From Farm to Prairie
My name is Marisa Sather and I’m a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners for Fish & Wildlife (PFW) Program. The PFW program is the private lands branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and we work with private landowners across the country to implement habitat restoration and enhancement for federal trust species on private lands. I am based in Glasgow Montana, just 70 miles east of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance headquarters in Malta. Our program is working closely with RSA through their Conservation Committee to put grassland management and restoration projects on the ground that will benefit both wildlife and ranch operations. The major types of projects we do in this region of northeast Montana include grassland restoration, wetland restoration, and installation of grazing systems to either improve management or allow grazing of vulnerable, transitioning lands such as expiring Conservation Reserve Program parcels. Today I’d like to highlight a major grassland restoration project that is underway and as made possible by our partnership with RSA: the Moose Coulee restoration.
Moose Coulee is a parcel of about 1,200 acres within a critically important area for songbirds, sage-grouse and other grassland wildlife. Although moose are not a common animal in this area, they are increasing in occurrence due to expanding populations across the Canadian border to the north. This project was named after a young bull moose who unexpectedly flushed out of a small prairie pothole wetland on this property! Approximately 1,000 acres of the land in Moose Coulee has been farmed since at least the 1950’s, most recently under a rotation of spring wheat, winter wheat, and pulse crops like peas and lentils.
Although the land typically had good grain production, it is relatively hilly with many steep “coulees” or draws, and is about 15 miles from the headquarters of the farming operation. This distance meant a lot of travel time shuttling farm equipment back and forth across rough, unimproved tracks. The coulees and other topography also reduced efficiency of farming by forcing the equipment to make many smaller, convoluted passes instead of a simple back-and-forth path.
For these reasons, the property owners made the decision to convert the farmland into a grazing system. Working with RSA and PFW, and with cost-share provided by the RSA Conservation Committee, they were willing to seed a more expensive native grassland seed mix which will have much greater expected benefits for wildlife.
This mix contains only grasses, and excludes any non-grass plants, which are called forbs. Although it is desirable to have native forbs and flowers in a prairie restoration mix, there is a significant problem with non-native weeds in this area. By excluding forbs, we allow the landowner to use readily available herbicides to control broadleaf (non-grass) weeds without damaging the native grasses. Once the grasses establish ground cover and competitively exclude the weeds, native forbs can establish via existing seed banks, neighboring headlands, or with a second round of seeding. One weed in particular, narrowleaf hawksbeard (Crepis tectorum), is emerging as a major problem in our rangeland restorations north of the Milk River. It is a facultative bi-annual, meaning that it can set seed and re-sprout anytime conditions are favorable throughout the year. Each tiny, dandelion-like hawksbeard plant can produce hundreds of seeds, and the seedlings can blanket the ground and completely prevent the establishment of native seed mixes. By seeding grasses only, and selectively applying herbicides before and (if necessary) after seeding, the restoration on Moose Coulee has the best chance of success.
As is the case for much of the farmland in northeast Montana, Moose Coulee did not have functional fences or livestock water. In order for the restoration to successfully support the ranching operation, it was necessary to install about 2.5 miles of new fence, as well as conduct major repairs on about 4 miles of very old, non-functional fence. RSA also made this feasible for the owners through cost-share of fencing supplies.
Finally, plans for this project include two new livestock wells and water tanks, which will be funded by the landowners. Wells will be the last portion of this project to be completed, because of the high demand for well-drilling contractors in this year of extreme drought.
The status of this project as of November, 2017 is in progress! The new fence has gone in, the old fence has been repaired and the grass seed is being planted as I write this blog. The seed is being scattered and sown using a 50-ft harrow and attached granular applicator system. This is a highly efficient way to accomplish our large-scale rangeland seedings, as it can cover about 50 acres an hour! For a field this size, however, it still means several days’ work in a bumpy tractor!
I am excited to be a part of this project and to see 1,200 acres of valuable northern mixed-grass prairie habitat being restored and rehabilitated in a key area for declining songbirds. It would not have been possible without the cost-share funding provided by RSA and the Conservation Committee – for that I would like to say Thank You! PFW has monitoring in place to track the response of focal prairie birds to restorations such as this one. I look forward to sharing updates on this project and others as the grass begins to grown, and all the hard work of restoration begins to show results for the wildlife and ranching communities alike.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!