Touring the Working Landscapes of the Southwest Crown

By SARA HALM

Landscape and Livelihood is an interdisciplinary, experiential field program. Subject matter is intricately woven together to tell the story of a place and the people connected to it. Nevertheless, L&L students evolve in distinct stages throughout the program.

The first half develops a foundation of deep ecological understanding and exposes students to the policies and political structures that govern natural resource management in the West.

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Field journal entries by Ellen Young, Bryn Willingham, and Sam Grinstead

With this knowledge and skill set, they enter the second half of the course looking to explore the complex relationships between people, communities, rural livelihoods, and conservation. The experience culminates with a camping trip though the Blackfoot Valley and Rocky Mountain Front.

Our introduction to the Blackfoot Valley began with a project tour with the Natural Resource Conservation Service. We learned about the agency’s commitment to “helping people help the land” and their programs that expand landowners’ capacity to manage natural resources and increase efficiency in their business. In this way the NRCS works toward conservation solutions that benefit people and landscapes. 

We then traveled to Lake Upsata, our base camp for the next few days and office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Here, we met with the Blackfoot Challenge and studied the ways in which they work to develop collaborative conservation programs. We looked to their drought response program and work of their wildlife committee as case studies of community driven programs that address dynamic natural resource issues. 

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Lake Upsata

After a full day of discussion surrounding the intersection of natural resource management and resilient rural communities, we had the opportunity to help the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited (BBCTU) collect willows for a restoration project on a tributary of the Blackfoot River. BBCTU relies on partnerships with agencies and local contractors to improve and maintain high quality habitat for our native fish species. This work requires advanced technology, heavy equipment, and the expertise to pull it all together. Restoring the historic stream channel and surrounding floodplain enables water traveling down stream during peak flow to better dissipate energy, preventing down-cutting and bank erosion. This was especially key for the landowner, as each spring the stream would claim more of his property, leaving less pasture for his cattle. Projects like these show us that we can create conservation solutions that benefit fish, ranchers, and rural economies.     

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To further understand the economic and community structure of the Blackfoot Valley, we spent the day with Logan Mannix, of Mannix Family Grass Finished Beef. Logan described what life in the year of a rancher looks like, from calving to round up to pregnancy testing. He spoke of his family’s deep roots, as the Mannix family has been ranching in the Blackfoot since 1882, as well their long term vision of caring for the land so that it continues to support biodiversity and livelihoods.

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Logan Mannix and L&L ‘17

Our final day in the Blackfoot watershed entailed collecting environmental DNA (also known as eDNA) samples with the Clark Fork Coalition. Each sample is obtained by pumping stream water through a filter fine enough to capture trace amounts of nuclear or mitochondrial DNA, such shed hair or scales. This method is an evolving, noninvasive tool used to assess whether a species is present or absent in an environment. In this case, the Clark Fork Coalition is working with the Rocky Mountain Research Station to collect samples in cold water streams that have a  >25% probability of containing bull trout. We sampled a tributary of the Blackfoot River in Lincoln, but this study is occurring across bull trout range throughout the northwest U.S. 

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Collecting eDNA with Clark Fork Coalition

We then left the Blackfoot Valley and moved our base camp to Choteau. The Rocky Mountain Front is a striking landscape, where the Great Plains meet the Northern Rockies and the wind blows constantly. We took a day to get acquainted with this new assemblage of plants and rocks and hiked Blackleaf Canyon.

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Exploring Blackleaf Canyon

We were fortunate to be able to spend an afternoon with Kim Shields the Grizzly Bear Management Technician with Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Here we were able to compare and contrast grizzly bear management on the Front with that of the Rocky Mountain interior. From a glance, natural resource issues appear the same across the West, but with further inquiry and investigation you’ll find that each landscape and community has its unique set of challenges and opportunities.

Hiking Antelope Butte with Kim Shields of Fish, Wildlife and Parks

We concluded our journey with a stop at Timeless Seeds in Ulm. Timeless processes, markets, and distributes lentils, chickpeas, and barley organically grown by Montana family farms. Timeless is the catalyst of the “Lentil Underground” described in Liz Carlisle’s 2015 book. David Oien, co-founder of Timeless and main character of the book, gave us a tour of their humble facility and shared his views of sustainable food systems. We discussed the delicate balance of people, profit, and planet and mined his knowledge and experience surrounding agriculture and agribusiness.

 
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We returned to the homestead bursting with gratitude for all the people and places we visited. This trip concluded the field portion of the semester, leaving the students with their Community Conservation Projects. In the final days of the program, the students designed, implemented, analyzed, and presented these independent projects, exemplifying all that they had learned. Bryn Willingham, a student at University of Massachusetts, developed a project inspired by the popular photo series “Humans of New York”, where she aimed to humanize rural life and ask individuals that have lived in the valley for varying lengths of time what they viewed as the biggest challenges facing the community. “Humans of the Swan Valley” can be viewed here: https://humansoftheswanvalley.tumblr.com.

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Departure is bittersweet, as the students are excited to re-enter their lives but reluctant to leave each other and the Barn. We’re also sad to see them go, but hope that they take what they’ve learned here and carry it with them.

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Departing in a snow storm