by Duncan Adams
Ask a rancher in the
West which he'd rather see traveling down the dusty road to his
spread, a rattlesnake or a biologist from the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, and the rancher might just choose the
Many Montana ranchers, who know all about
threatened grizzly bears and endangered wolves and the potential
for hefty penalties for shooting them, seem especially wary of the
But something unique is happening in the
spectacular valley of Montana's Blackfoot River. This is the same
river immortalized by Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It,
although it has been hammered for more than a century by mining and
logging and other resource-extraction activities. These days, when
Blackfoot ranchers see Fish and Wildlife Service biologists Gary
Sullivan or Greg Neudecker coming, they smile and extend a hand.
"Those guys are top flight. Those guys are
incredible," said Jim Stone, an Ovando-area rancher. "They know how
to deal with people."
"Now, we're really sort of
viewed as the guys who wear the white hats," said Sullivan, with a
hint of incredulity.
It took time and work,
Sullivan said, to build trust and credibility with private
landowners in the Blackfoot Valley. It took also the assistance of
a remarkable grassroots organization called the Blackfoot
Challenge. And it took money, much of which came from a highly
regarded program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners
"From an agricultural standpoint,
Partners for Wildlife is probably one of the finest private-lands
programs around," said Stone. "It's opened up all these avenues
with private-lands people who, before, if you even mentioned
government, they'd turn around, get in their trucks and leave."
That's the good news. The bad news is that the
Department of Interior's proposed budget for fiscal 1997 recommends
eliminating Partners for Wildlife. In the interest of reducing the
federal deficit, the budget would lop from the Fish and Wildlife
Service's coffers $7.2 million now devoted to habitat restoration
on private lands embodied in Partners for Wildlife.
The anticipated loss of the program has set off
a firestorm of protest within the agency, with director Mollie
Beattie leading the charge to retain it. Private-land owners who
have experienced the program's benefits are also speaking out.
"It would be disastrous for this valley, just
terrible," said Stone. "A lot of the ranchers around here would
never have been able in their lifetimes, and probably in the
lifetimes of their kids, to afford these kinds of projects without
The partners program has
provided money and technical help to private landowners along the
Blackfoot River to restore or retain wildlife habitat. Usually the
landowner makes an in-kind contribution of labor or
In the Blackfoot Valley, approximately
20 percent of the land is privately owned ranches and
non-industrial timber lands, a significant figure for agencies
trying to manage whole ecosystems. Private-lands projects along the
Blackfoot River have included restoring wetlands and stream
channels, enhancing riparian areas and reseeding native prairie.
Stone says red-tape is minimal. "These guys can
come out and come up with a plan, do the surveying or whatever, lay
it out and they're digging dirt," he said.
The first meeting in the fall of 1991 was
very contentious, recalled Sullivan of the Fish and Wildlife
Service. "One of our most vocal opponents at that first meeting - a
guy in the back of the room who was just beating up on the public
agencies - was Jim Stone."
Stone now chairs the
Blackfoot Challenge. The group's original chairperson in 1991 was
Land Lindbergh, son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and author Anne
Morrow Lindbergh, and a long-time conservation advocate in the
Blackfoot Valley. Lindbergh, Bruce Farling (then with the Clark
Fork-Pend Oreille Coalition), Darrell Sall of the Bureau of Land
Management, attorney Jim Masar, Becky Garland, a Lincoln native and
small-business owner, and Betty duPont, a former rancher, were
among the founders of the group, which emerged from a forum first
sponsored by the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout
"We were trying to promote a common
vision of how to preserve the Blackfoot Valley, including both its
rural lifestyle and environmental resources," said Farling, now
executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited.
Over time, the Challenge brought together people
who often can't long remain in the same room: Ranchers,
environmentalists, timber and mining industry representatives,
staffers from state and federal agencies. They kept talking.
"I don't think I've ever been part of something
that's been more satisfying," said Stone. "Even in the most heated
arguments, people are reasonable. There's no jumping up and down on
"We're making a lot more headway
through cooperation than through litigation," said
The numbers are impressive. The
Blackfoot Challenge, working with the Fish and Wildlife Service,
The Nature Conservancy, and the Montana Land Reliance, has helped
coordinate the designation of 40,750 acres of conservation
easements. It has coordinated work to restore, create or enhance
more than 1,510 acres of wetlands. Other projects include: 13.5
miles of riparian enhancement; 17 miles of stream channel
restoration; 17 miles of erosion control along roads; coordination
of 32,000 acres of weed control.
also sponsored an array of workshops, from managing grazing, weeds
and timber to estate planning. "You name it, if somebody has a
problem, we can put something together," said Stone.
David Cochran ranches near tiny Helmville, Mont.
Nevada Creek, a tributary of the Blackfoot River, snakes through
his ranch and several others on its way to the river. Cochran, a
member of the Blackfoot Challenge and president of the North Powell
County Conservation District, helped organize efforts to remedy
sediment problems in Nevada Creek.
private landowners are much more amenable to working with state and
federal agencies to keep cattle out of the creek when that
cooperation is voluntary and when money is available to provide
off-stream watering for livestock.
to get as much done on a voluntary basis before it goes to
regulatory," Cochran said. He and others believe the bull trout
eventually will make the federal government's list of threatened
and endangered species. Montana ranchers will be better off then if
they cooperate now in efforts to improve stream and watershed
habitat, Cochran said.
valley in jeopardy
By now, most people know that
the comparatively pristine Blackfoot River as fished by Norman
Maclean no longer exists. They may not know that this
river-in-recovery is threatened by a massive, open-pit, cyanide
heap-leach gold mine proposed for a site near Lincoln.
Other forces also imperil the river. Its valley
has been discovered by urban refugees, and ranchers wrestle with
the greenback lure of subdividing. "We have realtors calling here
once a month to ask whether we're ready to sell," said Stone, who
believes the Partners for Wildlife program helps ranchers resist
The amount of federal money
involved isn't all that much. Since 1990, the Fish and Wildlife
Service has spent approximately $600,000 on private lands projects
in the Blackfoot Valley, according to the agency's Jim Stutzman,
state coordinator for Montana's Partners for Wildlife. Stutzman
said the agency has helped leverage that money into an additional
$1 million by working with Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited,
Pheasants Forever, and other groups and individuals.
Why cut a successful program? "Unfortunately, we
are in a time of government down-sizing," said Hugh Vickery, a
spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C.
Critics call that false economy.
"It's idiotic," said Farling. "This program is
precisely what the future of a lot of government should be,
especially given the absolutism about private property rights that
is growing in the West."
The director of the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shared her concerns about the
program's proposed demise in a recent memo to Partners for Wildlife
staff. "It goes without saying that this program has provided real,
tangible benefits to the fish and wildlife resource and brought
credit to the Service ..." Beattie wrote.
is Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who in February 1994 spent a day
helping to restore a four-mile section of Dick Creek, a Blackfoot
River tributary. Baucus joined others to install an off-stream
watering system for livestock, skidding logs to the creek for fish
cover, and planting willows along the streambank.
"While it was hard work, it produced immediate
results. We were pushing dirt rather than paper, and that's how
these programs should work," Baucus said. "The Blackfoot Challenge
demonstrates that the federal government, state government and
private landowners can work toward a common good."
Duncan Adams is a free-lance
writer in Anaconda, Montana.