The Landscape and Livelihood students had a busy week on the Rocky Mountain Front and Blackfoot Valley, focused on collaborative watershed groups and agricultural landscapes. The trip started out with an adventure into Glacier National Park with a hike up to Apgar Lookout. After a series of switchbacks up to the top, the greatest reward was most definitely the absolutely stunning view from the lookout tower. We lucked out with weather and it was a fabulous start to the trip, allowing us to shake out some of the energy after the long drive.
The next morning began with an early start as we headed over to Whitefish to join the Montana Watershed Coordination Council (MWCC) for their biannual symposium. This was an incredible opportunity to observe and participate in collaborative conservation, as watershed groups from across the state came together to share their projects and learn about what’s being done in neighboring watersheds. The students wrote a blog for MWCC that will be available on their website soon. Below is an excerpt from the students’ response to this experience:
After a great day at the symposium we made another long drive to Choteau on the Rocky Mountain Front, catching the first glimpses of snow this season! After a couple of stops to properly take in the mountains blanketed in white (and some mandatory snowball throwing) we arrived in a chilly Choteau just in time to collapse into bed.
The next morning, we met with Mary Sexton at Glen Willow Ranch and Matt Hart from Vital Ground, a land trust organization that focuses on conserving habitat for grizzly bears and other wildlife in the Northern Rocky Mountains and a long time Swan Valley Connections supporter. Mary very kindly showed us around her property and told us about the process of placing an easement on her land that works to balance working landscapes with important habitat corridors. These open spaces along the Rocky Mountain Front are of particular interest to foundations like Vital Ground as grizzly bears have begun to increase their range farther east from the Bob Marshall Wilderness into farm and ranchland.
Following a great day out on Glen Willow ranch we met with Chrissy Hodgkiss at Hodgkiss Seed. Since we haven’t touched much on the seed industry in our coursework, it was interesting to learn about the intricacies of the agricultural markets and how seed producers almost need a crystal ball to predict the demands for the next year. This opportunity to meet with Chrissy also provided insight into what agriculture looks like on the Rocky Mountain Front, providing a comparison to the Mission Valley, where the students learned about different forms of agriculture west of the Divide.
After a couple of days on the Rocky Mountain Front, we drove south into the Blackfoot Valley and arrived at our new digs on the shore of Upsata Lake. Our first day in the Blackfoot Valley we explored the topic of coexistence between carnivores and ranches with SVC’s Executive Director, Rebecca Ramsey. The Blackfoot Valley is largely made up of these ranching landscapes, where conflict can arise as carnivores return to the landscape, sometimes clashing with livestock. Something that doesn’t always come to mind when thinking about this kind of conflict is how deceased livestock can create attractants for large carnivores like bears and wolves. This community recognized the issue and created a carcass compost site to decrease wildlife conflict on the landscape. They’ve had great success and it’s a shining example of how this community came together on a common issue, finding a shared solution that has benefited everyone.
The next morning, we met with David, Logan, and Neil Mannix of Mannix Family Grass-Finished Beef. The Mannix’s shared their wealth of knowledge on raising cattle, conservation easements, and working collaboratively with local people and organizations. It was a great day spent outside visiting the ranch properties, helping pile some brush from a recent timber project on site and visiting some stream restoration projects they had done in conjunction with Trout Unlimited. This was all done with a herd of their adorable black and white cattle dogs in tow. The Mannix’s truly blew us away with their stories about what it’s really like to live and run a business on this working landscape, co-existing with carnivores and elk herds and sharing their insight on tapping into a unique product- grass-finished beef- and how to market it to local consumers.
On the last day of our trip we had the privilege of meeting with Jim, Randy, Sarah, and Katelyn from the Blackfoot Challenge at Jim’s Ranch, the Rolling Stone Ranch. The Blackfoot Challenge is a locally-based organization that formed in the 1970s, working to coordinate efforts that conserve and enhance the natural resources and rural way of life throughout the Blackfoot watershed. They shared how the organization came to be and how it works to bring people together over common goals (utilizing the 80/20 rule, a rule that suggests that 20 percent of your activities will account for 80 percent of your results). Meeting with these amazing people who are actively working on collaborative, community-based conservation efforts was just about the perfect way to wrap up the trip. Our learning adventure began and ended with days studying local and collaborative conservation work, the common thread that ties people and place together.