When I arrived in the Blackfeet Nation, in the middle of a record-breaking winter, I had few expectations on what I was about to experience. I was assigned to assist with the coordination and development of a “Beaver Project” (later changed to The Ksik Stakii Project,) despite the fact that my experience with beavers began and ended the one time I saw a beaver swimming away from me in a small boggy pond in Alaska. In addition, my only prior visit to the Blackfeet Nation was almost as brief as my beaver sighting; a quick pit stop in Browning after a backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. Still fresh out of college and without a clue on what I wanted to make out of my professional career, my decision to serve as a Big Sky Watershed Corps member turned out to be one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
When I found out that my new position would be based in Browning, I was excited and nervous to return for almost a full year after my brief stop in 2016. Upon arrival, I was greeted with a type of hospitality that I had never experienced in my life. After a massive blizzard, I couldn’t get to work because the highway to Browning was barricaded shut, which was commonplace. I decided to take a break from my “home office” and shovel my neighbor’s driveway. Before I could even make it across the street, I heard shouting, “Jacob! Come in for tea and cookies!” Being surrounded by friendly, welcoming people helped me feel accepted in my new neighborhood.
I spent the beginning of my AmeriCorps term expanding my limited knowledge of beavers, both in the office and the field. During the workday, I would read about ecosystem engineers, learning about how their dams are essential to increasing natural water storage and creating habitat in the midst of climate change and why people are mimicking their behavior. In my free time, I would snowshoe up and down the banks of frozen rivers looking for signs of beaver dams and lodges. After leading several programs on beaver ecology, mimicry, and nonlethal management I picked up the nickname “beaver guy,” which stuck like mud between woven willow branches.
My Big Sky Watershed Corps (BSWC) host site placement was certainly unique. While most BSWC members had one host site, my two host sites, The Center for Large Landscape Conservation (CLLC) in Bozeman and the Blackfeet Nation Fish & Wildlife Department (BFWD) in Browning, operate in different capacities and are located over 250 miles apart. Despite the contrast in function and geographic location, I quickly learned that I would be getting the best of both worlds.
Working with CLLC provided me with the opportunity to see the nuts and bolts behind the intricate nonprofit world while allowing me to dip my toes in a few different projects. The Center sponsored my attendance at workshops and conferences around the state. At these events, I picked up skills that I was able to apply throughout the project and networked with professionals who shared their abundance of wisdom with me. After my term, CLLC offered me employment to continue working on the Ksik Stakii Project in 2019.
Having office space based at BFWD allowed me to engage in their on-the-ground wildlife management while simultaneously immersing myself in the community I was serving in. There was never a dull moment in that office. I can recall several mornings where I would show up for work and find a grizzly bear (in a culvert trap), who was awaiting relocation back into the wild, in my usual parking spot. During the last month of my term, I worked closely with BFWD game wardens and wildlife technicians to implement a series of nonlethal beaver management tools along Willow Creek in Browning.
In addition to my two host sites, I had the honor of working closely with the other partners of the project: Blackfeet Community College (BCC), Blackfeet Environmental Office, and the Blackfeet Agricultural Resource Management Planning Team. Having the opportunity to learn and absorb insight from each partner’s unique perspective helped me grow throughout the year. After months of planning and preparation, spending two weeks in the field and in the classroom with BCC Native Science Fellows turned out to be one of the most rewarding parts of the project, as we saw our hard work get converted into a tangible accomplishment.
After my BSWC term, I took some time off to travel and visit with family for the holidays. At the beginning of the New Year, I followed the Continental Divide from Albuquerque to Browning; the same route as last year. While I was driving up the Rocky Mountain Front, I couldn’t help but think back to how different I felt exactly one year ago as cruised across the familiar landscape. This year I wasn’t heading into the unknown. I was going home.