by Ben Long
Bigfork biologist Marilyn Wood has left a positive mark on Montana’s natural landscape that will benefit people, water and wildlife for decades to come. Ironically, that was never her intention.
“I kind of fell into conservation,” she said, recalling her undergraduate studies at Montana State University in the mid 1970s. “I took a lot of wildlife classes, but didn’t want to be a hook-and-bullet biologist. I wanted to be a generalist, to know a little bit about everything.”
Montanans who cherish our natural resources should be grateful that Wood honed her focus on conservation. Many of the richest, most vibrant wild places of northwestern Montana are conserved in perpetuity because of her rare mix of biological knowledge, emotional intelligence and dogged optimism.
“Conservation is really the people business,” she said. “It’s about having the ability to listen to people and find areas of common interest.”
Wood grew up in rural Nevada, riding horses and interested in the outdoors. She earned her masters’ degree at MSU, studying the impacts of wildfire on the ecology of Yellowstone National Park long before the historic burns of 1988.
She went to work for the Montana Department of Fish and Game (back when it was titled Fish and Game) as well as the National Park Service, the state agriculture agencies and the US Forest Service. Aside from her stints at government agencies, she worked for The Nature Conservancy and ran the Flathead Land Trust. She is now semi-retired and does work as a consultant biologist.
She came to the Flathead as habitat conservationist at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, documenting the habitat lost because of erosion caused by Kerr Dam. By comparing 1938 aerial photos to modern images, and painstakingly tabulating lost land, her team documented that 1500 acres were lost forever – and deserved to be mitigated.
Wood also became involved in efforts to conserve shortgrass prairie in the Tobacco Valley in attempts to preserve the Sharp-tailed Grouse population there.
At the Flathead Land Trust, she worked on a strategy to conserve ecologically rich habitats along the Flathead River Corridor and the North Shore of Flathead Lake, many of which have taken effect.
One of her most remarkable conservation successes came while she worked for The Nature Conservancy. She worked with North Fork Landowner Tom Ladenberg to conserve the working ranch at Home Ranch Bottoms south of Polebridge. That 1100 acres had huge development potential, but is also some of the richest wildlife habitat for wolves and grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. Ladenberg was known as an outspoken critic of wilderness, the government and environmentalists.
However, Wood found that he shared a love of the land and concern over the wildlife, particularly the elk that wintered on his ranch. After decades of discussions and negotiations, Ladenberg and TNC were able to sign conservation easements, perpetually protecting Home Ranch Bottoms from development, while protecting traditional uses of the land.
“We ended up inking that deal at Syke’s,” Wood recalled, a humble café favored by Kalispell’s older clientele. Conservation, after all, is about meeting people where they are.
Over the decades, Wood has watched conservation change from protecting “postage stamp” properties with rare plants, for example, to strategies that incorporate landscape principles of island bio-geography. That is, that it’s not enough to protect biological hot-spots; it’s also crucial to link those spots together over larger areas.
But perhaps the largest lesson of Wood’s career is that conservation is much more than just drawing circles on maps. To succeed, conservationists must also win the hearts and minds of the locals who live on the land. That’s when the magic happens.
“It’s a remarkable feeling to go back and look at a piece of habitat that you have helped conserve and – decades later – find it just as it was when you first saw it. Meanwhile, the world around it has changed so much. That’s a cool legacy. That feels good.”