The refuge complex lies within the highly productive Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains and has topography typical of the glacial drift prairie, with relatively gentle rolling plains and numerous shallow wetland depressions. The refuge itself encompasses 31,660 acres in Sheridan and Roosevelt counties, and includes about 13,010 acres of open water and marsh, 14,890 acres of native prairie and 3,760 acres of previously cultivated lands now maintained mostly in perennial grass plantings. Most of the surrounding private land is intensively farmed for small grain.
The refuge consists of two non-contiguous tracts. The main tract includes the 8,218-acre Medicine Lake, five smaller lakes, and numerous potholes. The smaller tract to the south contains the 1,280-acre Homestead Lake . Within the main tract of the refuge, the 11,360-acre Medicine Lake Wilderness was established by Congress in 1976. This area includes the main water body of the lake, the islands within, and the 2,320-acre Sandhills Unit, with rolling hills, native grass, brush patches, and a few relic stands of quaking aspen.
Native grasslands in the area are characterized as mixed-grass prairie, with a great diversity of short, medium, and tall native grasses interspersed with many wildflowers and scattered patches of low shrubs. Most common grasses are needle and thread grass, blue grama, western wheatgrass, prairie junegrass, and prairie sandreed. The Medicine Lake sandhills are a unique landform and one of only two sandhills areas found in Montana . Many plant species adapted to the sandy soils occur here.
Integrity of native vegetation has been compromised by the planting and subsequent spread of exotic invasive plants. Crested wheatgrass dominates much of the refuge grasslands. It was planted extensively on retired cropland in the 1930s and 1940s, and has subsequently spread to many areas beyond the original seeding. Smooth brome is another introduced grass that is prominent in more mesic (moderately moist) sites throughout the refuge complex, and quackgrass and Kentucky bluegrass are present to a lesser degree. Russian olive, an exotic invasive tree originally planted in shelterbelts, has become established in native prairie throughout the refuge complex. Four state-listed noxious weeds are found in the refuge complex: leafy spurge, Canada thistle, spotted knapweed and dalmation toadflax are being intensively managed for eradication. Grasslands in the refuge complex are maintained and enhanced with prescribed grazing and fire, haying, and rest. These management tools mimic the natural processes (naturally-caused fires and grazing by bison) that historically maintained vegetation in the northern Great Plains, by removing accumulations of litter, increasing native plant vigor, inhibiting many exotic plants, and fostering plantsoil feedback mechanisms, such as fast and slow nutrient cycling.
REPORT: Plant species of special concern and plant associations of Sheridan County, Montana. Report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To see the report visit:Montana Natural Heritage Program
The Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex has a fully-staffed, comprehensive fire program to accomplish both habitat management and wildfire suppression on the Complex.
Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) uses fire in controlled situations to manage lands on the Refuge. Controlled burns, or prescribed fires, are ignited by trained wildland fire firefighters to meet specific management objectives. On average, nearly 3,500 acres are treated each year at Medicine Lake NWR. The majority of prescribed fires at Medicine Lake NWR are implemented during March through the beginning of May, however burning occurs throughout the year depending on weather conditions and project objectives. The habitat management goals being met through use of fire as a land management practice include:
Wildfires on the Refuge and areas adjacent to the Refuge are most common in April, May, September, and October. Fires started by lightning account for nearly 25% of the fires started on or adjacent to the Refuge, the other 75% of wildfires are human caused. The Refuge currently has two engines and three All Terrain Vehicles as well as other equipment available for wildfire suppression. There is one full-time fire firefighter and three seasonal firefighters stationed at the Refuge. The Refuge has assistance agreements with Medicine Lake , Froid, Westby, and Plentywood Volunteer Fire Departments. These agreements allow the Volunteer Fire Departments to request Refuge fire personnel to assist them on any wildland fires within Sheridan County and parts of Roosevelt County .
Our fire staff is also a National resource that can be used throughout the nation to assist in wildfire suppression efforts. During the hot summer months the Refuge fire staff travels to the western portions of the U.S. and joins other resources on helicopters, fire engines, handcrews, and Incident Command Teams.
Native prairies evolved along with the animals that eat them. Historic grazing by bison, elk, and others herbivores actually helped maintain healthy and diverse prairies. Today, domestic livestock including cattle and sheep have replaced the majority of the native grazers.
In general, prairies thrive by occasional influence of grazing and fire. Without these natural disturbances, the prairie grasslands regress to poor quality wildlife habitat. Grasslands that are left ungrazed and unburned will become dominated by aggressive, often non-native species. An example is Crested Wheatgrass, an aggressive plant from Siberia . As it spreads from adjacent roads and other sites, it competes with and replaces many native plants. This cool-season grass will out-compete the native grasses as it grows early in the spring. A rotational grazing system helps address the timing and duration needed to manage a specific plant species. For example, grazing Crested Wheatgrass in early spring before native plants are actively growing can improve the likelihood of maintaining healthy native grasslands.
Livestock grazing tends to be patchy on large pasture fields. On these large fields there are likely sites heavily, moderately, or lightly grazed - and even ungrazed. This creates patchy vegetation communities and increases the biodiversity across the landscape. This provides a wide range of homes for a great variety of wildlife.
Over time, carefully managed grazing and burning practices will restore and maintain native prairie and the wildlife species that depend on it.
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