Habitat

WMD habitat Hailstone

The Charles M. Russell Wetland Management District (District) consists of Hailstone NWR and three other unstaffed satellite refuges, and five Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs). Habitat is similar across the District so all refuges and WPAs are discussed in combination below, with certain areas covered in more detail where appropriate. 


Uplands
Uplands in the District are vast expanses of mixed-grass prairie, sagebrush-mixed grass prairie, greasewood-mixed grass prairie, three fields of disturbed grasslands replanted to dense nesting cover (DNC), and a unique 225-acre ponderosa pine forest. 

Nearly all District units are mixed-grass prairie with a sparse over story of sagebrush or a combination of sagebrush and greasewood. Sagebrush is more dominant and the plants are taller on the Yellow Water Unit and North Unit of Lake Mason Refuge. These areas are described as sagebrush- mixed grass prairie. Due to saline soil types at Grass Lake Refuge, greasewood is the dominant shrub making it a greasewood-mixed grass prairie habitat. 

Whether grass, sagebrush, or greasewood dominates a site, the plant species are similar. Common grasses are western wheatgrass, bluebunch wheatgrass, green needlegrass, needle and thread, prairie junegrass, blue grama, and threadleaf sedge. Introduced grasses such as crested wheatgrass and smooth brome have intermingled with native species in many areas. Introduced annual grasses include cheatgrass and Japanese brome. Common native forbs are phlox, salisify, fringed sagewort, western yarrow, and American vetch. The most dominant nonnative plants are typically yellow sweetclover and dandelion. Common shrubs include big sagebrush, greasewood, saltbush, and rubber rabbitbrush. Other common plants are prickly pear cactus and dense clubmoss. 

Some refuge and WPA properties contained croplands when they were purchased. These fields were converted to DNC. These areas are referred to as disturbed grasslands and were seeded to a seed mixture of cool-season wheatgrasses and legumes. The predominant wheatgrass species were intermediate, tall, pubescent, and western. The legumes were alfalfa and yellow sweetclover. These species were chosen based on research that showed they are attractive and beneficial to nesting waterfowl. The productivity and vigor of a DNC seeding is about 15 years. Most of the DNC fields throughout the District are past this lifespan. 

The War Horse Unit of War Horse NWR has a unique plant community-soil association, a 225-acre ponderosa pine forest on fragile acidic shale soils. The ponderosa pine have slow growth rates, are short in statue, and grow in dense stands, with mostly bare shale soils under the trees. Ground cover is sparse and consists of creeping juniper and grass. This plant community also occurs on adjacent private property and public land administered by the BLM. In 1992, the BLM designated an 817 acre Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) to research and protect this plant community.


Wetlands
The District has natural and managed wetlands varying from freshwater to moderately saline wetlands and a cottonwood riparian area along the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River. 

Four wetland classes are found in the District: temporary, seasonal, semi-permanent, and permanent.
■  Temporary wetlands provide isolation for breeding pairs of waterfowl. The rapid warming of these shallow wetlands in the spring supply a food source of aquatic insects early in the nesting period. 
■  Seasonal wetlands are a major source of insect protein for laying female ducks early in the breeding season, and provide isolation for waterfowl pairs and sites for overwater nests. During wet years, seasonal wetlands are very attractive as breeding habitat and molting areas. They usually receive considerable use by spring-migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, but normally are dry by fall.
■  Semi-permanent wetlands supply most of the needs of common prairie-nesting waterfowl and their broods. They are the last to become ice-free in the spring and, therefore, are not an early source of invertebrate foods for waterfowl and shorebirds. In addition, semi-permanent wetlands are the main habitat for staging and fall migrating waterfowl.
■  Permanent wetlands remain flooded throughout the year. Due to year-round flooding, permanent wetlands support a diverse, but usually not abundant, population of invertebrates. Submerged aquatic plants may occur if adequate water clarity exists. These wetlands are important in mid- to late summer when other wetlands may dry up and when ducks are molting their flight feathers. 

Wetlands are dependent on annual precipitation, surface runoff, and size of their watershed to fill them. Wetlands with large watersheds tend to receive water more frequently. Water levels are generally the highest in the spring, drop throughout the summer, leaving broad exposed mudflats, and may be dry by fall.

Wetland vegetation refers to plants that grow in water or in soils that are saturated for most of the growing season. Emergent plants are those rooted in the bottom and having foliage that grows partially or entirely above the water surface. Some emergent plants found on the District are hardstem bulrush, alkali bulrush, and common cattail. Other plants that occur along the shores of lakes and marshes include foxtail barley, goosefoot, and saltgrass. Submergent plants are those that root in the bottom but do not emerge above the surface of the water, except some that have floating leaves. Common submergent plants include parrot feather, widgeongrass, and sago pondweed. Many wetland plants have broad salt tolerances and can be found in freshwater and saline wetlands; however, species richness for both emergents and submergents decreases as salinity increases.


Riparian Areas
According to Montana’s Comprehensive Fish and Wildlife Conservation Strategy, riparian areas support the greatest concentration of plants and animals yet make up only 4 percent of Montana’s land cover. Plant species and composition in riparian areas is influenced largely by water quality, water permanence, and soils. 

Only the Clark’s Fork WPA contains broadleaf riparian habitat where 1.5 miles of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River forms its east boundary. This riparian site is classified as a narrowleaf cottonwood and red-osier dogwood community type which is described as “characterized by an over story of cottonwoods above a dense and diverse stand of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Red-osier dogwood is the diagnostic shrub for this type. Other shrub species found are western snowberry, woods rose, and sandbar willow. Grasses include redtop, common timothy, and Kentucky bluegrass. The dominant forb is American licorice”. Some of the more common invasive plants found in riparian areas are Russian olive, Canada thistle, Russian knapweed, whitetop, and leafy spurge. 

Riparian habitat consisting of grasses and sedges is also present along Cedar Creek on Grass Lake NWR and Jones Creek on the North Unit. These riparian areas provide important areas for many birds, providing nesting and breeding habitat for migratory songbirds, and foraging and brood-rearing habitat for greater sage grouse.