Plowing, overgrazing, fire suppression,
tree encroachment, invasive exotics, altered predator populations, and control of
black-tailed prairie dogs have all combined to make native grasslands the most extensively
altered biome on the planet. In the Milk River Basin Focus Area all of these issues
present serious threats to native prairie quantity and quality. Recent conversion of
native grasslands to cropland has been most severe in north-central Montana, especially
above the Milk River. The degrees of threat (from highest to lowest) of grassland
conversion can be ranked geographically across the State: 1) from the Hi-Line (Milk River)
and northward, 2) from the Missouri River to the Milk River, 3) between the Missouri River
and the Yellowstone, and finally 4) below the Yellowstone River.
for delineating a north-central Montana Prairie Focus Area and determining conservation
actions include: trust species occurrence, the location of intact prairie landscapes,
threats, protected areas, and potential partners.
The Fish and Wildlife Service
recognizes that the future of prairie wildlife populations depends, in part, on long-term
land use by private landowners. The goal of this native prairie conservation initiative is
to preserve and restore the grassland-wetland ecosystem in a way that sustains profitable
ranching, native wildlife and vegetative diversity, and the associated ground and surface
The Northern Great Plains is one of the
richest grassland bird communities in North America; and north-central Montana is the
center of species radiation of endemic prairie birds. The Montana Partners-In-Flight Bird
Conservation Plan lists a number of declining grassland bird species needing conservation
action. Many of these species inhabit north-central Montana. Grassland-wetland complexes
in north-central and northeastern Montana have been identified as critical waterfowl
habitat by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, and both areas have been
designated as Prairie Pothole Joint Venture Areas. The Nature Conservancy, in its
ecoregional planning document, also recognizes the grasslands and wetlands north of the
Missouri River as "Ecologically Significant Areas". Sizable tracts of publicly
owned (Bureau of Land Management and State School Sections) native prairie also exist in
north-central Montana. These large, intact prairie areas are the critical cornerstones for
maintaining healthy prairie wildlife populations.
Montana landowners play a significant
role in maintaining productive grassland-wetland landscapes and stable wildlife
populations. The availability of surface water is a limiting factor for wetland wildlife
and cattle. Restoring wetlands and establishing shallow stock ponds can significantly
increase duck production, provide valuable waterbird and shorebird habitat, and also
benefit ranchers. Within the Milk River Basin Focus Area, the primary conservation actions
on private lands are to: 1) restore and establish wetlands and wetland complexes within
areas of extensive existing grassland nesting habitat, 2) acquire perpetual conservation
easements on areas with existing wetlands and associated grasslands, 3) design and help
ranchers implement conservation grazing systems, and 4) begin a private lands short-grass
prairie conservation initiative by pursuit of Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)
monies for purchase (from willing sellers) of perpetual grassland conservation easements.
The objectives of voluntary grassland
easements will be to protect those areas most vulnerable to native grassland loss or
conversion to cropland, to purchase easements on large tracts, and to "fill in the
gaps" (protect privately owned grasslands) between and adjacent to Bureau of Land
Management or State Lands.
A newly proposed short-grass prairie
easement initiative will also complement the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, North
American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) habitat restoration activities, and, the
Federal Duck Stamp funded small wetland acquisition program. A fully funded grassland
conservation easement initiative will provide the Service with a powerful new tool for
acquiring easements on tracts of native grasslands that do not qualify for Duck Stamp
Taken in concert, these three
complementary programs: Partners for Fish and Wildlife and NAWMP/NAWCA wetland
restorations, Federal Duck Stamp funded wetland easement acquisition, and the
implementation of a new grassland conservation easement initiative will truly represent a
proactive, landscape-scale, and cross-programmatic approach to maintaining native prairie
in the north-central Montana Focus Area.
The Milk River Basin Focus Area covers
3 ½ counties: the northeastern half of Hill County above the Milk River, and all of
Blaine, Phillips, and Valley Counties. There are two priority Core Areas: 1)
the grasslands and wetlands (pothole country) above the Milk River in north Blaine and
north Phillips Counties, and 2) the grasslands below the Milk River and north of the
Missouri River in southern Phillips County.
The cost to restore or establish
wetlands in this Focus Area is $500 per acre and the cost for grassland enhancement is $10
- Restore and/or establish 3,000 acres of
wetlands on private and tribal lands.
- Restore or enhance 250,000 acres of
grasslands on private and tribal lands.