It’s hard to fit a cowboy hat into an airplane seat. Just ask Missouri River Conservation Districts Council (MRCDC) members Dean Rogge and Steve Wanderaas, who traveled to Denver with MRCDC Coordinator Rachel Frost, to meet with US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) personnel at the Regional Offices. The reason for the meeting was 1,100,000 acres in the heart of Montana, better known as the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR NWR). The retirement of former Refuge Manager, Rick Potts, has left the Refuge and the surrounding communities wondering who the new project leader will be and what direction they will choose for the Refuge. As founders of the Charles M. Russell NWR Community Working Group (CMR CWG), the MRCDC has a vested interest in the new Project Leader and high hopes for their desire to work with the surrounding landowners and community.
The visit was intended to convey the interest landowners have in leveraging conservation in partnership with the Refuge. Despite the large size of the CMR, it is not capable of supporting the desired populations of wildlife that make Montana special. However, when private landowners and public land managers communicate and work toward common goals while protecting the economic viability of a region, amazing things can be accomplished in the name of conservation. Rogge and Wanderaas, both ranchers from the area, expressed these convictions to Mike Blenden, Regional Refuge Manager for Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada at his office in Denver. The ranchers described the CMR Community Working Group and its diverse members ranging from landowners, Conservation District (CD) supervisors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), agencies and interested citizens, and the importance of the CMR staff maintaining involvement with the group. Then they briefed Blenden on current cooperative conservation efforts spearheaded by the CDs that involved the Refuge as a partner, such as the Montana Saltcedar Team and the Montana Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) program. Blenden was understandably impressed by the extent of positive activities initiated by the local CDs and intrigued at the extent to which districts have reached out to the Refuge as partners.
“For any conservation effort to be successful, it has to have local buy-in and support”, Dean Rogge advocated. Mike Blenden agreed and conveyed that the new era for Refuge management was to work in cooperation with the local community, and not operate as an island of federal land with a completely different management objective. Mr. Blenden expressed his interest in attending a CMR CWG meeting in person and a new-found appreciation for the local communities and their potential to enhance the overall experience of the CMR. MRCDC believes the meeting set the stage for a positive relationship between CDs and the new Refuge Manager, who should be on the job sometime early in 2015.
The trip to Denver concluded with a short meeting with Michael Thabault, Assistant Regional Director of Ecological Services. Mr. Thabault is leading the Service’s efforts to determine if the Greater Sage Grouse should be listed as endangered. Rogge and Wanderaas conveyed the interest of Montana landowners to creating a similar success story for sage grouse as the story of Arctic Graying in the Big Hole Valley, where it was recently determined that the species did not warrant federal protection. Thabault provided insight on the decision making process employed by the Fish and Wildlife Service and educational opportunities for landowners to understand the implications of having an endangered species on their land. MRCDC will work with the Montana Association of Conservation Districts (MACD) and other groups to bring these educational opportunities to Montana landowners.