In 1992, Montana's Blackfoot River watershed was listed among the ten most endangered rivers systems in the United States. Today, the watershed's sustainability serves as a model for conservation efforts around the world. Through a network of cooperative, community-based partnerships, the Grass Roots Conservation initiative successfully rewards the voluntary conservation of habitats for wolves, trout, grizzlies, and other wildlife, which has had a profound effect of the vitality of the Blackfoot River Watershed.
This cooperative approach is particularly unique in the western United States where tension between private landowners and property rights activists, and government regulators and conservation organizations is commonplace. For years, these communities have depended on activities such as mining, livestock grazing, and timber harvest for their livelihood. Unfortunately, these practices often conflicted with conservation agencies' goals of maintaining sustainable ecosystems. Over the years, it became increasingly clear that the traditional government conservation approach of top-down, agency-led planning and decision-making failed to effectively protect the fragile ecosystems and only led to increasing tension between parties.
The residents of the Blackfoot River watershed addressed these shortcomings by adopting a grassroots approach to establish partnerships among area residents who shared a common goal of preserving the single resource the entire community depended on—the Blackfoot River watershed. In 1993, local citizens and representatives from other state and federal natural resource agencies joined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to create the Blackfoot Challenge, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting cooperative conservation efforts in the Blackfoot Watershed. Rather than using ineffective regulatory threats, the program empowers local landowners to act in ways that improve resources on their lands and meet natural resource objectives while maintaining their rural lifestyle activities such as ranching, hunting, fishing, and timbering.
As of 2006, over 660 diverse partners had joined in this effort, including private landowners; conservation organizers; local, state and federal agencies; timber companies; and private foundations. Together, they have placed 90,000 acres of private lands in conservation easements; developed stream flow protection plans that involve "shared sacrifice" in times of drought; and undertaken 500 projects with 147 landowners involving the restoration of 38 miles of streams, 62 miles of river and stream banks, 2,600 acres of wetlands, and 2,300 acres of grassland. The initiative has also managed to significantly reduce human-wildlife conflicts by introducing preventative and proactive conflict abatement strategies and projects.
By bringing together diverse stakeholders, Grass Roots Conservation serves as a pioneering cooperative approach to sustaining a biologically diverse and significant 1.5- million-acre ecosystem while maintaining the economic well-being of the community. Although these two goals are often considered mutually exclusive, the Grass Roots Conservation program's exemplary model proves that ecological sustainability and economic sustainability are in fact intricately linked. By adopting this successful cooperative-based conservation model, other communities located in ecologically threatened areas could also effectively preserve environmentally significantly ecosystems for future generations.