Our Stories

 
David Mannix Blackfoot Challenge
David Mannix, Rancher, Helmville. Photo by Eliza Wiley.

No individual ranch is an island by itself. The more we work together, the more effective we are.

THE MANNIX FAMILY has owned and managed a sprawling ranch in the heart of the Blackfoot Watershed since 1882. Five generations of Mannixes have worked this landscape interwoven with streams that irrigate crops, provide water for cattle, and support blue ribbon native trout fisheries.

“Clean water is an indicator of sustainable management. Ranchers manage that landscape and it’s a measure of how well we’re doing it. In a real practical sense it’s about our survival.”

Over the years, David has experienced the power of partnerships first-hand, through ranch improvements such as sustainable grazing plans, effective drought planning, and restored trout habitat.

When David joined the Blackfoot Challenge Board in 2002, he brought with him the “80/20 rule,” a hallmark of the Challenge’s community-based approach.

“We can agree on so many things if we just talk to people about what they want to achieve. If you can focus on the 80% of issues that we agree on, we can work together, build trust, and find success. Then if we do disagree, the trust is there to keep working on the other 20%.”

“Most of our kids would like to return to the ranch, if they haven’t already. A major reason why is because of this approach. We actively work together. This attitude attracts people who appreciate it.”

Leigh and Kyle Kelly Blackfoot Challenge

Leigh Kelley and Family, Ranch Manager, Paws Up Greenough. Photo by Eliza Wiley.

We want to set future generations up to succeed—and that means looking at a variety of perspectives, not just our own.

WHEN LEIGH AND KYLE KELLEY got married on the banks of the Blackfoot River in 2001, they could only imagine how those waters would bind them, their forthcoming family, their community, and ultimately their livelihood.

Today, Leigh and Kyle manage the Paws Up Ranch, a job that puts them at the center of decisions that will impact the entire watershed for years to come.

“Our vision of the river was narrower in the past. Now we recreate on it, share it with friends and family, teach our kids science in its waters.”

A search for community-based solutions led Leigh to the Blackfoot Challenge. Outfitters, guides, irrigators and fish – all depend on the health of the river.

“The water binds us all together, and we have to find a balance between these uses. A drought management plan helps us do that here on the ranch.”

She sees the work at the Blackfoot Challenge as seeking to find common ground in a shared landscape, with the greatest beneficiaries being her children.

“When I look long-term, we want to set future generations up to succeed – and that means looking at a variety of perspectives, not just our own.”

Kevin Ertl Blackfoot Challenge

Kevin Ertl, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Helmville. Photo by Eliza Wiley.

When you become part of the community, it changes things.

WHEN KEVIN ERTL came to the Blackfoot watershed as an employee of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service nearly 20 years ago, the community was in the early stages of trying to collectively solve water and other natural resource problems to benefit everyone.

This type of work wasn’t part of Kevin’s wildlife management classes at Montana State University, but along with his new neighbors, he dove right in.

Today, Kevin is a passionate proponent of community-based solutions, including the Challenge’s ground-up approach. Why? “Because it works,” he said.

“It’s the community and the people I love the most,” Kevin said. “The health of these waters is the lifeblood of this community.”

The Blackfoot watershed includes vast wilderness, timberlands, private ranch lands, blue ribbon trout streams, and small communities – a mix that carries diverse values.

In the early 1990s, a group of community members and their agency partners decided to put aside their disagreements and focus on what they had in common. A shared concern for the health of the water quickly surfaced. From those conversations arose the Blackfoot Challenge – one of the flagship watershed groups in Montana and beyond.

The Challenge’s ground-up approach attracted its share of naysayers. But Kevin found that the most profound work happened by giving those naysayers a seat at the table. They, too, quickly realized that their commonalities were far greater than their differences.

Ranchers, loggers, anglers, shop owners, state and federal agencies all found their voice around the table – all realizing their interdependence on their shared landscape and ultimately, on each other.

“Being in a small community, I work with folks in so many capacities – from helping them with grazing plans to seeing them at the local basketball game and at funerals,” Kevin said. “When you become part of the community, it changes things.”

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