Growing up in Browning in the heart of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, amid a rarefied ecosystem where the plains intersect the Rocky Mountain Front to forge a rich suite of wildlife habitat, Landon Magee learned about the significance of his natural environment early on.
Not only does the region contain an abundance of critters inhabiting a largely unaltered landscape, he said, but it’s also brimming with cultural and economic resources that help sustain the Blackfeet Nation. And even though Magee says he’s delighted to be studying wildlife biology in a graduate program at the University of Montana in Missoula, he’s already thinking about how his education and the skills he’s learning can help benefit his native homeland.
“It’s just kind of always been a dream of mine to go back and work as a biologist in my hometown. The reservation has such a largescale landscape with so much biodiversity, it should be any biologist’s dream,” Magee said. “But the Fish and Wildlife Department has always been limited in its capacity to fill these biologist positions to do the scientific work that’s needed, and it’s been especially difficult to recruit native biologists.”
Historically, tribal fish and wildlife departments have been managed and staffed by non-Indigenous biologists, due in large part to the dearth of educational opportunities for Indigenous students on reservations in Montana. Gerald “Buzz” Cobell, the director of the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department, learned this firsthand as a talented young biologist from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation who, after a brief stint running the local fish and wildlife department when he was fresh out of college, wound up leaving more than 30 years ago for a more lucrative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
After a brief retirement, Cobell returned to his hometown to once again run the department, although his objective has shifted — rather than merely contributing to the tribe’s foundation of scientific data, he’s working to promote stewardship of the Blackfeet Nation’s natural resources among its native stewards, cultivating Indigenous biologists and bringing them up through the ranks while ensuring they’re compensated on a competitive level.
“One of my career goals has been to create more opportunities for native scholarships and STEM research, and to get our local young people to understand that there is a lot of opportunity awaiting them,” Cobell said. “But you kind of need that seedbed planted and tended for a while. So, since I’ve come back to the Blackfeet Reservation three-and-a-half years ago, I have worked hard to hire tribal members, recruit them and create more of these kinds of opportunities.”
“But I am kind of ready to ride off into the sunset and go back to retirement,” Cobell added, “and I feel a lot more comfortable doing that when I have young men like Landon [and his peers] coming up through the ranks.”
Magee first got to know Cobell the summer before he began grad school in Missoula, while working as a seasonal bear technician responding to conflicts on the reservation.
“After a couple of summers, I could see there was a lot of potential there,” Cobell said. “He grew up on the reservation, just like myself, and he has seen the potential for doing a lot of good. I basically told him to find something he’s passionate about and keep doing it.”
Although Magee warns there’s plenty to stoke a wildlife biologist’s passion on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which is situated on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park, he’s focused most of his academic energy on moose. Specifically, he aims to pioneer a new moose population monitoring study to determine the abundance and calf-recruitment rate of moose in the region, helping the tribe determine the status and inform their conservation management policies. Currently, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation has no moose population monitoring efforts underway, while Glacier National Park has limited data, having not conducted a moose study in nearly six decades.
That came as a surprise to Magee, who learned that moose provide a significant source of revenue to the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department (BFWD). Last year, the BFWD raised $144,000 through the sale of five hunting permits for moose. If wildlife officials had a better understanding of the moose population, Magee reasoned, they could determine whether it’s appropriate to issue a greater number of permits or, alternately, fewer tags.
At Cobell’s urging, Magee applied for federal funding for the FWS’ Tribal Wildlife Grants Program (TWGP), which is designed to “fulfill federal trust responsibilities and achieve tribal sovereignty by expanding Tribes’ natural resource capacity,” according to the agency.
“A conservative approach to moose tag allocation is common and allows management agencies to avoid the potential for over harvest, while still meeting the public’s desire for the opportunity to harvest moose,” Magee wrote in his TWGP proposal. “However, when moose provide a significant source of income as they do for the BFWD, a conservative approach may restrict the potential for an agency to increase its revenue, which also limits its ability to fund monitoring studies and conservation practices.”
Last month, the FWS awarded more than $5.9 million to federally recognized Native American and Alaska Native tribes to benefit fish and wildlife resources and their habitats, supporting 33 tribes engaged in conservation projects across 16 states.
They included Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where Magee is using the $200,000 grant funding to purchase 125 trail camera traps to estimate moose abundance, as well as to hire a couple of young Indigenous field technicians to assist him.
“I wish I had more opportunities like this when I was in high school,” Magee said, “so if I can get a few young kids to enjoy these field experiences and understand the range of opportunities out there for them, while also contributing to our moose data on the reservation, I’ll feel pretty good about the success of this project.”
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