By Blackfoot Challenge staff

Last year marked the Blackfoot Challenge’s 30th anniversary as an organized, community-driven conservation organization. All of you who support and take part in our work are responsible for the list of great accomplishments that follow. We are ever grateful for your dedication and partnership in the name of collaborative stewardship.

 

BLACKFOOT BIRDS

Restoring trumpeter swans and monitoring bird species across Blackfoot habitats.  Est. 2004.

  • Wrote blog on avian flu in relation to trumpeter swans and other species.
  • Monitored trumpeter swan nests in watershed and Brewer’s sparrow numbers in Helmville-area conifer encroachment project sites.
  • Engaged10 watershed residents in our community science program monitoring populations of long-billed curlews and common loons.
  • Presented to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Migratory Birds and Science Programs field tour.
  • Contributed column on trumpeter swan recovery success for Pathfinder newspaper.
  • Provided raptor education lessons to students at Bonner and Helmville schools.
High school students from Minnesota spent a week immersed in natural resource and collaborative conservation studies with Blackfoot Challenge staff members in 2023.

BLACKFOOT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION AREA

A working landscape that balances ecological diversity with local economic sustainability.  Est 2005.

Management

  • Facilitated 6 council meetings and 10 work group meetings to discuss relevant issues and make management decisions based on the BCCA Management Plan.

 

Forestry

  • Implemented 60 acres of treatments in the “Larch Unit” to improve stand resilience.
  • Received a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) EQIP contract as part of the North Ovando Fuel Reduction Targeted Implementation Plan for 270 acres along the north boundary of the BCCA Core. Developed a detailed forestry prescription, aiming to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires while enhancing wildlife habitat.
  • Coordinated with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on future cross-boundary forest management/habitat projects.

 

Noxious Weed Control

  • Controlled invasive weeds on road systems, forest treatment areas, and native prairies through integrated approaches across 150 acres including biological controls, chemical application, and hand-pulling.

 

Service Projects

  • Hosted multiple volunteer days with university and hunter groups (more than 80 volunteers) to remove old fences and pull noxious weeds. Projects improved conditions and saved thousands of dollars.

 

Education

  • Hosted multiple presentations on and about the BCCA to visiting groups including local schools, university, and international groups.
  • Participated in educational programs (utilizing the BCCA) with area school groups, reaching more than 100 students.

 

Access

  • Provided year-round public access on 5,600 acres, including hiking trails, 8-week motorized use season, and hunting via the Block Management Program.
  • Maintained and expanded 3-mile hiking trail system.
  • Completed road improvements and opened a seasonal, cross-boundary motorized loop in 2023 in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

 

Conservation Programs 

  • Implemented the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program completing multiple conservation enhancements, including wildlife friendly fencing, forest treatments, noxious weed control, and vegetation monitoring.

 

Wetland Enhancements

  • Installed two beaver dam analogs as a demonstration to enhance wetland habitat, reconnect flood plain, and improve late season stock water.

 

EDUCATION

Nurturing watershed awareness and stewardship through place-based education.  Est. 1993.

  • Provided hands-on, investigative outdoor snowpack science experiences to students at Lincoln, Helmville, and Ovando schools.
  • Coordinated forestry lessons for students at Sunset School.
  • Presented on collaborative stewardship to Helena High School students.
  • Delivered bear education activities to youth fishing camp attendees at North Fork Crossing Lodge.
  • Provided aquatic ecology activities with students from Seeley Lake Elementary and the Montana Outdoor Science Academy.
  • Hosted more than 100 middle school students from five watershed schools during our annual Youth Field Day on the Rolling Stone Ranch near Ovando. Blackfoot Challenge staff along with local ranchers provided hands-on activities about ranching and stewardship that met science standards and made learning fun.
  • Alongside multiple program staff, planned, coordinated, and directed weeklong field course on collaborative conservation and natural resource science for students from Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Minnesota.
  • Used the drone to document BCCA larch thinning project, biochar application on ranch lands, and prescribed fire on the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA.

 

FORESTRY

Restoring forest health and reducing wildfire risk in and around local communities. Est. 2008.

  • Facilitated 169 acres of prescribed burning on private lands and supported public partner burns across more than 1,400 acres.
  • Completed 378 acres of forest thinning to improve forest health and reduce fire risk.
  • Conducted six outreach / education tours or events throughout the Blackfoot to showcase prescribed fire effects and efforts.
  • Hosted the Annual Fire Learning Network workshop for dozens of agency and NGO partners who work in fire-prone landscapes.

 

LAND STEWARDSHIP

Supporting landowners through stewardship assistance to enhance watershed-wide resilience.  Est. 2016.

Fuel Reduction

  • Partnered with NRCS on the development of the new fuel reduction initiative. The proposal was funded early in the year, with a goal to reduce fuel loads on over 1,000 acres of private land to mitigate catastrophic wildfires and increase forest resiliency.
  • Conducted landowner outreach to increase awareness and participation in the program. Three contracts were funded in the first year totaling about 500 acres.

 

Grazing Management Assistance

  • Completed project on Kleinschmidt Creek including riparian fencing, stock water gap, and off-stream stock water in preparation for implementing an innovative grazing management system.
  • Assisted Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited (BBCTU), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and landowners with the development of grazing management plan for the Nevada Creek stream restoration project (phase 6), including more than 2 miles of riparian fencing and two stock water gaps.
  • Continued to implement Cottonwood Creek riparian grazing management plan with landowner and lessee. Assisting with planning off-stream stock water in 2024.

 

Soil Health

  • Together with The Nature Conservancy, coordinated the application of biochar on private agricultural lands (including 5 plots, soil testing, biochar/compost transportation, and mixing/spreading by landowners). Coordinated the Biochar Steering Group and used a budget surplus toward purchase, haul, and application of additional biochar for 2024.

 

Conifer Encroachment

  • Together with NRCS and USFWS, continued to plan and coordinate conifer encroachment removal projects in the Helmville area to conserve grassland/sage habitat and rangeland, benefiting rare native bird species.
  • Conducted a joint RFP with private and federal partners resulting in completion of conifer removal across more than 1,000 acres.

 

Fish Screens

  • Assisted BBCTU with maintenance and landowner communications for 8 fish screens to mitigate fish entrainment in irrigation ditches.

 

Education

  • Presented information on soil health to Partnerscapes conference tour group, reaching over 150 participants from around the nation.
  • Gave presentations to University of Montana wildlife biology class on conifer encroachment, University of Idaho range management class on grazing management, and Drummond students on stream restoration.

 

VEGETATION

Integrated, locally led approaches to invasive plant management across fence lines.  Est. 1995.

  • Offered integrated noxious weed management recommendations to landowners including native and exotic plant identification, herbicide application products and rates, biological control with insects, and appropriate reseeding practices.
  • Hosted two weed pulls at the Russell Gates Fishing Access Site for the 25th year.
  • Completed Wildlife Habitat Improvement (WHIP) grant with noxious weed treatments on the BCCA, including spot spray herbicide applications on 271 acres and biological control with insects on 135 acres.
  • Applied for a continuation of the WHIP grant to revisit treated areas and initiate noxious weed treatment on new areas within the BCCA core.
  • Covered approximately 95 miles of the Blackfoot River Corridor Vegetation Management Area in Powell and Missoula counties and treated almost 40 acres of noxious weeds through a Montana Noxious Weed Trust Fund Grant.
  • Met with landowners in the Nevada Creek Vegetation Management Area and applied for a Noxious Weed Trust Fund cost-share grant for the 2024 field season.
  • Assisted in native plant and noxious weed education, weed pulling, and reseeding workshops on the BCCA during student field days.

 

WATER

Voluntary water stewardship grounded in shared knowledge and shared commitment.  Est. 2000.

  • Continued to build shared understanding, vision, and capacity to address river recreation pressures in the watershed through a stakeholder group.
  • Added capacity to the recreation discussion by bringing on a volunteer recreation coordinator and partnering with the University of Montana’s Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management department to collect information for identified data gaps.
  • Completed the 14thyear of our irrigation scheduling program, providing weekly irrigation information, tips, drought strategies, and soil health concerns to over 100 irrigators throughout the watershed.
  • Continued in our 4th year of a soil moisture monitoring program with 17 locations where irrigators track daily soil moisture information, manage their irrigation accordingly, and test different irrigation or cropping strategies.
  • Coordinated and supported partner efforts to collect the second year of data on two hydrologic studies in the watershed – one on the Blackfoot River and one in the Nevada Creek drainage. Results are providing important information to guide strategic implementation of water conservation efforts and are building a dataset that will answer large-scale questions about the hydrology of the watershed.
  • Worked with multiple partners and landowners to monitor stream flow and collect assessment data on three tributary streams in order to inform restoration designs that benefit fisheries, improve drought resiliency, and increase wetland habitats.
  • Working with the Blackfoot Drought Response Committee, implemented drought response in late summer and coordinated with more than 80 drought response participants to ensure shared water conservation.
  • Developed protocols for evaluating restoration projects and long-term water conservation actions to incorporate these projects into individual drought plans.
  • Attended 6 workshops, gaining training in modeling low-streamflow conditions, riverscape restoration and riparian health, outdoor recreation, water rights, and using volunteers to monitor water quantity and quality.
  • Participated in 6 outreach events delivering messages on stream health, water conservation, and collaborative stewardship to over 400 students, natural resource professionals, and landowners.

 

WILDLIFE

Reducing human-wildlife conflicts through proactive and preventative strategies. Est. 2002.

  • Employed Elk Hunt Coordinator to work with hunters on hunting opportunities and scheduled hunts on participating ranches during the elk hunt shoulder seasons.
  • Conducted winter surveys in the Southwest Crown of the Continent for lynx, wolverine, wolves, mountain lions, marten and bobcat.
  • Installed six new electric fences and 2 new drive-over electric mat systems (added to 21 existing mats) to deter grizzly bears from home sites and prevent bears from getting into conflict. Also installed multiple temporary fences to protect chicken coops, livestock feed, orchards and garbage.
  • Removed 330 carcasses from Blackfoot-area ranches to reduce attractants for bears and wolves. Expanded the program to two communities outside the watershed. We now have more than 120 participating ranches and landowners.
  • To improve bear awareness, hosted an interactive “Be Bear Aware” program at one watershed school; hosted a training for staff at an area guest ranch; presented a livestock guard dog workshop to share how dogs may be used to prevent conflicts with bears and wolves.
  • Provided a team of staff and board to consult with Colorado wildlife managers and landowners as they consider conflict management tools for reintroduced wolves.
  • Completed a film about the Blackfoot Challenge Wildlife Program, showcasing the carnivore conflict reduction tools that have been used in the Blackfoot watershed.
  • Employed 2 range riders to monitor livestock and wolf/grizzly movement across 60,000 acres to prevent conflicts.
  • Provided 13 bear-resistant garbage bins to area residents and helped purchase another 35 bins with state and federal partners to lease to residents in Seeley Lake.
  • Assisted with a new bear-aware opportunity at the Old Salt Festival, helping educate hundreds of guests on containing attractants and ensuring there were no conflicts.