Emily Downing

Beyond the Banks: Collaborative Conservation in Montana’s Big Hole Valley

Ranchers don’t really raise cattle, according to John Richardson. They raise grass.

Richardson, who owns the Hat Creek Ranch in Montana’s Big Hole Valley, said he knows that healthy grass means healthy cattle, and healthy grass, of course, comes from healthy soil and water. Richardson said he keeps soil and water health at the forefront of his ranch practices, from installing solar wells to building wildlife-safe fencing to preventing overgrazing by raising a smaller herd once every few years. Protecting and restoring riparian areas improves soil and water quality, and can also make a huge difference when it comes to livestock and wildlife health.

But while these measures may seem costly and unattainable in the short term, they can actually help a ranch’s profits in the long run. If anything, Richardson said, those measures have helped his bottom line by making a healthier environment in which to run his cattle.

“A working ranch can coexist with conservation,” he said. “It costs the same or maybe less to build a fence that will meet your needs and provide for wildlife, and the same with your water resources. With a little thought, not only are these measures economic to operate but they also provide wildlife with water. There’s a way to make a ranch profitable and good for wildlife.” 

Hat Creek Ranch is also one of many working ranches in the Big Hole that participate in the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) program. The CCAA program was established in the early 2000s to help local landowners manage their operations to keep the local population of Arctic grayling from being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The program prioritizes the needs of landowners to provide them with the tools and support they need to make conservation-minded decisions on their own property.

The Big Hole River winds its way through private land in Montana’s Big Hole Valley.

When Gail and John Dooling put in two stock water tanks on their land, for instance, they were thinking more about getting their cattle water than they were of conserving fish. Mike Roberts, the then-hydrologist for Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), had recently knocked on their door and told them about the budding CCAA program. 

Gail said it was a no-brainer. Their cows needed water, and getting help installing the tanks made it easier than continuing to draw water from the Big Hole River when it slowed to a trickle during the drier months of the summer. Plus, she said, they knew that keeping water in the river would keep the grayling healthy, and potentially prevent the species from getting listed.

“We don’t want to see the fish get listed,” she said. “It was something we could do.”

Both the Hat Creek and the Dooling Ranch are two of many examples of the combined power of individual conservation efforts on the Big Hole. The CCAA program, now in its 14th year, has helped many such ranchers in the Big Hole make site-specific plans for their properties to improve the way they use water. For the landowners, participating in the program means a task list for riparian management plans, riparian and vegetation recovery, weed treatment, irrigation improvement, fish passage, and flow maintenance plans. In return, landowners receive assistance with conservation practices that help their operations and provide legal protection from potential future ESA listings of threatened or endangered species. 

In the Big Hole, this means that ranchers can still use flood irrigation techniques to grow hay and keep their cattle fed. An ESA listing of a freshwater fish like grayling, especially on an important tributary of the Missouri River like the Big Hole River, would change how much water can be drawn from the river and by whom.

“Flood irrigation is a huge part of the ranching community, and it’s a huge part of production in the valley,” said Jarrett Payne, the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) Riparian Ecologist for the Arctic Grayling Recovery Program. “With a federal listing, that might change a landowner’s ability to use the water for flood irrigation.”

The CCAA’s projects have helped prevent that through a number of methods: increasing the number of stream gauges in the watershed and ramping up streamflow monitoring, providing ranchers like the Doolings with stock tanks to water their cattle in late summer and early fall when flows are low, replacing old headgates, and helping landowners align their irrigation ditches to improve delivery efficiency. Projects have also focused on restoring riparian areas, improving fish passage, and preventing entrainment by installing fish screens.

Examining a fish passage structure on the Big Hole River as a fawn crosses the river just downstream.

Because of the community efforts, the Big Hole’s population of breeding adult grayling in recent years (2012-2019) is up 172 percent over past estimates (2007-2011). Where there were once somewhere between one and two thousand grayling, Montana FWP now estimates the river’s population is between three and six thousand individual fish. In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) made the decision that the grayling was not warranted as a candidate for ESA listing. 

The program has helped ranchers make decisions about how to fit both conservation and the business of ranching into the same sentence. Jim Magee, who has worked on the CCAA program since the beginning through his role with the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, said it’s that message that has rung true with most landowners.

“We’ve always said to landowners that we’re not here to hurt the bottom line, the ability to run a ranch economically and sustainably,” he said. “We actually think we can make it even more economic and sustainable.”

From left to right: Jim Magee, Sean Claffey, Kyle Tackett, Pedro Marques, and Jim Berkey pose for a photo in the Big Hole.

Pitting wildlife against agriculture is the first mistake typically made in conservation, but Tim Griffiths, the West Regional Coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Working Lands for Wildlife program and the former area biologist for the agency, said that’s not what happened here. In the Big Hole, one of the first steps taken by FWP, NRCS, USFWS, and the DNRC was to equalize landowner needs with the habitat needs of the grayling by going to individual ranchers and asking them what projects and resources could be helpful. Then, efforts were made to prioritize those projects. Initially, that meant providing a cost-share program for irrigation infrastructure enhancements that would help improve the farmer’s yields while keeping water in the river. It was expensive – the NRCS spent about $1 million on this effort in the first year – but Griffiths said it really helped get the landowners to trust the agencies.

“Every solution had to not only work for the fish, but for the rancher,” he said. “The landowner’s goals were always front and center in the conversation. That’s what led to working lands solutions that allowed widespread adoption of the requirements and ultimately led to widespread benefits.”

Using a multi-agency strategy was another successful way of approaching the challenge. Because the directive was coming from the top levels at all the involved agencies, it made streamlining the CCAA and conservation requirements easier. Plus, doing so meant that landowners didn’t have to go through multiple agencies and complete mountains of paperwork to participate. As a result, the Big Hole community saw widespread participation in the program.

Today, said Magee, nearly 500 projects are on the ground in the Big Hole. He likens it to “death by a thousand cuts, life by a thousand Band-Aids.” It’s hard to point to any single project that is going to save the grayling, he said, but all of them combined make a huge difference. Griffiths agreed. Because the solutions were very practical for landowners to carry out, he said, every member of the community was able to do a little bit on their own properties, which added up to landscape-scale conservation that doesn’t stop at the water’s edge.

Irrigation infrastructure on the Big Hole River is just one of the tools used by the CCAA program to deliver for both ranchers and Arctic grayling.

This is the view with which the agencies and their partners have approached their work in the Big Hole. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has played a role in protecting 40,000 acres of private land in the Big Hole under conservation easements (including Hat Creek Ranch) and has helped bring some of the landowners it works with to the table to participate in the CCAA. Jim Berkey, who works for TNC in the area, said that spreading this message of balancing conservation and business can really only come with years – and sometimes decades – of trust-building and relationship development.

“It really doesn’t matter if it’s water and fish, sage grouse and sage steppe, or migratory paths and pronghorn, what it really boils down to is how we as conservation practitioners earn the trust of the community and the private landowners enough so we can build landscape-wide conservation momentum,” Berkey said.

One key aspect in building that trust is to invite cooperation, not conflict, every single time. The holistic interagency approach to the grayling challenge took into account not just the fish but the entire ecosystem. This is something Griffiths concurred is a vital step for conservation efforts concerning endangered species.

“The first step is to approach it as an ecosystem problem and not a species problem,” he said. “If you start there, everyone can see themselves in that ecosystem picture and you can create a common vision.”

The Big Hole’s ranchers – people like Richardson and the Doolings – are the reason these programs have worked, according to Pedro Marques, who is the executive director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee. The consensus-based nonprofit organization has helped with the CCAA grayling recovery program since the beginning, in addition to other river restoration, wildlife conflict, and drought projects around the Big Hole. Marques said that the most important part of these conservation initiatives is landowners being free to continue operating their businesses in a profitable way.

“Folks who depend on the resource for their livelihoods and steward the land are the ones who need to be front and center and empowered to start the conversations,” Marques said.

This commitment to collaboration with landowners will continue to drive the way the CCAA program evolves and adapts to new challenges faced in the valley. Sean Lewis, the District Conservationist for the Dillon/Sheridan NRCS office, said that he looks forward to continuing the process of working with landowners to generate new ideas about what projects are needed and how to do them. An upcoming meeting with landowners will help keep the ball rolling.

“I’m hoping there are some great ideas that come out of that meeting and future discussions that we haven’t contemplated yet,” Lewis said.

That forward-looking and long-range mentality is a big part of the framework of the CCAA. Patience, and understanding that good work takes time, is a significant reason the effort has been so sustainable. Kyle Tackett, who worked as the NRCS District Conservationist in Dillon before working as the NRCS Partnerships Liaison, said that conservation efforts often think things can be fixed in a hurry, whereas the reality is that it takes time.

“It takes time to build relationships,” he said. “It takes time to understand the ecosystem and landscapes you work in. It takes time to reach the point at which the relationships between the landowners and agencies are mature enough to get the work done.”

Letting those relationships mature has required tenure from agency staff, as well as patience from everyone involved. But the result is a legacy of trust among landowners and federal and state agencies, something that is key to bridging the gap between the desire to enact lasting change and conservation outcomes.

None of this would have come about, either, without an elemental community understanding of the importance of the river and the habitat it feeds. This is what helps make the difference between a dry Big Hole River and one that provides fish habitat and a healthy riparian corridor come late summer. Phil Ralston, who runs a generations-old operation at the far north end of the valley, said he thinks this comes naturally to everyone who ranches in the Big Hole Valley

“One of the things I’ve always said is that we’ve got land and water and everything else,” he said. “If you don’t take care of the water, you’re going to lose the rest of it.”