Many people remember the 1992 film, A River Runs Through It, because it features Brad Pitt in one of his first leading roles. But there is no question that the true star of the movie was Montana’s Blackfoot Valley. The splendor of the high mountains and pristine streams entranced audiences and helped the film earn an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Unfortunately, economic development and past land management practices led to the decline in water quality and left local authorities looking for a way to protect this unique natural resource. Greg Neudecker of the Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with several landowners, built a coalition of more than 660 partners, including federal and state government officials, local landowners and conservation groups, that successfully executed a plan to restore fish and wildlife habitat. In the process, they created a model for effective public-private partnerships that can serve as the foundation of effective conservation policies.
The Blackfoot’s amazing habitat diversity supports equally diverse fish and wildlife populations. It is a stronghold for native fish such as bull trout. Grizzly bears are abundant. Gray wolves, Canada lynx and bighorn sheep are also common. A myriad of migratory birds are attracted to the native prairie, wetlands and streams. Key migratory bird species include the bald eagle, trumpeter swan, sandhill crane and peregrine falcon. Unfortunately, there were growing signs beginning in the 1990s that the valley’s environmental health was in jeopardy, as fish stocks and animal populations began to decline.
The challenge with protecting this area is that the waters cut a path through national wilderness areas, national forests, wildlife refuges and private ranchlands. Traditionally, federal officials and private landowners have not always seen eye-to-eye on conservation issues. Greg Neudecker successfully brought these groups together with a new approach that considered the people, and their disparate interests and values, and not just the wildlife.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service involves “working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats.” Building these coalitions requires federal employees who embrace partnerships, take risks and embrace nontraditional approaches. Neudecker has done all these things in the Blackfoot Valley.
Neudecker worked to create the Blackfoot Challenge, a landowner-led watershed group that believes we can build better communities through cooperation. All the interested parties came together through the Challenge to identify their common natural resources concerns and craft multi-lateral conservation efforts in the valley. It also serves as an information clearing-house for all land management activities in the Blackfoot Valley.
This community-based cooperative project has protected 140,000 acres of private land with conservation easements and fee acquisition; restored 100 miles of stream habitat; restored 2,500 acres of wetlands; implemented integrated invasive weed management on 480,000 acres; and developed a comprehensive environmental education program involving every public school in the Watershed. In the process it has also restored fish populations, including the bull trout, which had been on the endangered species list.
Neudecker’s ability to get ranchers, federal officers and environmental groups on the same page and working together is so unique that he has been asked to lecture on the topic of cooperative conservation all across the country. He also uses the partnership model as the foundation for a graduate level biology course that he teaches at the University of Montana.
Neudecker has already helped preserve one remarkable natural resource. Maybe his strategies will lead to a Hollywood ending and similar success stories all across the country.