My Big Sky Watershed Corps Term: The Start of Shifting Perceptions

My name is Kendra Allen, and I have just started as the 2019 Big Sky Watershed Corps (BSWC) member jointly serving with the Blackfeet Nation Fish & Wildlife and the Center for Large Landscape Conservation. After growing up in Minnesota, I headed east for a bit to the University of Massachusetts Amherst graduating with a BS in Environmental Science. While studying there, I took a semester abroad to live in a remote eco-village in Iceland studying “sustainability through community”, finishing off my degree a year early. Eager for my next adventure, AmeriCorps seemed liked the right fit, a perfect merge between my education and my new professional career. As an avid outdoorsman, I was also looking forward to getting a taste of the mountain lifestyle, while simultaneously getting to do what I love. It seemed almost too good to be true for a recent college graduate and reiterated my ideology that everything happens for a reason. 

Kendra at the AmeriCorps swearing in ceremony in Bozeman, Montana – Courtesy
 of Libby Khumalo and Jacob LeVitus 

An unusual first week…

What I couldn’t predict, however, was how the federal government was about to play a big role in my first week’s activities. Starting December 22nd, 2018 part of the US Federal Government shutdown and had yet to reopen by my start date of January 7th, 2019. As my first week of work began and I started diving into readings and research on beaver, beaver mimicry, and climate change, talks of the government shutdown seemed to be constant background noise in the office. Fish & Wildlife staff were quickly planning for a range of scenarios and by the middle of my first week, the Director had made a plan to keep our office open as long as possible amid the longest shutdown in history.

When I showed up to the office Wednesday morning, my third day of service, I was met by a very surprising offer. The Tribal Council, along with Fish & Wildlife, had decided that Game Wardens would be given rights to harvest a set amount of elk to help provide meat for the Tribe’s commodity office, and I got invited along. With future furlough letters weighing on people’s shoulders, people who have families to support, the commodity office wanted to have enough resources available to provide for any furloughed Tribal member in need, unsure of how long the government shutdown might last. Growing up in a family that hunts for meat, this concept wasn’t foreign to me. I was taught to have a huge appreciation for the land and animals that I hunt, and that there is pride in being able to sustain yourself from the land. I noticed that same level of respect was felt amongst my colleagues as I got to know them over the next few days. I got to spend my work days exploring the vast beauty of the area, which included wide-open plains and deep valleys resting at the bottom of the most majestic mountains I have ever seen. When we first spotted elk, they were so far off in the distance they looked like tiny ants through our binoculars. It was an experience I will never forget. However, I can honestly say as I headed into the office for my third day on the new job, I was not expecting to exhaust so much energy chasing elk herds and packing out meat (that weighed as much, if not more than myself).

One of the biggest take-aways from my first week was how much the community supports and cares about each other. I was out in the field with Game Wardens who knew furlough letters were in the near future for them, and I never heard a complaint. They were just happy to be out doing what they love. And come Monday morning when staff was cut back, my colleagues were texting the office wishing they were still there, asking if they could come in regardless. 

An AmeriCorps pledge…

The next week, I was officially sworn in as an AmeriCorps member and got to spend the week in Bozeman with my fellow members for training. As I spent time meeting everyone, sharing all of our future project goals, I was met with people commenting how jealous they were that I was fortunate enough to get a position right outside Glacier National Park. “I have to visit since you live outside the park” and “I am so jealous you get to live outside Glacier,” were some of the phrases I heard. As much as I told everyone about my project goals and what I would be doing and how none of it is directly related to Glacier, the park and the natural beauty around me seemed to be the main thing that stuck in most people’s mind, and I don’t blame them. The park is beautiful, and I am very fortunate to live on its border. 

What some people didn’t understand, however, is all the other unique and amazing things that are in the Blackfeet Nation. The last morning of our training was filled with speakers sharing their vast knowledge of watersheds and informing us about small town living in Montana. One speaker pairing that I was most excited to hear was Loren Birdrattler, manager of the Blackfeet Agricultural Resource Management Planning team, who spoke with Graham Gaither, a former BSWC member. They talked of engaging with the community up in Browning and many things the Blackfeet Tribe is doing to prepare for climate change. As I listened to the talk, I thought that Loren did such a good job representing the community, showcasing many of the unique cultural experiences I will be exposed to throughout my term. By the end of the discussion many colleagues were approaching me, saying how jealous they were of the opportunity I get working with the Blackfeet Tribe. That I am in such a unique opportunity to work both with a nonprofit in addition to many different Tribal departments. Some of my colleagues are now reserving their spot on my couch for North American Indian Days, an annual celebration held here in Browning. It really inspired me to see perceptions of my work change and made me appreciate the opportunity even more. My fellow AmeriCorps members, like many others, were unaware of the planning and adaptation efforts happening in Blackfeet Nation regarding climate change. 

Beavers are an integral member of the community and an important key in preserving wetlands, and the Blackfeet Nation is working on implementing beaver mimicry strategies to increase natural water storage and manage flooding. I think this was one good example on how inspiring the Blackfeet Tribe’s work is.

As I now start the third week of my term and have been brought up to date on some of the amazing work done on the Ksik Stakii Project last year, and all the new goals for this year, I am beyond excited to be joining Jacob, Dustin, Libby and the rest of the team as we continue to move the Ksik Stakii Project forward. 

A Year as the Beaver Guy

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.

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All smiles after snowshoeing through a blizzard to find a beaver dam on the Two Medicine River.

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.

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The Ksik Stakii Project planning team at end-of-year celebratory lunch.

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.

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Prepping materials for the construction of a nonlethal beaver management tool on Willow Creek. (Photo by Libby Khumalo)

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.

Native Science Fellow Tiffany Hill: My experience attending the Watershed Symposium

Blackfeet Community College Native Science Fellow Tiffany Hill attended the Montana Watershed Coordination Council Watershed Symposium in Whitefish, Montana on October 10-12. She co-presented with Big Sky Watershed Corps member Jacob LeVitus, where she shared her experience working on the Ksik Stakii Project. Tiffany is currently studying health science at Blackfeet Community College. After this semester, she is transferring to nursing school at MSU-Northern where she plans to graduate in 2021. After the symposium, Jacob sat down with her to hear more about her experience attending the event.

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Tiffany (right) builds a mini-mimic dam as part of the Ksik Stakii Project Field Program (photo by Libby Khumalo)

What is one thing you learned at the Symposium?

I learned a lot about waterat the Montana Watershed Coordination Council Watershed Symposium. Before the Symposium, I knew very little about water conservation, where we get our water from, what’s in our water, and why water is so important to our everyday lives.  Read More

Beaver Mimicry Field Program Recap

Water storage is becoming increasingly vital as western summers continue to become hotter, longer and drier in the midst of climate change. During the Ksik Stakii Project field program, students worked together to address the need for natural water storage while simultaneously learning new skills and strengthening relationships.

“I feel way more knowledgeable about Ksik Stakii and will share that knowledge whenever I can.”

-Blackfeet Community College Native Science Fellow

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Native Science Fellows weave willows between lodgepole posts as part of the BDA construction process.

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Workshop Recap: Coexisting with Beavers

Beavers are regularly referred to as ecosystem engineers. Their contributions to the natural world include the creation of wetland habitat for fish and wildlife and the storage of ground and surface water. The beaver population in Blackfeet country is no different. They work hard to engineer dams using trees, willows, or whatever local supplies they can get their teeth on.

While beavers work hard to maintain the reservation’s rich biodiversity and help mitigate drought, their activity can create challenges. Unwanted beaver behavior can include the damming of culverts, the flooding of houses, and the removal of prized trees in public areas such as parks. Luckily, for people and for beavers, there are nonlethal management strategies that can mitigate these challenges. Read More

Working Together on Willow Creek

On May 8th and 9th, the Ksik Stakii Project hosted its first official site visit. For two days, project team members, students, and community members came together to plan, discuss, and begin the implementation of the project that is designed to build resilience to climate change while connecting traditional ecological knowledge and western science.

Our site visit began in the field, where we looked at potential beaver mimicry sites along Willow Creek. Amy Chadwick, wetland ecologist with Great West Engineering, and Jordan Kennedy, graduate student at Harvard, contributed their specialized input at each of the sites. Kennedy pointed out the scars of old beaver dams, beaver-made canals, and lodges. Chadwick analyzed the effectiveness of beaver mimicry be at each site. Blackfeet Community College Native Science Fellows participated by asking engaging questions throughout the tour.

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Amy Chadwick teaches a group of students, project managers, and Montana Conservation Corps crew leaders about a beaver mimicry site on Willow Creek (Photo by Jacob LeVitus)

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Earth Day 2018

The Blackfeet Environmental Office hosted an Earth Day Festival at Blackfeet Community College on April 20th. Throughout the day, volunteers gave away free trees, shrubs, and gardening plants to community members. Volunteers also helped by grilling and serving a delicious outdoor lunch on the beautiful 54-degree sunny day. Kids got their faces painted, and door prizes were given away throughout the festival.

Meanwhile, organizations like FAST (Food Access and Sustainability) Blackfeet, Blackfeet Fish & Wildlife, and the Blackfeet Agricultural Resource Management Plan (ARMP) focused on improving the health of our planet and the Blackfeet Nation set up booths inside the BCC commons and shared information with more than 400 students and 300 adults who participated.

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Big Sky Watershed Corps Member Jacob LeVitus and the Ksik Stakii Project Booth

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Unbelievable Beaver Series Part 3: Unbelievable Beaver Facts

Skydiving beavers, dams seen from space, and beavers the size of bears!

In addition to playing an integral part in Blackfeet Culture and the fur trade and being ecosystem engineers, beavers are truly a remarkable species. In honor of International Beaver Day (April 7), we’ll explore four fascinating facts about beavers I’ll bet you didn’t know! Read More

Unbelievable Beaver Series Part 2: Ecosystem Engineers

Over the years, beavers have gained a reputation as “ecosystem engineers.” For millions of years, they have stayed busy building dams and lodges. After being severely threatened by the fur trade and seen as a nuisance species, conservation efforts changed the way people think about beavers and revitalized beaver populations. In part two of the Unbelievable Beaver Series, I will talk about the hard work beavers do to protect water and the hard work humans do to protect beavers.

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A beaver dam in Grand Teton National Park- courtesy of PixaBay

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Unbelievable Beaver Series Part 1: The Fur Trade and Beavers in Blackfeet Culture

Beavers have been a critically important species throughout history. Their presence has unquestionably transformed global economics, culture, and ecosystems alike. A world without beavers would look totally unrecognizable. In part one of the three-part Unbelievable Beaver Series, I will talk about the fur trade and the significance of beavers in Blackfeet culture.

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A beaver swims in a pond- photo courtesy of Jacob LeVitus

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