CX Ranch Juniper Project
It sometimes takes a whole community to maintain sage-grouse habitat. For the CX Ranch Juniper Project that was completed in March 2008, that community included government agencies, private landowners, industry, and the Miles City Sage-Grouse Local Working Group. The project involved the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), Spring Creek Coal Company (SCCC), Consolidation Coal Company (CONSOL), Bighorn County Conservation District, and the Bighorn NRCS Field Office.
The project used SCCC mitigation funds to remove juniper trees encroaching on private rangeland near Decker, Montana. Removal of the junipers benefited both landowner and sage-grouse, improving livestock grazing conditions as well as sage-grouse habitat. The local FWP biologist, Scott Hemmer, commented that it is one of the few “sage-grouse habitat enhancement” efforts in Montana. The majority of sage-grouse habitat efforts have dealt with either habitat management or easements. Gabe Johnson, SCCC Environmental Engineer, was pleased too, stating that it was an excellent way to do something positive for sage-grouse. The Miles City Sage-Grouse Local Working Group co-chair, Chad Cyrus, suggested that they now have an on-the-ground project model of which we can be proud.
The problem is that junipers have expanded greatly in some areas when compared to their distribution over 100 years ago. This is a result of changes to natural ecological function due to decreased fire frequency, increased fire suppression, alteration of historical ungulate grazing patterns, and other influences. Sage-grouse habitat in this area is largely confined to the tops of flat-lying plateaus. Juniper trees encroaching on the sagebrush steppe plant communities have the potential, over time, of reducing rangeland productivity for livestock as well as reducing its usefulness for sage-grouse. In this project, thinly scattered trees were cut using chain saws while keeping the sagebrush intact. Wallsted (1975), studying sage-grouse in central Montana, said sage-grouse were almost exclusively found on flat sagebrush steppe with slopes 5% or less, historically treeless areas.
The NRCS provided the leadership to get the project done. Bruce Waage, NRCS sage-grouse coordinator, brought diverse groups together to achieve this goal. Even though this was a small project, it may have larger implications. It is a model that could provide an avenue to do more sage-grouse projects. The Bighorn Conservation District benefited by becoming more aware of the issues and administering the project, providing some monetary incentive to the district. Typically, the administrating agency would have been the Montana FWP. However, Montana FWP recognized the value in this novel approach and conferred it to the district.