What We Do
The National Wildlife Refuge System is a series of lands and waters owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildlife conservation is at the heart of the refuge system. It drives everything we do from the purpose a refuge is established, to the recreational activities offered there, to the resource management tools we use. Selecting the right tools helps us ensure the survival of local plants and animals and helps fulfill the purpose of the refuge.
Management and Conservation
Refuges deploy a host of scientifically sound management tools to address biological challenges. These tools span active water management to wilderness character monitoring, all aimed at ensuring a balanced conservation approach to benefit both wildlife and people. At this field station, our conservation toolbox includes prescribed fire, prescribed grazing, management, bottomland restoration and wilderness management.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) utilizes a variety of fuels management actions for reducing hazardous fuels to minimize wildfire severity along with habitat restoration and maintenance. The use of prescribed burning, mechanical thinning, and chemical treatments provide fire managers a variety of tools in effort to reduce the risk of damage from catastrophic wildfire to refuge developments, private in-holdings, sensitive resources, along with private, state, and federal lands outside of the CMR boundary. Often these actions also restore, create, and/or maintain a diversity of plant communities and perpetuate native plants and wildlife species.
As wildfire seasons become longer and more severe across the western United States, CMR has also witnessed a lengthening and severity of fire season. The refuge currently averages 13-15 wildfires per year with approximately 10,000 acres burned annually over the past few years. Historically, fire occurrence was similar on the refuge however acres burned averaged 4000 acres annually. Most fires on CMR are lightening caused as refuge use during summer months has typically been low. Recently, the refuge has seen an increase of public use throughout the summer months and the potential for increased human caused wildfires has fire managers concerned as drought conditions persist in eastern Montana and lightening caused fires still frequently occur.
Additionally, FWS fire resources are being requested more frequently to assist partners on local assists. This was highlighted during 2021 when Montana FWS fire staff responded to over 80 local wildfire incidents including large fire support in October and December.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 states:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and that (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historic value.”
In 1974, the Secretary of the Interior recommended 158,619 acres of Charles M. Russell NWR for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. The acreage is divided into 15 separate areas. Because Congress has not officially designated these 15 areas as wilderness, they are managed as proposed wilderness units in which Service policy requires them to keep their wilderness character in the event they are designated as wilderness. In 1976, Congress designated about 20,890 acres as the UL Bend Wilderness.
|East Hell Creek||14,744|
|East Seven Blackfoot||11,744|
|West Hell Creek||11,896|
|West Seven Blackfoot||6,456|
Wilderness at CMR and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges contains critical wildlife habitat. More than 50% of bighorn sheep habitat on the refuge is found within proposed wilderness areas. Pronghorn antelope are known to migrate across the refuge and cross the Missouri River via UL Bend Wilderness and through the Burnt Lodge and West Seven Blackfoot proposed wilderness areas. Winter sage grouse tracking found that grouse migrating from northern Montana and Canada use habitat within the Burnt Lodge PWA and surrounding areas in the winter. The refuges’ wilderness is also significant to conservation of the American prairie grassland ecosystem, which has been identified, by organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and The Wilderness Society, as one of the least protected biomes in the world. CMR wilderness in combination with adjacent BLM wilderness study areas may increasingly provide critical habitat corridors for wildlife and play a pivotal and promising role in the continued conservation of important northern great plains species such as bighorn sheep, sage grouse, black-tailed prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and mountain lions.
The northern Great Plains, including much of the landscape in and around the refuge, evolved over thousands of years through a complex ecological interaction between fire and grazing. Since the demise of the wild bison in 1881, the fire–grazing interaction (which included intense herbivory after fire, long-distance movement, and years of abandonment) was replaced by constant grazing and no fire with the transition to ranches, fences, and livestock.
Since 1986, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge has gradually been making the transition from annual grazing (the same number of cows at the same time every year) to prescriptive grazing. Prescriptive livestock grazing is the planned application of livestock grazing at a specified season, duration, and intensity to achieve specific vegetation objectives that are designed to meet the broader habitat and wildlife goals. Rather than managing refuge resources to support livestock grazing or other economic uses, livestock grazing is used as a habitat management tool to achieve the goals and objectives for wildlife habitat. Under prescriptive grazing, the Refuge determines the habitat objectives for an area, and then sets the number of livestock needed to achieve those objectives.
Although there have been many issues associated with livestock grazing on the refuge, when prescriptive grazing is used with careful consideration of its compatibility with habitat and wildlife and other land management goals, it can be an effective tool . For example, it can be used to control invasive species or to accomplish other restoration and conservation objectives. Grazing can also be used where fire may be inappropriate. When applied correctly, it can address some of the challenges and issues of domestic grazing systems to create effective and ecologically beneficial results.
Bottomlands or river bottoms are found in the floodplains of the Missouri River above maximum lake level. They occur only on the west end of the refuge. There are about 16 river bottoms covering a total area of approximately 5,000 to 7,000 acres.
A diverse mixture of native trees, shrubs, forbs, and grasses characterizes the river bottom plant community. Trees and shrubs present are green ash, boxelder, redosier dogwood, silver buffaloberry, golden currant, western snowberry, Woods’ rose, chokecherry, sumac, plains cottonwood, sandbar willow, peachleaf willow, and a couple of other willow species. Native forbs present include Maximilian sunflower and American licorice. Native grasses present are bluebunch wheatgrass, green needlegrass, prairie cordgrass, basin wildrye, western wheatgrass and reed canarygrass.
Historically, many of the river bottoms on the refuge were cleared. Native plant communities were plowed, and nonnative agricultural crops were planted because these were the most productive areas. Farming the river bottoms occurred for decades, but the last homesteader on the refuge stopped farming in 1983–84, and the last two bottoms to be planted to crops have not been farmed since 1985–86. Even though the farming has stopped, the threats to the river bottoms have not. Native plant communities that once existed on these bottoms have been unable to reestablish themselves and the plant communities left existing on the river bottoms have now mostly been invaded by Russian knapweed, leafy spurge, smooth brome, and quackgrass, which have very little value to wildlife.
In 2004 CMR began restoring 160-acre Irish Bottom and has also begun restoration on Knox Bottom (160 acres) and Kendall Bottom (175 acres). The most significant threat to river bottom health is from exotic species which have been increasing in many areas largely because of two reasons: (1) lack of seed source to establish native plants that would compete with or outcompete the invasive weeds; and (2) extensive browsing on sentinel plants that are established. Establishing and maintaining healthy native plant communities is an important way to slow or prevent reestablishment of weeds after they have been treated mechanically, chemically or with biological control. The Service is currently consulting with experts from NRCS and State agencies to determine the best methods to restore these bottomlands back to healthy native plant communities. Ultimately, restoration of the river bottoms will consist of a healthy native plant community including those that would have occurred on the river bottoms 150 years ago.
Although there are several types of invasive species of potential concern including aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussels, and other pests that could be an issue in the future (such as pine beetle), weeds are the primary issue of concern for Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
The five primary weed species treated on the refuge are: leafy spurge, Russian knapweed, saltcedar, spotted knapweed, and whitetop (hoary cress). Other invasive plant threats found on the refuge include Russian olive, smooth brome,crested wheatgrass, and quack grass. In the uplands, the two common invasive species are Japanese brome and yellow sweetclover.
The Service uses many methods to combat weeds on the refuge. Mechanical methods like hand pulling, mowing and tilling are more effective for controlling annual or biennial pest plants. For perennial plants, the root system has to be destroyed or will continue to resprout and grow. Biological control agents involve the deliberate introduction and management of natural enemies to reduce pest populations. Herbicides are also used to treat weed-infested areas. For long term prevention and proper maintenance of refuge habitats, restoration including revegetation with native/desirable plants is essential.
Many partners are involved in the fight against invasive species. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks monitors for the detection of aquatic nuisance species, such as Eurasion watermilfoil, in Montana. The Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance in Phillips County organized a hunter-vehicle weed wash which has proven to be an excellent education program. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also manages for invasive species on the refuge. Generally, they concentrate their efforts on treating saltcedar below the high water mark on Fort Peck Reservoir while the Service focuses primarily in the river bottoms and upland areas. The Service also cooperated with BLM and Valley County to conduct an extensive invasive plant survey, recording weed infestations along 2,900 miles of road across several jurisdictions.
The Montana Weed Control Association website has information on weed identification and the latest news and research.
At this field station we offer the following public services:
Federal Wildlife Officers promote the survival of species and health of the environment by ensuring that wildlife laws are followed. They also welcome visitors, and are often the first U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees encountered by the public on refuges. Federal Wildlife Officers are entrusted with protecting natural resources, visitors and employees on National Wildlife Refuge System lands.
Laws and Regulations
Management actions on national wildlife refuges are bound by many mandates including laws and executive orders.