partnership have grown to include more than 100 private landowners and representatives
from 27 state, federal and non-governmental organizations.
To date, the
accomplishments are impressive. More than $5 million have been combined to restore
and enhance more than 15,00 acres of wetlands, 200 miles of streams and 15,000 acres of
native grasslands. More importantly, nearly 45,000 acres of private land have been
protected with perpetual conservation easements. All of this accomplished, without
controversy, through a diverse, community-based partnership.