By Erin Hendel and Nathan Korb, The Nature Conservancy in Montana
The Centennial Valley is a place of sweeping sagebrush steppe and wetlands, embraced by the rugged peaks of the Centennial and Gravelly Mountains. Nearly 20 years ago, this valley in the heart of southwest Montana’s High Divide was at high risk of fragmentation by resort and recreational development. The High Divide is a region of small mountain ranges, valleys and sagebrush steppe that connect three of the largest and most intact ecosystems of the Northern Rockies.
In parts of the valley, not so much as a power line mars the view. It remains a working landscape of multi-generational ranches interspersed with public lands. More than 60 percent of the private land in the valley is under permanent conservation, and valley ranches have enrolled more than 45,000 acres in the largest Sage Grouse Initiative project in the Southwest Montana Core Sage Grouse Area.
Here, committed individuals and community groups developed a successful conservation model that has kept the Centennial Valley looking very much as it did more than a century ago.
Landowner Engagement Begins with Stewardship Assistance
The conservation success in the Centennial was born, in part, from an ethic that relationships with private landowners matter. And those relationships often begin with discussions about and assistance on land stewardship.
As a global, science-based conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy in Montana (the Conservancy) has served as one of the primary partners to champion private lands conservation through stewardship. The Conservancy works with landowners on noxious weed management, bringing technology, mapping, and proven conservation strategies to improve sagebrush and riparian habitat. This service is key because weeds threaten the native plant communities that support both wildlife and livestock in the area.
Conservancy staff members work with landowners to develop accurate digital maps that show the level of weed invasion. Using smart phones to find and map patches of weeds, landowners and partners can track infestations and treatment progress. This technology helps landowners to develop multi-year strategies and better prioritize their annual management capacity. These efforts save valuable time and make coordination possible across a large landscape.
As with so many vexing conservation puzzles, community is the key to success. Real progress only happens when many different people work together for a common goal. But coming together is not always easy. In the Centennial Valley, the Conservancy’s staff slowly built trust by first partnering with local landowners through stewardship assistance on noxious weed management. Over time, working with a community who has deep ties to the landscape, the Conservancy was able to develop meaningful partnerships and better approaches to resolving natural resource issues. Today, local ranchers are vocal champions for conservation, and watershed-based conservation organizations lead the effort to restore and steward these lands.
With Trust Established, Conservation Can Be Expanded
In addition to improving weed management across critical wildlife habitat, this work provides the opportunity to meet new landowners and find common ground. Stewardship collaboration builds a relationship for exploring other issues, such as conservation easements, sage grouse habitat conservation programs, conifer encroachment, and wetland restoration.
With support from the Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV), the Conservancy is applying these lessons to other conservation opportunities across the High Divide, including the core sage grouse habitat in the upper Missouri River headwaters. The largely undeveloped valleys identified in the IWJV’s Beaverhead-Centennial Bird Habitat Conservation Area span biologically rich wetlands and extensive, intact sagebrush steppe habitat. In addition to sage grouse, other high priority bird species such as Long-billed Curlew, Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher can be found here as well as mega fauna such as grizzly bear. The Conservancy is working closely with landowners and watershed organizations to expand community-based conservation beyond the Centennial to grow conservation efforts ridgetop to ridgetop.
As we expand this work into the upper Missouri headwaters, we look forward to achieving durable conservation solutions for sagebrush, water, and wildlife in partnership with the people who know this land best.
Editor’s Note: The Centennial is one of the IWJV’s 18 Wetland Focal Areas. In addition to the Conservancy and private landowners, a number of other key partners have played a role in community-based conservation including: Beaverhead County, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners for Fish and Wildlife, and Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, the University of Montana, private foundations, and more. Stay tuned for more information related to the conservation success in this valley.