I was standing in a feedlot in Choteau, Montana with malt sprout dust and chopped-up hay blowing around me, as thousands of Charolais, Angus, and hybrid cattle were getting ready for their feed. The general manager was giving us a tour of the operation and the place he called home. I never thought I’d be talking to a rancher about being vegetarian, especially not with a group of nine other gals my age. In the same vein, I never thought that I’d be singing along to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” with a tribal member of the Blackfeet Nation while driving down dirt roads in his truck after a pipe ceremony atop a sacred stone setting. Or that a week later I’d be trail building and swinging my arms with full force into a mountainside with a pulaski, dirt caking everything but my smile.

With the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s Conservation Across Boundaries program, I’m meeting people I’d never speak to otherwise. Our cohort is traveling through Montana and western Canada in the region known as the Crown of the Continent. The region’s name may be referring to the wildlife abundance and biodiversity, but just as diverse are the people living in the area. From ranchers, whose livelihood depends on the health and safety of their cattle, to native people, whose culture and history is ingrained in their land, everyone we’ve met and talked with has such a different lens to the area. When I was younger, I thought that all of my opinions were so common sense to everyone else, and it’s so easy to keep in that mindset until you meet people who challenge your beliefs. I could’ve gone the rest of my life thinking that I didn’t really have anything in common with ranchers. Cody, the feedlot manager, let me put a face and a story to my preconceived notions of “those people.” He works hard to keep the lot running, facing challenges from the FDA and USDA regulations, with his main goal being to keep his cattle healthy and his customers happy. Mike Bruised Head, the Blackfoot Confederacy elder who likes to jam, shared his experiences of being native in a time when people value scientific literature over experience and culture. He’s working on his PhD, researching the impact of naming mountains deeply ingrained in Blackfeet culture after white men who claimed to have “discovered” them. He noted the arguments of some folks who call native people lazy, dirty, and useless, and he spoke to the idea that most of those people haven’t had a respectful, meaningful interaction with any first nation member.

I think there’s a trend today, one that may have always been present, to judge and ignore people before understanding where they’re coming from. Maybe we’re all guilty of this, maybe unconsciously, but even if these interactions aren’t necessarily available, keeping an open mind is the first step to any type of productive project, group work, or management. I’ve gained a lot of new perspectives on this course, not only from the guest speakers, but also from the instructors and the rest of the students. Looking into the future, I’ll have these different views to consider if and/or when I go into any management position, but more importantly, I’ll be aware that not everything is what it seems. Everyone has a story, a past, and a culture. Recognizing and understanding these lenses may be the most important thing when solving any type of environmental problem, as every issue is a community-based issue and requires community-based conservation. I’m so grateful that I’m getting the opportunity to hear so many different sides of the story of this beautiful, diverse region.