Finding a Balance: UM Student Research Supports BLM Efforts on Blackfoot River
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: June 11, 2024

Finding a Balance: UM Student Research Supports BLM Efforts on Blackfoot River

By Emily Senkosky, UM News Service

MISSOULA – A new conservation rule adopted by the Bureau of Land Management in April marks a new era for environmental stewardship in Montana. Now the BLM can lease land for conservation and restoration purposes, not just for mining, drilling and grazing.

This ability to lease will assist the agency in achieving its goals related to climate change, water security and biodiversity. For the BLM’s slice of the Blackfoot River corridor, students in the University of Montana’s Parks, Tourism and Recreation Management program were some of the first to investigate how the impacts of different recreation types are threatening wildlife species.

The BLM’s land in the lower Blackfoot River corridor started at 40 acres and has grown to nearly 60,000 acres over the past 20 years. This area is vital for connecting biodiversity within the Crown of the Continent – the most intact ecosystem in the U.S.

According to Maria Craig, the outdoor recreation planner for the BLM, the area is still technically being acquired by the agency. But the implications of this huge increase in responsibility spurred the agency to jumpstart their data collection for conservation.

UM students focused on the Johnsrud area, just 45 minutes away from Missoula. The recreation hot spot has grown in popularity as the area’s population has swelled. BLM wildlife biologists worked closely with students to help guide the project’s focus on wildlife and the impacts that various types of recreation have on the biodiversity that exists near Johnsrud.

The capstone course, led by PTRM Program Director and Associate Professor Jennifer Thomsen, is designed to get students into the field and apply their research to real-world management scenarios while supporting meaningful community engagement. This was the first time the BLM partnered with UM’s PTRM program.

“I was really excited to give students an experience that helped them understand what it means to work for a land management agency,” said Craig. “I think the work they put in helped them to understand the types of issues the recreation program faces.”

The project began last fall, with the BLM identifying eight species most at risk in the area – lynx, wolverine, mule and white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and grizzly and black bears. PTRM students Cole Hugus, Andrew Lepore, Trenton Kriz and Jacob Bares were assigned a species or two before each conducted extensive research on how their specific wildlife species was impacted by recreation.

The students were not only tasked with finding the most relevant literature on the impacts of recreation for wildlife, but also had to put their boots on the ground and talk to a variety of wildlife biologists and land managers who have conducted wildlife management plans related to recreation. Doing the legwork, the students realized the challenge of land management when there are a variety of different users at stake.

“What we found was that it’s really going to be a balance of access versus habitat integrity,” Hugus said. “And either way, someone is going to be angry, but it’s really about balancing the interests of the stakeholders with the habitat.”

The students then synthesized their findings into a 70-page report aimed at helping the BLM develop management applications that consider these species when it comes to recreation. According to Hugus and Lepore, understanding the different ways that recreation impacts each species during different times of the year was the biggest insight they gained from their research.

“I went to their presentation and learned a few interesting things, like the different impacts from walking versus biking on ungulates,” Craig said.

The Blackfoot River corridor saw a significant uptick in users across seasons in recent years. There is now a fine balance between each season’s set of increased use – from shed hunters and backcountry snowmobilers in the winter, to kayakers and campers in the summer. The challenge is to provide each demographic with an equitable amount of access while ensuring conservation of the wildlife that often brings people there in the first place.

“You have to give access, but not so much that it could lead to overharvest or too much harassment of a species,” said Lepore.

From their time in the field witnessing the culmination of these changes, Hugus and Lepore believe the BLM will have to do more seasonal closures, simply for lack of funding and ability to conduct enforcement. Certain seasons, especially the winter, lead to encroachment on habitats that are often foundational to some species’ hibernation and survival in the cold months.

The students’ work will help inform the changing conditions for the BLM in the Johnsrud area of the Blackfoot River watershed. Thanks to their research and surveying, the students were able to provide the agency with robust new context on how it can better balance between recreational access and habitat integrity. Thomsen echoed the importance of the students’ work in this vital area.

“This wildlife is moving around – they’re not just staying in a certain jurisdiction – and so I think the heart of this project was to try and provide the data that would potentially coordinate decisions with other federal and state agencies to create consistency throughout the watershed,” she said. “I think this has created a nice opportunity for our program and UM to work more with the BLM going forward – locally, but also beyond that.”

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