by Gael Bissell and Linda Winnie

In the October 2017 general meeting, Flathead Audubon Society presented our Conservation Achievement Recognition to Janet Ellis for her career-long dedication to wildlife and habitat conservation in Montana and her contributions to conservation in the Flathead Valley.

Janet began her conservation career in 1981 as an intern lobbyist in Montana’s Legislature, working to promote passage of the Nongame Checkoff bill. The bill had failed miserably in 1979 and did so again in 1981.  In 1983, now as Montana Audubon’s new part time lobbyist, she interviewed everyone who had not supported the bill in 1981, and found that most had not really known much about it. She then educated legislators about the bill, and worked to find the common ground on which support for the bill could be based. As a result of Janet’s work, the bill passed nearly unanimously that year, and since then Montana taxpayers have contributed over $1 million to nongame work across the state.

This first foray into legislative lobbying was the beginning of Janet’s successful career as lobbyist on behalf of Montana’s wildlife and wildlife habitat. And it exemplifies the approach that has made her such a success. As Steve Hoffman, former Executive Director of Montana Audubon puts it: “She’s patient with people who don’t agree with her. She sticks to the science and works well with people on both sides of the aisle. People trust her because of that kind of integrity and knowledge.”

Janet served as Montana Audubon’s part time lobbyist at the Montana Legislature from 1983 to 1989.

Janet served as Montana Audubon’s part time lobbyist at the Montana Legislature from 1983 to 1989.In September 1989 she became Montana Audubon’s first full time Helena-based staff person. And for four years she was Montana Audubon’s only staff person, continuing as lobbyist, and also developing conservation projects, shaping public policy, providing support to Montanan’s local Audubon chapters, and writing grant proposals and finding funding, as well as keeping the books, answering the phone, handling the paper work, and keeping it filed. In this period she worked closely with Rod and June Ash of Flathead Audubon when Rod served as President of the Montana Audubon Council (as it was called then). Finally Rod convinced his neighbor and friend Art Ortenberg to fund additional Montana Audubon staff to help Janet.

Early on, Janet augmented her lobbying power by instituting a chapter based legislative alert phone tree. It kept Audubon members throughout the state informed about conservation-related bills in the state legislature, and encouraged them to contact their local legislators to weigh in when crucial votes were imminent. Flathead Audubon was a big branch of that tree. Later, Janet replaced the phone tree with the Armchair Activist Program, which uses emails instead of phone calls to send out alerts year round. The informed public comments generated by these emails have made it easier to pass bills good for conservation, and shoot down bad ones, and to influence decisions being made by government departments and agencies.

For almost 3 decades, Janet has continued to coordinate Montana Audubon’s public policy and legislative work. In the 1990s, she was instrumental in the removal of many subdivision loopholes and in bumping up the minimum lot size from 20-acres to 160 as the trigger for county subdivision review. In 1991, in response to threats from federal and private logging impacts to riparian/wetland and fishery concerns, the Streamside Management Zone (SMZ) bill was introduced into the Montana legislature, and Janet’s lobbying efforts helped move it to passage. In addition, she worked with corporate and private landowners, state and federal agencies, and other non-profits, to develop our voluntary and highly respected Forestry Best Management Practices for the timber industry… a huge benefit for western Montana’s fish and riparian species.

Janet has worked on exotic plant and wildlife issues for decades. Among her successes are a 2001 law that provides the legal framework for prohibiting importation of exotic wildlife such as mute swans; and a 1993 law that prohibits the sale of exotic plant species that could impact agriculture and forests, such as purple loosestrife. She was also instrumental in achieving a Department of Agriculture ban in 2010 on the sale of Russian olive. Most recently, as part of efforts to eliminate Russian olive from Montana, and also saltcedar, another invasive exotic growing along our waterways, Janet is organizing a late October 2017 symposium that will bring together biologists, volunteers, landowners, weed districts and other public entities, to discuss how these two invasive species are currently being managed.

Janet has shaped land use and land-use planning related to riparian habitat across Montana. Her 2002 illustrated pamphlet Learning to Go with the Flow: Streams and Bank Stabilization was widely circulated to land-use planners and land owners throughout the state, raising public awareness of the negative effects of hard bank stabilization and contributing to reduced use of rip rap by private land owners. In the Flathead it was for some time handed out to new stream-side property owners by local realtors. Janet’s 2003 Planning Guide for Protecting Montana’s Wetlands and Riparian Areas helped steer Montana’s land-use planners toward more conservation based approaches to wetland and stream regulations. In 2008 she published the 3-part series The Need for Stream Vegetative Buffers: What Does the Science Say? These three documents detail the scientific recommendations on the size of stream vegetative buffers needed to protect water quality, fish and aquatic habitat, and wildlife and wildlife habitat. They provided the data land-use planners needed to institute science-based stream set-back regulations around the state.

As a member of the 2012 Governor’s Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Advisory Council Janet helped craft the Montana conservation strategy for management of Sage Grouse, which will maintain and enhance Sage Grouse habitat and populations across Montana. In 2014 Governor Bullock signed an executive order implementing this strategy. Having a state management strategy will keep Sage Grouse management under local control, thereby fostering a cooperative effort involving private landowners, conservation groups, and local government agencies. As Janet explained, in typical Janet fashion, “If you don’t get cooperation from landowners, you’re not gonna protect sage grouse, and I think the state has a lot better chance at working with all the partners than …” if management comes down from the federal level. As part of the effort to protect Sage Grouse habitat, Janet and others convinced the State Land Board to prohibit sod busting on all DNRC lands, which cover over 3 million acres of Sage Grouse habitat.

Recently, Janet has focused on wind farms. She is widely recognized as a pioneer in this area. Janet served on the technical advisory committee (TAC) for the Judith Gap wind farm, and currently serves on the TAC for the Spion Kop wind farm near Great Falls. She successfully negotiated with a wind energy company to move its turbines back from the Kevin Rim, one of the highest density raptor nesting areas in this country. Janet has helped increase public and agency awareness of the potential impacts of wind development on both birds and bats, and has contributed to the growing recognition that some explicit guidelines are needed for the placement of new wind farms.

Janet Ellis at Kevin Rim – Photo Credit: MT Audubon

Also recently she has shifted from lobbying legislators to being one herself. For the last two sessions she has served in the Montana Legislature as the Representative of House District 81 in Helena.  This year, she will be running for the state Senate.

We in Flathead Valley have enjoyed significant conservation benefits as a result of Janet’s state-wide conservation successes. In addition, Janet has provided some very direct support for conservation in the Valley and for Flathead Audubon itself.

Over several decades, Janet has been instrumental in protecting the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area (OSNA). It was Janet who made possible Audubon’s licensing and management of OSNA when in 2000 she did some hard negotiating to obtain an affordable fee for Audubon’s first 10-year OSNA license. A new management plan required once this license was signed, and Janet became its primary author. She worked cooperatively with Flathead Audubon and the Montana Department of Natural Resources to revise and update the original plan written by Sam Bibler and the Flathead County Park Board in 1980. And she coordinated a partnership between Flathead Audubon and Montana Audubon to pay for the license and manage the Area. In 2010 she negotiated our second 10-year license. Janet actively participates in OSNA management decisions, sometimes even attends our Owen Sowerwine Committee meetings – often by phone, serves as liaison between Flathead Audubon and the Montana Audubon Board of Directors on OSNA issues, and frequently provides much appreciated advice.

Flathead Audubon is honored to recognize Janet Ellis for her lifelong dedication to wildlife and wildlife habitat conservation, her efforts to improve government regulations and policies with respect to development and associated impacts to wildlife, her use of science to inform and influence governmental action and public understanding, and her genuine willingness to work with all Audubon members and Chapters in Montana.

By Gael Bissell and Linda Winnie