The Blackfoot River begins atop the Continental Divide and empties into the Clark Fork River east of Missoula, Montana. In its 132 mile journey, the river runs through some of the most productive fish and wildlife habitat in the Northern Rocky Mountains. The valley floor contains glaciated wetland complexes, native scrub/shrub riparian areas and Blue Ribbon trout streams. Mountain ranges, National Forests, and Wilderness Areas surround the valley. The valley’s unique habitat diversity supports a wide variety of fish and wildlife species. There are approximately 2,500 households and seven separate communities spanning the 1.5 million-acre Blackfoot watershed.
Issues in the watershed include the loss of the rural way of life as large family ranches were being sold and subdivided for development purposes; a history of poor mining, logging, and livestock grazing practices leading to degraded water quality in the Blackfoot River and its tributaries; and the loss of a large, intact, and diverse landscape to support healthy populations of fish, wildlife, flora and communities.
The Blackfoot Challenge is a landowner-based group that coordinates management of the Blackfoot River, its tributaries, and adjacent lands. Although its charter dates to 1993, Blackfoot landowners and land managers have played an instrumental stewardship role since the late 1970s—bringing conservation easement legislation, walk-in hunting areas, and public recreation corridor management to Montana. These public and private partnerships were formalized with the inception of the Blackfoot Challenge whose mission then, as today, follows a consensus-based approach to include all public and private stakeholders. That mission is to coordinate efforts to conserve and enhance the natural resources and rural way of life in the Blackfoot Watershed of western Montana for present and future generations. Assuming a “ridge-top to ridge-top” approach, Blackfoot Challenge members have established committees and work groups to address evolving issues associated with the natural resources and rural way of life in the Blackfoot over the years. Today these committees include Conservation Strategies, Education, Forestry, Outreach, Water Resources, Weeds, and Wildlife. The Blackfoot Challenge’s partner and forerunner, the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, leads on-the-ground fisheries habitat restoration efforts throughout the watershed. All share a common vision of how the Challenge operates in the Blackfoot watershed and believe that success will be achieved by building trust, partnerships, and working together.
The list of Blackfoot Challenge partners is long and includes private landowners and land managers, state and federal public agencies, non-profit organizations, private businesses, community members, elementary and high school teachers, counties, conservation districts, weed districts, and numerous private foundations.
The results achieved by the Blackfoot Challenge are impressive both in diversity and scale. Areas of accomplishment include: weed management (45,000 acres in integrated weed management); keeping large landscapes intact (125,000 acres of conservation easements); stream, wetland, and grassland restoration (100 miles, 2,600 acres and 2,300 acres respectively); development of a multi-stakeholder voluntary drought response plan; improvements in irrigation efficiency (both water use and energy use for pumping); over 600 miles of fish passage improvement; over 500 acres of forest thinned annually for both forest health and community safety; community involvement through conservation planning and management of a 41,000 acre community forest; reduction in wildlife-human conflicts through programs designed to minimize predator and livestock conflicts (carcass removal, bear-resistant dumpsters and electric fencing around calving areas and beehives); and education and outreach including involvement with all nine local schools, continuous outreach to the valley communities, and reaching 3,000 people annually through presentations, workshops, articles, tours, and adult/youth education programs.