The impressive birds didn’t go unnoticed. Their arrival was the first time in nearly 100 years that a breeding pair of trumpeter swans had been seen in the Blackfoot Valley. Louie Bouma—the Post Yard’s owner—paid close attention to the waterfowl on the pond, and immediately knew their appearance was something special.
Nearly 200 years earlier, when Lewis and Clark explored northwestern Montana the swans were a common sight in the valley, but unsustainable hunting—particularly the export of swans for the European hat trade in the late 1800s—nearly wiped them out. This pressure, along with the loss of nesting habitat, ultimately wiped out trumpeter swans from the Blackfoot Valley.
The excitement around the swan’s return was short-lived though. Soon after the pair began to nest, the female died tragically from electrocution after colliding with powerlines. Springing into action, Bouma collected the pair’s four eggs, keeping them warm, and delivered them to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who in turn turned them over to the Montana Waterfowl Foundation.
Thanks to Bouma’s quick response, three of the four eggs hatched. In time, the young swans were returned to the pond that their parents had chosen to raise them. Sixteen years later, this act of kindness, coupled with the community’s extraordinary dedication to living with wildlife, led to the complete restoration of trumpeter swans in the Blackfoot Valley.
On its own merit, this act was noteworthy. Many people would have only shaken their heads at the loss of the mother swan. More might have done nothing at all. That day, however, fortune smiled on the unborn signets. In the Blackfoot Valley, wildlife conservation seems to be woven into the community fabric. For residents, swan restoration was only a chapter in an epic story that had begun to unfold.
Historically, grizzlies, wolves, and ranchers haven’t mixed well. When settlers first landed in the Blackfoot Valley, a full suite of predators thrived there. However, as hunters, trappers, and ultimately homesteaders moved in, wildlife populations took a toll. As in other parts of the west, for some time the status quo held fast. However, in the 1970s landowners in the valley began to discuss the “what-ifs” of banding together to work for conservation. In particular, the residents were concerned about the health of the Blackfoot River. Eventually, these conversations bore fruit when, in 1993, the Blackfoot Challenge was born.
The mission of the Blackfoot Challenge is to “coordinate efforts that conserve and enhance the natural resources and rural way of life throughout the watershed.” These aren’t mere words either. For the past 36 years the group has not only restored wetlands and native grasses, but the native predatory mammals as well. There you’ll find grizzlies, black bears, grey wolves (multiple packs), coyotes, lynx, bobcats, and mountains lions all living near livestock production.
So how has the Blackfoot Challenge accomplished this unique feat? A lot innovation, dedication, and understanding for a start. As Susan G. Clark and Murray B. Rutherford point out in their publication Human–Grizzly Bear Coexistence in the Blackfoot River Watershed, Montana, “The effort [to reduce conflict with grizzlies] focused on changing people's practices and behaviors, not changing their value systems, and emphasized protecting human safety and livelihoods.”
Within the 1.5 million landowner acres that represent the Blackfoot Challenge, the Two Creek Monture Ranch is a shining example of wildlife-friendly beef cattle management. The 21,000-acre ranch, which is managed by Wayne and Karalee Slaght, was the recipient of the 2017 Montana Environmental Stewardship Award. The award “recognizes the outstanding stewardship practices and conservation achievements of U.S. cattle producers from across the nation.” With good reason, it has been lauded as an example of producers living with, rather than eradicating, predators.
In June of 2018 I had the privilege of touring the Two Creek Monture Ranch and was struck by the open, honest discussions that the Slaghts shared with our group. “It’s hard living with [predators],” Slaght recounted. “When my children were little, I worried about sending them out to check fences.” I was struck by the dedication to do right by the ecosystem, even when it has made life more challenging at times. Ranching is difficult enough as it is, but this is what being a steward is all about: making the tough choices for the greater good; knowing that long-term success benefits from those decisions.
To stem grizzly predation of newborn calves, for example, a couple of key strategies were implemented within the Blackfoot Valley community. First, calving grounds were surrounded by electric fencing to deter bears and wolves. Once shocked, grizzlies tend to stay away from the fences, even when the voltage is quite low. Secondly, in 2002 The Blackfoot Challenge worked with local partners to develop a Carcass Pick-up and Range Rider Program. Via this effort, dead calves that would have historically been dumped on ranch land, attracting hungry predators, would instead be removed to off-site landfills. These simple actions have had a significant impact on the number of grizzly-rancher conflicts.
Arriving at the Two Creek Creek Monture Ranch for the Environmental Stewardship Award tour, I was greeted with a wonderful surprise: Louis Bouma, along with other members of the community, were gathered around one of the restored wetlands on the property. They had come to release a new generation of trumpeter swans. The sense of pride was almost tangible, especially from Louis who, after several years, seemed to not have tired of releasing swans back into the land.
In many ways, life in the region is like many other cattle operations in the west. The grass needs to be healthy, weather is a constant variable, and fences always need to be mended. However, the extraordinary difference in the Blackfoot Valley is that the ecosystem is complete and thriving in a way that gives one hope for a future where wildlife and humans can learn to live with one another.
While the Two Creek Monture Ranch isn’t within the boundaries of the Northern Great Plains, World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains Program is a proud sponsor of the Montana Environmental Stewardship Award Program and excited share stories of ranching stewards from across the region.