Mountain-Prairie Region  Partners for Fish & Wildlife
Blackfoot River Watershed

The Blackfoot Challange
"Eventually, all things merge into one,
and a river runs through it."

Group meeting beside the Blackfoot RiverWhat is it?

The Blackfoot Challenge is a "grass roots" group which has organized to coordinate management of the Blackfoot River, its tributaries, and adjacent lands.  While the group has no formal membership, it consists of numerous private landowners, federal and state agency representatives, local government officials and several corporate landowners.   The group is organized through a series of committees.  For more information on its beginnings, visit  History and Evolution of the Blackfoot Challenge.

The mission of the Blackfoot Challenge 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.  The Challenge supports environmentally responsible resource stewardship through the cooperation of public and private interests.

The Blackfoot Challenge was formally chartered in 1993, though active concern for the valley predates the charter.  For example, private landowners in the Blackfoot Valley were instrumental in bringing conservation easement legislation, walk-in hunting areas and recreation corridor management to Montana in the late 1970's.

What is special about the Blackfoot Valley?

The Blackfoot River headwaters atop the Continental Divide at Roger's Pass and empties into the Clark Fork River east of Missoula, Montana.  In its 132 mile journey, the river runs through some of the most productive fish and wildlife habitat in the Northern Rocky Mountains.  The valley floor contains glaciated wetland complexes, native scrub/shrub riparian areas and blue ribbon trout streams.  Mountain ranges, National Forests, and the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas surround the valley.

Black tern on her nestThe valley's unique habitat diversity supports a wide variety of fish and wildlife species.  Prairie wetland complexes attract a number of breeding and migrating birds, including sandhill cranes and black terns.  The tributary streams to the Blackfoot River provide crucial spawning and rearing habitat for the federally listed bull trout and the westslope cutthroat trout.   The valley is at the southern edge of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem which supports the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states.  The Blackfoot Valley has kept its biological diversity thanks mostly to the ranchers that manage the valley floor.  There are approximately 2,500 households and seven separate communities in the Blackfoot.

The Blackfoot Challenge has Focused its Efforts on Several Program Activities over the Past Few Years

1.  Education

The Blackfoot Challenge considers resource education as one of our primary roles and responsibilities.  Below is a sample of education activities sponsored by the Challenge.

Ban the Knapweed drawing by Kelly KnightWeed Management - The Challenge's weed education plan that was developed in 1997 provided a mechanism to focus specific components of a multi-resource education plan on a widely diverse population both within the Blackfoot Valley and to visitors.  The Challenge annually sponsors three weed management workshops and two tours, in addition to the individual contacts and training assistance provided by our Weed Management Coordinator.  The Challenge also sponsors an annual weed calendar contest for youth in seven schools in the watershed.

Water Education for Teachers (WET) - Project WET Montana is a resource education project administered by Montana State University.   The award winning program instructs teachers how to blend water resource education activities into their existing cirriculums.

Group meeting with Dave RosgenThe Blackfoot Challenge sponsored the first Project WET workshop in the Blackfoot in 1997.  The workshop was attended by teachers representing six schools in the Blackfoot Valley and several resource organizations outside the Blackfoot.  In 1998, the Challenge hosted a five-day watershed tour to provide the participants on-the-ground instructions in weed management, stream restoration, riparian management, abandoned mine reclamation, active mining, bull trout restoration, timber management, wetland restorations and conservation easements.

Alternative Ranch Income - One of the goals of the Blackfoot Challenge is to preserve the rural lifestyle of the Blackfoot Valley that is so important to its residents.  The threat of subdivision, in particular, and urban encroachment are of utmost concern.  To provide our membership tools to combat such threats, the Challenge initiated a series of tours and workshops that provided information on sources of alternative income that could be produced from existing agricultural lands and maintain them in their existing states.  Workshops focused on watchable wildlife/ecotourism, guest ranching and conservation easements.

Threatened and Endangered Species - Recent additional agency focus on threatened and endangered species has raised awareness of the management of such species in the Blackfoot.  The Challenge sponsored membership meetings that provided information on the management of grizzly bears and wolves in the Blackfoot Watershed.  In addition, fisheries experts provided insight into the listing of bull trout and the possible listing of westslope cutthroat trout on the endangered species list.  With the help of the Blackfoot Challenge, management strategies are currently being developed for the management of these species in the Blackfoot Basin.

2.  Weed Management

Fence line contrast photoThe purpose of the weed  management project is to coordinate management of noxious weeds on 350,000 acres in the Blackfoot Valley.  In order to effectively manage an area of this size, we divided the valley up into seven different Weed Management Areas (WMA).  The Middle Blackfoot area formed in 1996, three more areas were added in 1997, 1998 and 1999, and an additional WMA will be added annually through 2002.  A Weed Management Coordinator was hired to delineate ownership within each WMA and work with the individual landowners on mapping noxious weeds, providing information on the different weeds, coordinating control measures and grant writing.  To date, over 120,000 acres have been treated and over one million dollars secured for noxious weed management.

3.  Habitat Restoration and Protection

In 1988, concern over declining fish populations in the Blackfoot River prompted basin-wide evaluation of fish populations and their habitats.  Fishery evaluations reported declines throughout the Blackfoot and the lower reaches of its tributaries.  These studies specifically revealed the decline of native westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout.

Landscape level impacts to the fishery include:

  • Poor water quality
  • Altered stream channels and contaminated sediments related to past mining activities
  • Riparian degradation related to past riparian grazing practices
  • Irrigation related impacts including reduced instream flows, poor upstream fish passage and entrainment of out-migrant fish to irrigation ditches
  • Poor riparian timber harvest practices
  • Wetland drainage and associated sod-busting
  • Subdivision
  • Overexploitation of the fishery

In 1990, efforts have shifted from fishery and habitat inventories to restoration and project monitoring.  Fishery restoration has expanded from working on individual projects to a basin-wide approach, working with multiple landowners.   Since then, the restoration program has expanded beyond fishery specific issues to a broad level of landscape restoration and protection relying on expertise of several agencies and conservation groups in cooperation with private landowners.

Some of the accomplishments include:

  • Over 300 miles of fish passage barrier removal
  • 32 miles of instream restoration
  • 51 miles of riparian restoration
  • 2,100 acres of wetlands restored
  • 2,300 acres of native grasslands restored
  • 54,500 acres of perpetual conservation easements secured
  • 13 self-cleaning fish screens installed on irrigation ditches
  • Numerous feedlots removed from streams

For more specific information on individual stream restoration projects, visit Blackfoot Watershed Projects.

Partners Involved in the Blackfoot Challenge

  • Numerous private landowners
  • U.S. Bureau of Land Management
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks
  • Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation
  • Montana Department of Environmental Quality
  • University of Montana
  • Plum Creek Timber Company
  • McDonald Gold Project
  • Montana Department of Agriculture
  • Bouma Post and Pole
  • Montana Trout Unlimited
  • The Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited
  • The Montana Nature Conservancy
  • Montana Land Reliance
  • Montana Department of Transportation
  • North Powell, Missoula and Lewis and Clark Conservation District
  • Powell, Missoula and Lewis and Clark County Commission
  • Ducks Unlimited
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
  • Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
  • Montana Riparian Association
  • Montana State University
  • North Powell County Weed Control District
  • Numerous private foundations
  • Montana Department of Commerce - Travel Montana
  • The Montana Watercourse
  • Montana State University Extension Service

The Blackfoot River Ecosystem Location Map

Blackfoot Watershed location map


53% Federal Ownership
20% Corporate timber holdings
20% Privately-owned ranches
7% State land

The Blackfoot River is 132 miles long.
The Blackfoot Watershed consists of 1.5 million acres.

For More Information on the Blackfoot Challenge,

Greg Neudecker
Upsata Lake National Wildlife Refuge
P.O. Box 66
Ovando, MT 59854
(406) 793-7400