Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is excited to report the impact of our new habitat restoration projects in Phillips, Blaine and Valley Counties. To date, we have approved 17 restoration projects affecting 18,143 acres with our partners through our conservation committee. Of these, 7,512 acres are expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands being converted into functional grazing systems via installation of fence and water systems, 6,515 acres are cropland being restored to native grassland for pasture, and 4,116 include improved management of nonnative crested wheatgrass. These projects are in various stages of completion.
Projects are funded through two grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northern Great Plains Program in 2017 and 2018. This funding has been leveraged nearly 2:1 with matching contributions from the private landowners and partner organizations.
Our partners on the conservation committee include Montana Partners for Fish and Wildlife, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Montana, and the Montana Rangelands Partnership.
Expiring CRP land has been a primary focus of the conservation committee due to the urgency and vulnerability of these lands. When CRP contracts expire, landowners are faced with a difficult decision and often require a new revenue stream for ownership to be retained. Because CRP has a cropping history, sowing a cash crop on the land is often the default option. In some cases, however, landowners are interested in integrating parcels into new or existing livestock operations. The major barrier to transitioning expiring CRP into grazing lands is the upfront cost associated with infrastructure. It is common for CRP fields to be without fences or water sources, and installing these is often cost-prohibitive to landowners, especially to young and beginning ranchers who most need the opportunities.
One of the committee’s first projects was called Pintail Flat, which includes 1,260 acres of expiring CRP. This project has recently been completed. To transition into a grazing operation, this property needed a well, 11,200 ft. of pipeline and 3 water tanks.
RSA was able to help provide funds for the pipeline and tanks, while the well was funded by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the landowner. The installation of this infrastructure allows the land to function as a grazing system making it less vulnerable to conversion back to cropland.
Further, as is the case on many expiring CRP parcels, grazing management on the over-rested vegetation will help manage crested wheatgrass and other tame grasses in the pastures. The property location adjoins large areas of native prairie on all sides. It represents prime habitat for grassland songbird species of concern and waterfowl species including northern pintail.