In southwest Montana, a creative partnership is improving sagebrush habitat, providing jobs, and empowering youth, one project at a time.
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.
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:
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.
“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.
“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.”