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Success Story

Partnering to Conserve a Sagebrush Landscape

Publish Date
Wayne Burleson and cedar Magone on Bench Ranch in Stillwater County, Montana

The Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership is working with landowners to conserve and restore sagebrush ecosystems.

Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership

Southwest Montana is home to a sagebrush landscape that is the heart and soul of the working ranches found here and vitally important to the many species of wildlife that call it home.

It is here, on the western edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that a newly formed partnership has emerged that is focused on conserving and restoring the sagebrush ecosystem. The Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership (SMSP) was born out of a desire to advance cross-boundary conservation efforts in a landscape with a complex landownership pattern.

Innovative partnerships with private landowners and public land managers on working rangelands in Montana are essential to the conservation of the sagebrush landscape. This partnership aims to implement conservation practices to improve and protect valuable sagebrush-steppe habitat. Specifically, projects will be targeted at invading conifers, cheatgrass, fence modifications, and restoring wet meadow habitats.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (MTFWP), the Beaverhead Watershed Committee, and most importantly, private landowners are the foundation of the partnership.

Mesic and Riparian Area Conservation

Wet meadows and riparian areas occupy a small proportion of the sagebrush ecosystem, yet provide critically important habitat for many species.

These mesic areas, in an otherwise semi-arid climate, provide important food and cover for insects, pollinators, neo-tropical migratory birds, sage-grouse, mule deer, elk, and forage for livestock. For sage grouse, as nesting habitats dry out over the summer, they often seek out riparian edges, wet meadows, springs, seeps, irrigated fields and other green spots remaining on the landscape where they can still find moist forbs and plenty of insects for their growing chicks.

Water is a precious resource in the arid west and the resilience of these wet areas is equally vital to livestock production. Learn more about mesic areas and how the Sage Grouse Initiative is targeting them across the West: On the Range, Water is Life.

Mesic Area Degradation

Functioning wet meadows and riparian areas serve as natural sponges to hold water in the soil, slowly releasing it after runoff events, ensuring continued base flows and maintenance of water tables throughout the growing season. Holding water in these systems later into the summer season and during droughts benefits plants, wildlife, and ranchers. However, the hydrological and ecological function of many riparian and meadow areas have been degraded by gully erosion, channel incision, and lowered water tables. While erosion in these systems is a natural process, excessive erosion due to channelized flow will change the system from one maintained by dispersed flow to one dominated by channelized flow. Causes are varied but often include current and past land uses such as improper grazing, soil compaction by livestock and wildlife trailing, roads, historic flooding events, and invasive plant species.

A Low-Tech Restoration Strategy

Given the scale of the problem, restoration techniques that are relatively simple, cost-efficient, and effective are needed to allow more conservationists and landowners to engage in implementation.

With this in mind, agency and NGO partners from across Montana participated in a hands-on workshop (Keeping Water Around) outside of Dillon in the fall of 2017 to learn about restoration techniques to enhance degraded riparian areas, meadows, swales, and other mesic areas to boost hydrologic function and productivity. This workshop was led by riparian restoration expert Bill Zeedyk.

Zeedyk techniques work with water and natural processes that dissipate energy to reverse degradation and accelerate recovery of incised channels. Learn more about these techniques with the Starter Guide For Healing Degraded Meadows With Hand-Built Structures In Sagebrush Country

Zeedyk Structures

Restoration techniques pioneered by Zeedyk, can be categorized by what they are intended to achieve: 1) headcut control, 2) grade control, and 3) flow dispersal. Examples of structures can be found below:

Headcut Control: Zuni Bowl, Log and Fabric

These structures are designed to stabilize a headcut and prevent upstream erosion by minimizing the erosive potential of falling water and promoting vegetative growth. A headcut forms as the result of a nick point on the landscape that channelizes flow. The incised channel now drains water from the wet meadow.

Grade Control: One Rock Dam

One Rock Dams (ORD) can be used in incised channels to raise the bed elevation over time by promoting sediment deposition. These structures work by slowing water down and allowing sediment to deposit behind them.

Flow Dispersal: Media Luna

Media Lunas are half-moon shaped rock structures designed to spread sheet flow across a wide, flat surface.

Scaling Up the Effort

Across the organizations involved in the Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership, there is significant momentum for coordinating sagebrush projects. Despite strong working relationships and common goals, the limited capacities of agencies and NGOs often lead to uncoordinated, parallel projects. To address this challenge the BLM and Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV) awarded startup funding that allowed TNC to hire a Sagebrush Conservation Coordinator.

In June of 2018, Sean Claffey was hired as the Sagebrush Conservation Coordinator to increase both the pace and scale of implementation in this landscape. Sean will be responsible for bringing a scientific and technical capacity to the field, while also deepening key partnerships and communicating solutions to broad audiences.

Sean, on the far right, explains mesic restoration to students from the Montana Conservation Corps.

In just a short time this summer, Sean's position as the Sagebrush Conservation Coordinator is already paying dividends. Over 3,000 acres of cross-boundary conifers have been removed from core sage grouse habitat and more than 250 Zeedyk structures have been installed to restore and preserve wet meadow habitat on both public and private land (High School Students Help Restore Montana Sagebrush). The Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership continues to press forward with mesic restoration. The success of the coordinator has led to additional funds for the position from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has also awarded funding for implementation.