Jennifer Downing

Jennifer Downing

Editor's note: This story was changed at noon Tuesday to reflect the following correction: The USFWS never listed the Arctic grayling as threatened, but considered it for listing in 1982 and in 2014 announced the fish was out of danger.

A longtime Big Hole River advocate is stepping away.

Jennifer Downing, outgoing executive director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, is leaving her position this month. She is being replaced by Pedro Marques, who has been the committee’s restoration program manager since 2016.

Randy Smith, Big Hole Watershed Committee board president, said Monday that Downing “has done a heck of a lot for us,” since 2010 when she started as watershed coordinator in 2010 part-time.

The Montana Watershed Coordination Council, a Helena-based nonprofit organization, gave Downing a sendoff Monday evening by awarding her a 2019 Watershed Stewardship Award for her 15 years of conserving, protecting, restoring and enhancing watersheds in Montana.

A native of Rochester, New York, Downing started working in the Big Hole River valley in 2004. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney presented the award to Downing at the Montana Historical Society.

Since Downing began working at the committee, whose aim is conservation work in the Big Hole River watershed, the committee has grown to six employees and has put nearly $3 million into restoration and conservation in the watershed. The committee promoted Downing to executive director in 2012.

Smith said Downing was “real instrumental” in taking the committee to the next level of fundraising and restoration accomplishments.

Smith said that one of Downing’s most noteworthy conservation projects was in the French Gulch, a tributary of Deep Creek, which flows into the Big Hole. The French Gulch had suffered significant damage from historic smelting and mining.

“That is going to make a huge difference in water quality (in the Big Hole) in years to come,” Smith said.

Downing will remain with the committee as a consultant for the next six months to ensure a smooth transition. Now 40, she intends to take a personal pause in her career to spend more time with family.

Downing says that her biggest challenge as executive director was learning the financial and legal aspects of building a nonprofit. Her bachelor's and master's degrees were in hydrology, geology and fish management.

But Downing says it won’t be wading the river to check on a river gauge that she will miss most, but the people she worked with.

“Really listening and getting to know all the different voices and stakeholders and thinking about what it looks like from their perspective and never getting siloed in one position — that was a good challenge,” she said.

The Big Hole Watershed Committee formed a drought management plan in the late 1990s to improve river flows and improve habitat for Arctic grayling, a native species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered listing as threatened or endangered in 1982.

USFWS announced the grayling was out of danger in 2014.

She also guided regional drought resiliency planning as chair of the Missouri Headwaters Partnership, worked on stream gauge issues and better coordination for watershed organizations at the state level. 

She was a board member of Watershed Coordination Council until 2018.

“Jennifer has gone beyond her duties as an executive director to be a champion of watersheds and collaboration in the Upper Missouri and statewide,” according to the Watershed Stewardship Award Selection Committee. 

Tom Henderson, who was a Department of Environmental Quality hydrogeologist, was posthumously awarded a Watershed Stewardship Award as well. Henderson died unexpectedly last year. He was 53.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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