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NRCS Assists With Fire Recovery

In the summer of 2012, several fires swept through Musselshell County, Mont.—destroying 75 homes, more than 200 outbuildings, and numerous vehicles and livestock.  “It was unusually hot and dry that summer,” said Jennifer Paddock, NRCS range management specialist in Roundup, Mont.  “The summer before had been exceptionally wet and there was a lot of old grass and fuel to carry a fire.”

More than 106 square miles of land were consumed by wildfires, leaving many acres completely bare and giving way to soil erosion.  The fires stopped burning in September.  Shortly after, NRCS employees were on the ground assessing the damage and figuring out ways to help.  “We were concerned that native grass and forbs would not easily reestablish on their own and that weeds would come in, and we would have lots of bare ground for years to come.” said Paddock. 

Even on a very shallow range site, seeded grass species were helping to hold the soil in place.

“We looked at areas with high-intensity burnings,” said Reba Ahlgren, NRCS soil conservationist technician in the Roundup field office.   “We knew the grass wasn’t going to grow back in those areas, so we started mapping areas that to be reseeded.   And once we got funding, we started developing contracts.”

Funding came from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to farmers or ranchers to apply conservation practices.  For the Musselshell County fires, NRCS offered participating landowners cost-share to help pay for fencing, aerial reseeding and deferred grazing. 

In 2012, six landowners who were affected by the fires signed for EQIP.  That year, NRCS spent a little more than $307,000 for the project.  The next year, landowner signups tripled to 20 participants, and NRCS spent more than $797,000 on conservation efforts in 2013.   “Initially, we started by contacting ranchers to get the word out,” said Paddock.  “Then we expanded and did outreach at some county fire recovery meetings, and that really helped boost the number of people who enrolled.”

Overall, 6,915 acres were aerially seeded with grass species and nearly 30 miles of fence have been replaced.  In addition, landowners agreed to rest seeded areas from grazing until the dormant season of 2014.

Grass Mixture for Aerial Seeding
Species Variety Percent of Mixture
Slender wheatgrass Copperhead/Revenue 15
Big bluegrass Sherman 30
Bluebunch wheatgrass Secar 10
Wheatgrass Schwendimar/Critana 15
Green needle grass Lodorm 10
Orchardgrass Paiute 20

Monitoring sites were set up to determine if the reseeding was successful.  “We wanted to monitor what did and did not work and ensure our field office that the seeding was worth the time and money the agency put into the project,” said Paddock.   After monitoring the sites, Paddock says she was “impressed” with the seeding after the first growing season and is expecting the seeded sites to improve more over time.  “Some young plants that grew in 2013 were able to put out seed.  We also expect there to still be dormant seeds in the soil from the aerial seeding that will germinate during the second and third growing seasons. 

 
Range site that was seeded.

On similar range sites with about the same slopes impacted by the same fire, about 1 mile apart, this location was seeded.

Range site that was not seeded.

 This location was not seeded. 

Yet even with this success, there’s still work to do. 

“We still have a few contracts,” said Ahlgren.  “The seeding is complete and the first year of access control, but we have quite a bit of fencing to go.”  Ahlgren expects the fencing to be completed in 2014.