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Success Story

Blackfeet Natural Resource Conservation District: Celebrating 25 Years of Conservation and Problem Solving

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The Blackfeet Natural Resource Conservation District is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year in Browning, Montana.

“When you start with nothing and there’s so much out there, every challenge is an opportunity.” 
– Terry Tatsey, founding board member

The Blackfeet Natural Resource Conservation District is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year in Browning, Montana. 25 years of conservation practices and concerns have been addressed and worked on to assist the Blackfeet community. Terry Tatsey, president of the Blackfeet Natural Resource Conservation District (BNRCD), tribal member, and producer living on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, is a founding member of the conservation district and still sits on the board to this day. “In 1999, we actually recruited and got four board members, including myself, to serve as the first founding board members,” Tatsey stated.

The creation of the BNRCD came when there was a need to have access and understand the opportunities the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) programs offered. There was a gap that needed to be filled so the underserved tribal members, farmers, and ranchers would have an equal opportunity and a better chance to apply for programs. Tatsey said, “There was a need to have access and understanding of all these USDA programs and services that were available to us, but we just were not getting educated and understanding what they were.” Tatsey added, “We weren’t very well represented from the county conservation districts... so they felt it was important to form our own Blackfeet resource conservation district.”

11 men and woman standing in two rows
Original board members (1997). Top (left to right): Bimbo Hirst, Chuck DeBoo, Verna Billedeaux, Thedis Crowe, Terry Tatsey, Gordon Monroe. Bottom (left to right): Ross Denny, Loretta Berthelson, Dave White, Jess St Goddard, Roy Doore

 In 1996, the charter was passed, and the formation of the interim board was created. Verna Billedeaux, current ex officio and Blackfeet Reservation Montana State University extension agent, was an original member of the steering committee. Billedeaux thought it was a perfect fit to participate and work with the board, since everyone involved was associated with agriculture and conservation. “We had to do research of how we wanted to form and that was put together by the tribal council,” Billedeaux said. With the four original members, the BNRCD took on tasks and accomplishments in unknown territory, creating an all-new conservation district. Coming from diverse backgrounds, the board members brought in an array of perspectives. Ranging from farming to livestock, everyone had their own idea of what the conservation district should look like. “I felt that being a tribal conservation district, we should be incorporating our ways and practices of tribal people and how we understood the natural world and using resources,” Tatsey explained. The various perspectives, motivational outlooks, and knowledge all aligned and allowed the board to participate in successful strategic planning sessions to create their vision and mission. 
With the strategic planning, they looked at the immediate needs and long-term challenges that they would face. The board needed to create relationships and connections to assist with their goals and getting started. “The immediate thing that we recognized as the Blackfeet Resource Conservation District board was that we didn’t have any communication with the Glacier County Conservation District Board. We didn’t have any communication with the Pondera Conservation District. So, we started building those relationships, started building those partnerships and what that did was [allow] those discussions with the other two boards,” Tatsey said.

NRCS was there to assist with funding, types of projects, and resource concerns that the Blackfeet community wanted to address from the beginning. With conversations and collaboration still ongoing, the relationship between NRCS and BNRCD is still actively building and growing. Thedis Crowe, former NRCS district conservationist, was involved in the creation of the conservation district. Being an NRCS employee and growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation, Crowe was an instrumental voice and resource in the development on the BNRCD. Stacy Eneboe, former NRCS Supervisory District Conservationist for the Conrad Work Unit, was also around and involved during the fruition of BNRCD. Eneboe went on to explain, “We were gearing our workload and expectations to meet their goals and objectives for the Blackfeet producers.” 

An immediate challenge that Tatsey noticed was bridging the gap between tribal and Western world perspectives of agriculture, understanding the meaning of conservation, and how it would fit into the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Tatsey explained, “The old ways of conservation, you didn't look at the animal, you didn't look at the plant, you didn't look at that rock, you didn't look at that water as something separate. Those were your relatives. The Western world, those animals become possessions and that's the difference in the challenges, as a tribal conservation district member, that you got to understand and figure out how to bridge those and find some balance.” 

An ongoing task that the BNRCD board faces is recruiting new members. All board members are volunteers, giving their time and effort to improve the resource conservation district and community. Currently, there are six to seven active members. It can be overwhelming being a volunteer on the board and finding the balance between your job, personal life, and contributing as a board member. Tatsey said, “Sometimes when you’re volunteering, it’s more work than your other obligations. It’s your whole life and your full-time job. It’s challenging, it’s taxing, but if you believe in it, believing in what you’re doing, you just keep plugging away.”

9 men and women sitting and standing
Current staff and board members (March 2024). Top (left to right): Coco Boggs, Terry Tatsey, Emerald Grant, Wayne L Smith, Danny Barcus, Jonathan St. Goddard. Bottom (left to right): Latrice Tatsey, Verna Billedeaux, Tierra Iron Shirt

Taking the challenge head on, Wayne Smith, vice-chairman of the BNRCD board, tribal member, and producer living on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, sat on the board for a few years before recently becoming the vice-chairman. Smith commented, “I'm a farmer and rancher and I saw that we’ve been fighting to improve things here. That was the whole idea behind it is to put the Blackfeet producers and people in charge of the future and that includes agriculture to culture, water, and it encompasses pretty much everything we deal with on a daily basis.” Smith went on to say, “We’ve been really concentrating on climate change and then our water resources and trying to get that up and into the limelight, you know, address our needs now and then in the future.”

A major accomplishment that the BNRCD completed was a range inventory on the reservation. The last time an inventory was completed was in the 1960s. This outdated data led to inaccurate rangeland lease fees and caused negative effects to the natural resources. “Some were paying more for a resource that wasn’t even there. So, you know, we can hurt our grassland resource by not managing what’s there,” Billedeaux said. “NRCS has helped over the years with different stages of range inventory for them,” Eneboe commented. BNRCD was able to work with NRCS and do long term planning to coordinate resources and complete the first range inventory in years.

 A huge accomplishment that the BNRCD has been working on is the Blackfeet Agriculture Resource Management Plan (ARMP). Billedeaux said, “It is a plan that says here’s all of our resources, here’s from departments to actual resources to everything. Agriculture is what we have. What can we do to improve upon this and do more with agriculture.” This plan is years in the making and will be a massive asset to the Blackfeet Nation. “Even though it’s a written and approved document, we like to look at it as a living, breathing document,” said Smith who went on to say, “I saw what it could do and what the overall objective of it is. And, you know, like I say, to put more control for the producers here, to be able to control our future and our destiny.” Not only is the ARMP a plan to help natural resources within the reservation, but it also inspired new members for the BNRCD board. Smith attended ARMP meetings before he found out about the BNRCD board and joined.

Every member, original and new, has their own vision of priorities and goals for the BNRCD for the next 25 years. Billedeaux hopes for the board to grow, have more board members, and keep inspiring conservation in agriculture. “I would like to see more people come to the table and be a bigger part of it. We get a lot of folks that come in and are part of the board that really know what it’s about and are a part of it and have great ideas... I would really like to see this continue, so that these up-and-coming agriculturists and conservationists can be a part of the change,” Billedeaux stated. Tatsey commented he would like to see more office locations in the isolated areas of the Blackfeet reservation, a comprehensive plan, and practices in place, and to see more native plants back in the area. Tatsey said, “If we could get good range management, soil management, people management going, that would be a good 25-year project.”

The Blackfeet Natural Resource Conservation District and its board members have made great strides in 25 years, we cannot wait to see what happens in the next 25.