I worked for the summer on a plant ecology project in the Blackfoot Valley. We had ten field sites throughout the valley, some on the Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range, some on land managed for waterfowl production, some on the UM-owned Bandy Ranch, and some on private land. These different sites were under different management regimes, and it was very interesting to me to observe the differences in plant biodiversity among sites. I enjoyed living in the Blackfoot for the summer, but I was unaware of the invaluable work being done by the Blackfoot Challenge and its partners in the area. Traveling to Ovando for a Wilderness and Civilization field trip, I learned a lot about the place I called home for the summer and was inspired by the effective collaborative work being done.
As a future scientist (in some capacity), I think often about how scientists can take a more active role in implementing management and policy changes. Often, regardless of science, the largest challenge in solving ecological issues is getting land owners and land managers—private and public—to change behavior and policy in order to improve management. In many cases, it doesn’t matter how much data there is supporting a certain solution. Without changes in how we manage and interact with the landscape, effective progress will not happen. Blackfoot Challenge is a great example of how a community has come together to make meaningful behavioral and management changes to conserve land and water resources.
Over 80% of the Blackfoot Valley is currently under some sort of conservation easement or other type of protection, which is unheard of. Worldwide, only a very small fraction of all land is protected in any way. Image the impact if this ratio were applied worldwide! To me, one of the most important factors here is that land in the Blackfoot Valley is under protection, but it is still able to be used by the people who live there to make a livelihood. Jim Stone is a big proponent of conservation, but he is still able to make a living ranching on his land. His process of improving grazing is largely trail-and-error, but he is taking steps to improve his grazing practices to improve plant diversity and wildlife habitat.
I think a lot about how we can change our interactions with the landscape in the interfaces through which we effect it the most—ranching, farming, and extractive industries—in order to improve ecosystem health. Of course, protecting land is important, but the large amount of land that still must be under use by humans in order to support our populations cannot be sacrificed. I appreciate how the Blackfoot Challenge has implemented many types of solutions—creating conservation easements, managing invasive weeds, restoring tributaries of the Blackfoot River, providing educational opportunities, etc. Together, these different methods achieve a much more comprehensive effect than relying on one strategy to improve ecosystem function.