Conversation with Rangeland Management Specialist of the Year, Rebecca Knapp

April 24, 2019

Rebecca Knapp and team with her SRM award. From left to right: AJ Limberger (Range Mgt Specialist), Doug Bonsell (Carter County Conservation District Chairman), Jalyn Klauzer (SGI-Wildlife and Rangeland Conservationist), Rebecca Knapp (District Conservationist), Lauren Manninen (Soil Conservationist), Kami Kilwine (Area Range Mgt Specialist). Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS.

 

In February 2019, the Society for Range Management (SRM) awarded Rebecca Knapp its highest honor: Rangeland Management Specialist of the Year. Knapp is a District Conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and works out of the Ekalaka Field Office in Carter County, Montana. Carter County is a 3,300-square-mile stretch of sagebrush country in the Big Sky state that is home to one of the largest sage grouse core habitat areas in the state. With funding from the Sage Grouse Initiative, Knapp has been able to work with producers to create and implement whole-ranch conservation plans at a landscape level. Since 2011, Knapp’s office has generated 146 conservation contracts worth $21 million that have covered nearly 821,000 acres of land.

Congratulations on your recent award. It sounds very well deserved. Can you tell us a bit about what sort of work a District Conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service does?

A District Conservationist assists the local conservation district with prioritization, planning, and implementation of conservation within a county.

This is purportedly the only photo of Rebecca Knapp in the field. Photo courtesy (albeit reluctantly) of Rebecca Knapp.

Tell us about your approach to rangeland conservation. Why do you think you’ve been so successful at implementing rangeland conservation projects?

First and foremost, you must have a vision and believe the landscape will be better for the conservation that is applied. Sometimes the conservation marketing, planning, and implementation process is slow, tedious, and filled with complications. If you lose perspective and faith in a project, things will rapidly fall apart.

My tenure in Ekalaka has been long. I have worked in Carter County since 1994 and have an excellent working knowledge of the landscape and its people. I was fortunate to work as a conservation planner for years prior to becoming District Conservationist. This provided me with practical field experience and a diverse skill set.

I was lucky to grow up in the small community of Hysham, MT, where young people were expected to communicate and interact politely with peers. My former supervisors refined my public relation skills and taught me how to sell conservation, plan with patience, and maintain my composure in difficult situations.

Implementing conservation is truly a team sport. I have been fortunate to be able to hire and work with talented, highly motivated employees that share a common vision. They are the future of NRCS and this office.

Our staff focuses on providing exceptional customer service. Communication is key, and we understand that when objectives, plans, and expectations are clearly communicated, all aspects of a project come together better.

Carter County, Montana. In this far southeastern corner of Montana, sagebrush and grasses stretch to the horizon. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Knapp.

We acknowledge that long-lasting conservation is inspired and driven by the local producers. A project starts out as a connection with a producer – a conversation, a visit to the ranch – and ends as a series of improvements that span generations. Patience is applied in the conservation planning process, with the realization that some of the best plans start small and basic and then develop into complex, highly adaptive systems.

Field time is a priority. Monitoring and follow-up is so important to the long-term success and evolution of conservation plans. A perfect plan on paper can go awry very quickly if we are not out in the field, with producers, making sure it works.

Why did the Sage Grouse Initiative prove so helpful in catalyzing the work you’ve accomplished? Could this work have been accomplished without SGI?

The Sage Grouse Initiative opened the door for landscape level conservation planning and implementation across southern Carter County.

A large fund pool coupled with higher contracting limits allowed a comprehensive approach to both conservation planning and implementation. Under SGI, we could develop a conservation plan for an entire operating unit and provide cost-share for implementation of the plan in one contract instead of having to fund a plan in multiple contracts over a 20-year period.

I remember working with county EQIP allocations of $50,000 per fiscal year, which didn’t go very far (Editor’s note: The Environmental Quality Incentives Program is an NRCS funding program.) At that time, the local office might be able to partially fund a Resource Management System-level conservation plan (a whole ranch plan that addresses all of the resource concerns on that ranch) for one producer in a fiscal year. This often resulted in fragmented conservation across an operating unit.

The Little Missouri River is one of the few sources of year round water in southern Carter County. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Knapp.

This fragmentation was especially hard on southern Carter County, an area dominated by the Pierre Shale geologic formation. Water is scarce, especially in dry years when pits and reservoirs fail. Before SGI, the best we could do with small county budgets was to occasionally construct small-scale pits or pipeline systems sourced from shallow wells along intermittent creek systems. There was plenty of landscape that we could not cover with reliable water. Trying to implement grazing management without plentiful water was nearly impossible.

 

In 2012, a southern Carter County producer walked in the office frustrated because he had recently constructed several well-placed cross fences to facilitate grazing management. Unfortunately, his small pits and reservoirs were drying up that year. He described grazing management as a chess game, strategically moving animals across the landscape to utilize waning water sources before they were gone. This is a common issue in southern Carter County. The producer has since installed a deep pit and an extensive stock water pipeline system utilizing SGI cost-share assistance and is now working with the NRCS staff to implement a comprehensive grazing system.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your work?

Growing a county-wide workload results in staffing challenges for a Field Office. Fortunately, a Soil Conservationist and a Rangeland Management Specialist joined the Ekalaka Field Office in the fall of 2014. A couple of years later, a partner position was stationed in Ekalaka. We have also been fortunate to utilize ACES employees. (Editor’s note: ACES stands for Agricultural Conservation Experience Services; it is an NRCS program where experienced workers, age 55 and over, help NRCS employees provide technical services in support of conservation.)

The successful management of a large workload is dependent on effective communication and efficient agency processes. It has been challenging to navigate the agency’s processes when trying to roll over a large workload. Fortunately, on a local level, our producers have been supportive of local staff.

The producers and local staff try to keep the big picture – the end game – in mind, realizing that our combined efforts will result in meaningful conservation and sustainable ranching.

What are some of the conservation practices you’ve helped producers implement through SGI?

The most common practices applied in Carter County

Fence markers, installed on a ranch in Carter County, help sage grouse avoid colliding with fences, which can be deadly.

are wells, pumps, pipelines, storage tanks, stock tanks, obstruction removal (removal of woven wire and junk piles), fences, fence marking, seedings, and herbaceous weed control. These practices, planned and installed together as a system, facilitate management practices such as prescribed grazing and upland wildlife habitat management.

How do these practices benefit rangeland? Are there other benefits?

Due to the geology of this area, it is hard to develop well water in southern Carter County. The landscape has historically struggled with water quality and quantity. Many pits and reservoirs have been constructed across the landscape near existing drainages. These structures are annually dependent on spring run-off conditions and summer precipitation. In many cases, when the pits and reservoirs do not fill, there are no other water sources for livestock. This fact alone makes grazing management difficult. If there is a reliable reservoir when other sources are dry, the livestock congregate near the remaining water source and overgraze the area. Over time, heavy use in riparian (mesic) areas has resulted in degradation of that resource.

Through SGI, reliable upland water sources are being developed, resulting in better livestock distribution across the landscape and opportunities for flexible, effective grazing management. Long term, riparian areas will have opportunity to recuperate from historic grazing pressures, benefitting sage grouse, a multitude of other wildlife species, livestock, and people.

What’s next for your work in Carter County?

There is much more work that needs to be done across the Carter County landscape. We will continue to address water quality and quantity issues, grazing management, upland wildlife habitat, and riparian and mesic area health. As facilitating practices are implemented, the Field Office will work closely with producers to develop and refine management systems. And overall, the long-term goal has always been grazing management.

Meet the Expert

What attracted you to a career in rangeland conservation? How long have you been at it?

I have been working for the agency as a volunteer, student trainee and permanent employee since 1987 (over 30 years).

I started volunteering with SCS (Editor’s note: SCS stands for the Soil Conservation Service, the previous name for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.) when I was in high school at the suggestion of my high school Agricultural Education teacher.

When I graduated from high school in 1989, I was hired as a student trainee. I worked in the Forsyth SCS office for two summers. The county landscape was diverse, so it was a great training location. I was fortunate enough to get to tag along with the local technician, the range conservationist, and the soil conservationist.

My next move was to Baker, MT, where I was permanently stationed for a time after graduating from Montana State University with a degree in Range Science. In 1994, I transferred to the Ekalaka NRCS Field Office as a Soil Conservationist. In 2011, I transitioned into the District Conservationist position. Baker and Ekalaka differed from Forsyth in that there was less irrigation and annual cropland. I was able to focus on range inventory and planning. Considering my educational background, southeast Montana was a good fit for me. I am very appreciative of the NRCS staff that mentored me as a young employee and supported me throughout my career. I am grateful to have had my former DC on staff through the ACES program here in the Ekalaka Field Office. His experience and perspective have been instrumental to the successful application of SGI and other programs in Carter County.

What advice do you have for young professionals looking to get into this kind of work?

Get a well-rounded education. NRCS work is diverse and field office staff are expected to perform a variety of tasks. Within a single day, an employee might complete an Highly Erodible Land determination, troubleshoot a stock water pipeline issue, review a hydrogeology report, calculate stocking rates, draft a grazing plan, assist with a tree order, field a question on water rights, develop a plan map, formulate a cover crop mix, and review sage grouse location data to determine the ideal location for fence markers. A diverse education experience will prepare you for field office work, so don’t get too specialized.

When you get out of school and into a Field Office, understand that your education is not complete. Choose to learn from your fellow employees and most importantly, learn from the landowners. They have been on the landscape the longest and are very observant. If you find a landowner willing to mentor you, spend time with them in the field. Ask questions and seek their opinions. It will be well worth your time and you will build relationships with the people on the land.

I think young employees should be mobile early in their careers. It is important to experience different local cultures, landscapes, resource concerns, planning theology, etc. However, staff consistency is also critical to the long-term success of conservation planning and implementation. If a planner is constantly moving, they never get to see a plan they have written implemented and therefore miss out on a great learning experience. Basically, they will never understand what worked and what didn’t or why.

Don’t ever stop learning or seeking training opportunities. I learn something new every day and I have worked as a DC for a long time. I love that I still have opportunities to grow as an employee.

What do you like to do outside of the office?

I love being a mom! I have four children, so my world largely revolves around their activities. My family has a place south of Melstone, MT and I try to get there to visit as often as I can. I enjoy hiking and spend time hunting in the fall. In the future, I plan to travel more.


 

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.