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 snake.


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 agency.


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 for Wildlife.


"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 financial assistance."


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 equipment.


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.





A rocky start


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 Unlimited.


"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 the table."


"We're making a lot more headway through cooperation than through litigation," said Sullivan.


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.


The Challenge 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.


Cochran said 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.


"We're trying 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.





A 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 temptation.


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.


An ally 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." n





Duncan Adams is a free-lance writer in Anaconda, Montana.