Mountain-Prairie Region  Partners for Fish & Wildlife
Milk River Basin
Conservation Strategies


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.

Conservation Strategies

Milk River Basin prairie landscape photoCriteria 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 water supplies.

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 funds.

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 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 per acre.

Future Needs

  • 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.