History and Evolution of the Blackfoot Challenge

Excerpts from
“Partners in Practice: The Fine Line Between Success and Failure”
Transactions of the 62nd North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference (1997)
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 Howell’s 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 Players

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.

Community Involvement

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 Trixi’s 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 Accomplishments

During this time, Fish and Wildlife Service staff were also busy working with local landowners to deliver on-the-ground projects.   Under the Service’s 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.

Ultimately, these 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.