Removing conifers improves sagebrush habitat and water availability, benefiting birds and ranchers. Photo of conifer cut in Montana by Dan Durham.
Removing encroaching conifers improves sagebrush habitat, benefiting birds and ranchers. Photo of conifer removal project in Montana by Dan Durham.
By Hayden Nelson, SGI Range Conservationist, Roundup, Montana NRCS Field Office
The success of the Greater sage-grouse has been front and center for landowners in Musselshell and Golden Valley counties since 2007, three years before the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led (NRCS) Sage Grouse Initiative was implemented in 2010. After 10 years, landowners couldn’t be faulted for being tired of hearing about sage grouse, but area farmers and ranchers know that the bird represents so much more than itself and are still dedicated to improving habitat.
The most recent concern for producers in the area is mitigating fire risk. The fires of 2017 eliminated large areas of sagebrush-covered landscape and grazing lands for the rest of that growing season. Impacted ranchers were forced to deplete herd numbers to make up for the loss of grass.
The summer months tested producers, with little rain to help the situation, but they have been proactive rather than disheartened. Right away, landowners began looking for ways to mitigate the impacts when fire hits again.
To that end, the NRCS field office in Roundup has seen an increase in producers working to thin the encroachment of ponderosa pine and Rocky Mountain juniper into lands traditionally populated by grass and sagebrush, which support both cattle and sage grouse. Two active contracts and five potential thinning projects will treat more than 100 acres that, together, create a buffer around core sage grouse habitat and improve grazing land health. Fire mitigation is also a priority for the Lower Musselshell Conservation District. The group plans to hire a permanent fire mitigation employee to apply for grants and help with physical labor.
Long term, these thinning projects benefit both sage grouse habitat and the ecological and economic viability of Montana’s working lands. Given our mission as a NRCS field office, we are proud to help landowners dedicated to something bigger than themselves and are hopeful to see the results of this work in the coming years.
The goal of the work shown is to decrease encroaching conifer, increase grass production, and bring sagebrush back into the habitat near Roundup, Montana. Landowners should start seeing increased grass and sage grouse production in year two of the projects.