Creating Jobs Through Conservation in Southwest Montana

March 22, 2022

Participants in the Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership Youth Employment Program making fencing wildlife friendly. Photo courtesy of Simon Buzzard, National Wildlife Federation.

By Brianna Randall

In southwest Montana, the multi-generational family ranches are breathtaking, full of cowboys, and critters galore. The sprawling sagebrush valleys near Yellowstone National Park are some of the few places left in our country “where buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play.”

Yet this iconic range in southwest Montana is threatened by the same suite of problems that afflict much of the grazing land in the American West: invasive weeds, encroaching trees, eroding streams, and increasing pressure to carve up and develop working ranches.

Restoring steams like this one improves rangeland resiliency and helps mitigate the effects of drought and wildfire. Photo courtesy of Sean Claffey, TNC.

One of the best ways to tackle these threats and keep ranches productive is through cooperative, voluntary conservation practices — better yet, ones that create jobs in the local community. Southwest Montana is setting a perfect example for how to keep working land healthy while also fueling its rural economies.

Doing good for the ground and the local community

The Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership (SMSP) was formed in 2018 by ranchers, business owners, federal and state agencies, local conservation districts and non-profit organizations looking to improve range health for people and wildlife. In just 4 years, the SMSP has leveraged more than $1.8 million to implement projects and more than $23.5 million for land protection:

  • Conserve 52,000 acres with easements to maintain working ranches
  • Restore 8 miles of streams and wet meadows
  • Modify 50 miles of fencing to benefit migrating wildlife
  • Remove encroaching conifers from 23,000 acres to preserve biodiversity and boost livestock forage

The most exciting part of SMSP is that it’s also creating jobs through conservation. This includes new start-up businesses focused on selling wood products, contractors doing year-round restoration work, and dozens of local youth employed in resource management.

Just some of the accomplishments of the SW Montana Sagebrush Partnership. Infographic from NRCS.

“I truly believe that if we can structure conservation projects creatively, we can develop local workforces,” says Sean Claffey, the coordinator for the SMSP, a position hosted by The Nature Conservancy. “When we recruit youth and young adults from our community, they learn what’s going on in their backyard. Plus, their parents and neighbors get more involved, too. If we want to maximize our impact and scale up conservation, we must figure out a way to connect it directly to as many people as possible and make it part of our culture.”

Working together to conserve a biome

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Montana provided seed funding to launch the Dillon Youth Employment Program (YEP) through the SMSP. Unlike AmeriCorps or the Conservation Corps—volunteer programs that offer youth an education stipend in exchange for work—the employees of YEP are paid a full wage while developing marketable skills.

Montana NRCS and NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife have also helped SMSP with on-the-ground conservation delivery on private ranches through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program and its Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. This regional conservation effort is a prime example of how to accomplish cross-boundary, science-based conservation, using strategies prioritized in NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife Framework for Conservation Action in the Sagebrush Biome.

“The diverse entities involved in SMSP make this conservation work not only possible, but a reality on a fairly large scale,” says Tom Watson, NRCS State Conservationist for Montana. “One focus of the partnership is to ensure conservation makes sense for rural communities as well as for the landscape and land managers.”

Sustaining more people and businesses in the future

This coming summer, the YEP will hire over 20 youth and young adults from southwest Montana who will rotate between projects like: installing wildlife-friendly fencing; building low-tech stream restoration structures out of stones or wood; build a new section of the Continental Divide Trail; and using hand tools to remove tree saplings encroaching onto pastures.

Field crews will also help document where unwanted plants like cheatgrass are invading, so the SMSP can develop a proactive strategy to fight back against invasive annual grasses. “We can train them in simple protocols, turn them loose, and let them help us get a feel for what’s out there on private and public lands,” says Claffey.

The SMSP is also ramping up its partnership with businesses that can sell the Douglas fir removed from sagebrush rangelands. Partners will haul small-diameter timber to a sort yard where it will be sent to local small mills, or sold for fencing materials, log-home siding or firewood.

Removing encroaching conifer trees like pinyon-juniper and Douglas fir restores rangeland health for sage grouse and other sagebrush dependent wildlife, improves forage for livestock, and provides jobs and materials for local business. Photos courtesy of Sean Claffey, TNC.

“The idea is to cover the cost of operations for removing encroaching trees, then put proceeds towards more conservation projects,” says Claffey. “Supporting businesses, sustaining natural resources, and keeping working lands working — it all goes together.”


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.