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Jargon Therapy: Ranchers as Conservation Heroes

Ranchers were once kings.

When the Mannix family homesteaded Montana in the 1800s they ruled the Blackfoot Valley in west central Montana. Today, instead of being at the top of the food chain, these cattle ranchers are becoming an endangered species. Today, they are the ones in need of protection.

Raincoats are never as rainproof as they should be. In a spring down pour, a dozen University of Montana wildlife and environmental studies students and a journalist huddled on a wraparound, ranch-house porch near Helmville, Mont. David Mannix and his wife, Peggy, stood with the students to talk about their way of life despite having been awake all night trying to calve backward twins from one of his cows

A fiery sunset ignites the horizon and reflects off irrigation piping. © Hannah J. Ryan 2012

This family manages the Mannix Brothers Ranch. They are fifth generation Blackfoot Valley cattlemen and women. Grass-fed beef is their current specialty, which they sell at the Missoula farmer’s market and the Good Food Store.  The Tamarack Brewing Company, Sean Kelly’s and Sapore restaurants also buy the ranch’s beef.

“We used to be kings,” the eldest Mannix brother said. “Now we’re the ones who need the protecting. When it used to be how much we can take through grazing and irrigation, now it’s always about how much we should give up to others in the valley.”

David Mannix is unique in the ranching world. He sits on the board of the Blackfoot Challenge. This organization was founded by landowners but now includes people from the Forest Service, Fish, Wildlife & Parks, logging companies and The Nature Conservancy. More than just a gathering of people passionate about protecting the Blackfoot Valley, those involved with the Challenge serve on committees focusing on conservation, water, weeds, wildlife, forestry and education in their home valley.

Their success in protecting the 1.5 million acres in this valley and watershed has received many accolades from Montana to D.C. The Challenge’s model is studied as a triumph for community-based conservation and how it can be replicated in other areas.

Landowners leading this organization, like Mannix, are thinking about landscape conservation and also self-preservation.

The Blackfoot Valley is filling with 20-acre parcels as large landowners are forced to sell out to those with a fat checkbook and a thirst for their piece of the Last Best Place. The Challenge works to protect the valley’s flora and fauna as well as the livelihood of those families who have worked the land for over 100 years.

It’s ranchers like Mannix who are the real conservation heroes.