For wildlife that depend on healthy grassland and sage-steppe ecosystems, the prairie of north-central Montana is among the best places left in North America. Big game like mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk are numerous on the rolling plains. Bighorn sheep thrive in the steeper terrain of the Missouri River Breaks and the Little Rocky Mountains. This region is the stage for one of America’s longest land migrations: pronghorn antelope travel hundreds of miles between their summer range as far north as Saskatchewan and their wintering areas in central Montana. In an increasingly crowded world, there are few places remaining where a journey like this could still be supported by intact, natural landscapes.
Our region is also home to the largest sage-grouse population in Montana. Although sage-grouse numbers have been declining across the west, this part of Montana has remained a stronghold. In early spring, male sage-grouse gather at dawn on their traditional dancing grounds, called leks.
There, they compete to attract females by fanning their tails, inflating the air sacs in their necks, and giving a resonant booming call that reaches far across the prairie. Each lek can be include dozens of males, all fighting for position on their springtime stage. A smaller cousin of the sage-grouse, called Sharp-tailed Grouse, also gather at this time of year to perform their own dance, which includes rapid stomping with wings outstretched and tail pointed up to the sky.
Later in the season as the grass begins to grow and the sun warms the air, songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl all return from their wintering grounds to breed in our productive northern prairie. Some of these species, like Long-billed Curlews and Upland Sandpipers, travel all the way from South America each spring. Others, like longspurs, sparrows and Sprague’s Pipit, only spend winter as far south as Texas or northern Mexico. Grassland-associated species like these have been experiencing some of the steepest population declines of any birds in North America.
One example is McCown’s Longspur, which has lost about 92% of its population since 1966. Ranchland in northeast Montana provides crucial habitat for remaining populations of this species and many others like it.
In the northern part of our neighborhood, retreating glaciers left a unique pattern of small, seasonal “prairie pothole” wetlands scattered throughout the grassland. This landscape hosts a huge number and variety of waterfowl, including Mallards, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall and Blue-winged Teal. Our pothole wetlands are especially important for duck populations because healthy surrounding native grasslands allow successful nesting and production of young.
We also share the prairie with many other grassland species like black-tailed prairie dog, swift fox and whitetail jackrabbit, as well as more common species like coyote, red fox, badger, raccoon, striped skunk, weasels, mink and beaver. Prairie dog colonies themselves support a unique wildlife community including black-footed ferrets, Mountain Plovers, Burrowing Owls, Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcons, Golden Eagles and Great Plains toads. A variety of mice and bats also make their home here, as do reptiles and amphibians like rattlesnakes, short-horned lizards and leopard frogs. In total, there have been at least 40 species of mammals, 15 species of reptiles and amphibians, 180 species of birds and 285 species of plants recorded in Phillips County.
We believe it’s no coincidence that wildlife populations continue to thrive where ranching communities have held onto their way of life. Indeed, many of the most vulnerable prairie species depend on ranchlands for their survival. The Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance is working closely with local and national nonprofit groups, state and federal agencies to maintain and enhance habitat for wildlife in the working landscape. Some examples include:
- Installation of fence modifications to allow migrating pronghorn to pass through.
- Marking fences to reduce sage-grouse collisions.
- Voluntary retention of prairie dog colonies.
- Wetland retention and restoration and native grassland restoration.
- Control of noxious weeds and non-native grasses.
- Implementation of grazing systems to improve rangeland cover for nesting grouse and songbirds.