Header photo: Laura Verhaeghe
Seth joined the Challenge as Executive Director in September. He grew up in West Cornwall, CT and holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Government from St. Lawrence University, a M.S. in Environmental Studies as well as a Ph.D. in Forestry from the University of Montana in Missoula, MT. He was a post-doctoral research fellow at Yale University from 2009-2010. While conducting his doctoral research, Seth began working for the Blackfoot Challenge in 2001 as the organization’s first Wildlife Coordinator, helping to gather baseline data and develop strategies to reduce conflicts with grizzly bears and wolves that are still hallmarks of the program today. As an applied conservation biologist, Seth has worked on resolving issues between people and wildlife in the United States, Canada, and Europe for more than 20 years. Recently, he spent three years in Slovenia as an advisor to the Slovenian Forest Service and partners from Italy, Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, and Romania to support brown bear and Eurasian lynx conservation and management. When not working, Seth enjoys cycling, skiing, traveling, cooking, and watching all three of his children play hockey.
Before joining the Challenge, Eric spent 15 years working for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks on grizzly bear DNA and population estimates and carnivore tracking. A Missoula native and University of Montana graduate, Eric joined the Challenge in 2013 as the seasonal Range Rider, monitoring wolf and grizzly bear activity in proximity to livestock. In 2016, Eric moved into the full-time Wildlife Coordinator position with the Challenge, spending the winters monitoring carnivore activity, including wolverine, lynx, and fisher, in addition to range riding in the summer. The relationships Eric has built with ranchers throughout the watershed are critical to the success of the Range Rider and Carcass Pick-Up Programs.
Sara grew up in Missoula and her strong interest in watershed well-being stems from her childhood camping around western Montana and northern Minnesota with her family. She began working for the Challenge in 2011 as a Big Sky Watershed Corps member, and now coordinates strategic communications for the Challenge. Additionally, Sara coordinates the Conservation Strategies Committee and its workgroups focused on Conservation Easements and Montana Forests, the lands currently owned by The Nature Conservancy of Montana. Sara received a BS in Conservation and Resource Studies from UC-Berkeley in 2009, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Resource Conservation at the University of Montana focusing on rural economic development. She enjoys spending time with family, friends, her partner Jase, and her pup Apollo, and gets into the mountains to ski, run, and hike as often as she can.
Brad received a BS in Wildlife Biology from University of Montana and an MS in Protected Landscape Management from University of Wales. Brad has worked in a variety of positions from wildlife research assistant in Yellowstone National Park and the Bitterroot National Forest, deckhand and visitor information specialist in Alaska, to US Peace Corps volunteer and ecotourism consultant for seven years in and around Mt. Elgon National Park in Uganda. Brad began working in the Blackfoot watershed in 2005 with the North Powell Conservation District. He joined the Challenge in 2009 as the Land Steward, where today he continues to work with the Blackfoot Community Conservation Area Council and private landowners across the watershed to accomplish their land stewardship goals. Brad thoroughly enjoys life in western Montana with his son, Corbin, 10, where you can find them riding, floating, driving, photographing, or during fall, hiking to, searching for, or hauling something along the way.
With a doctorate in ecology from the University of Montana and a postdoc in science education with the National Science Foundation, Elaine brings her combined experiences in research and education to her current position. Her interests in conservation, how science works, and how people learn all merge to help her share the excitement of learning and teaching about the natural world. Elaine lives in the Ovando area with her husband and two daughters, where they love to ski, hike, ride horses, view wildlife, and enjoy all the other special opportunities the Blackfoot has to offer.
Karen Laitala joined the Blackfoot Challenge in 2013. Before moving to Montana in 2009, she worked for the Nez Perce Tribe Biocontrol Center in Lapwai, Idaho. She received a BS in Environmental Field Biology, with an emphasis on botany, from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, and an MS in Plant Science from the University of Idaho, Moscow (studying Eurasian watermilfoil, which required learning to dive as all of the plots were underwater!). While in Idaho, she worked on weed management research projects that included range and cropland environments. Karen also works for Powell County Weed District, where she has held the position of weed project coordinator since 2010.
Jennifer Schoonen joined the Blackfoot Challenge in 2013 and has since managed programs that cover drought management, irrigation efficiency, water quality issues, and collaborative watershed stewardship. Previously, Jennifer worked for the National Forest Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Jennifer holds a MS in Journalism and Natural Resource Management from the University of Arizona. She grew up in a small town in Eastern Arizona’s White Mountains, in a region that nurtured her interests in the intersection of natural resource stewardship and rural community needs. In her free time, Jennifer enjoys hiking, camping, fishing, and traveling with her husband, Tony, and daughters, Carli and Brooke.
Sydney grew up in New Mexico and moved to Montana in 2015 to be closer to her family ranch in Northwestern Montana, where her family has been logging and ranching since 1903. Sydney has an undergraduate degree from Carleton College and a graduate degree from University of Montana in Environmental Studies focusing on food, agriculture, and sustainable ranching. As Operations Manager, she coordinates administration, human resources, and fundraising development for the Challenge. In her free time she judges gymnastics and travels around the state in search of the best fishing spots and baked goods.
Deb is the Office Administrator for the Blackfoot Challenge and works out of the Ovando office. She lives in Ovando and is very active in the community—she serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the Cemetery Board, volunteers as a librarian at the Ovando Grade School, and issues burn permits and rents meeting space for the Ovando Volunteer Fire Department, among other efforts. Deb also provides administrative assistance to the local Blackfoot Community Conservation Area Council, as well as Partners for Conservation, a national landowner-led conservation organization. Deb is married to Larry Dillree and she enjoys spending time with family and grandchildren, camping, riding snowmobiles, and all outdoor activities.
Melissa was born and raised in Cutbank, Montana, and her rural upbringing instilled in her a love of conservation and land stewardship that she has kept as the focal point of her career. She has two undergraduate degrees from the University of Montana where she studied biology and finance. As the Finance & Grants Manager, Melissa brings with her more than 10 years of nonprofit finance experience. In her free time, she shares her love of the outdoors with her son Cash.
Cindy grew up in the heart of the Blackfoot Valley at the DNRC Clearwater Unit headquarters. She attended Sunset School, Seeley Lake Elementary, and Seeley Swan High School before moving to Missoula. Cindy received her BS in Forestry from the University of Montana and fought fire with the Seeley Lake Ranger District and the Missoula Smokejumpers. She then did a 6-year stint in the US Army. She returned to Montana in 2006 and was hired at the Montana DNRC. She worked her way back to the Clearwater Unit where she was most recently a Trust Lands Management Forester. Cindy joined the Blackfoot Challenge in 2020. She especially loves hiking with her family, skiing, backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, and most recently playing ice hockey.
Header photo: Laura Verhaeghe