Conserving the Ocean of Grass and Sage
In Montana, funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is expanding the scale of conservation to whole landscapes.
The following story was written by partners at the Intermountain West Joint Venture and the original version is available on Partnering to Conserve Sagebrush Rangelands*

*When you use the above link, you are leaving the USFWS website. DOI and the bureaus do not guarantee that outside websites comply with Section 508 (Accessibility Requirements) of the Rehabilitation Act. Links also do not constitute endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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When asked to describe her favorite aspects of Phillips County in north-central Montana, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologist Marisa Sather took a moment to collect her impressions.

“You obviously hear and feel the wind,” she said. “It’s always windy in Montana. And you just hear life all around you. It takes you a couple years to figure it all out, to pick out the individual birds and what species they are. It just sounds like life, everywhere.”

But more important than what you hear in these rolling sagebrush sagebrush
The western United States’ sagebrush country encompasses over 175 million acres of public and private lands. The sagebrush landscape provides many benefits to our rural economies and communities, and it serves as crucial habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the iconic greater sage-grouse and over 350 other species.

Learn more about sagebrush
-dusted grasslands, she said, is what you don’t hear.

“You can go a whole day without seeing or hearing a vehicle, which is pretty rare in today’s world,” Sather said. “There’s places at night when it’s so dark that you can’t see a single light.”

North-central Montana contains some of the largest remaining intact rangelands in the United States, and this openness is what makes this region such an important area for native grassland and sagebrush species. Some regional herds of pronghorn antelope accomplish a 300-mile round-trip migration through the heart of this landscape, a trek akin to the migration of their distant wildebeest cousins half a world away in East Africa’s Masai Mara. Mule deer abound and endangered black-footed ferrets stalk their prairie dog prey through burrow networks under the grass. And vulnerable birds like Sprague’s pipit and Greater Sage-grouse thrive in this region.

Rural communities located across this landscape also depend on these intact, functioning grasslands. Keeping this system healthy is the driving factor behind a robust and growing partnership of landowners, non-governmental organizations, federal and state agencies, and Tribes. Thanks to funding from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Bipartisan Infrastructure Law
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) is a once-in-a-generation investment in the nation’s infrastructure and economic competitiveness. We were directly appropriated $455 million over five years in BIL funds for programs related to the President’s America the Beautiful initiative.

Learn more about Bipartisan Infrastructure Law
(BIL), these partners have additional resources to deliver a new slate of conservation projects to help sustain this vibrant ecosystem—and the people and wildlife that depend on it.

With $10 million in BIL funds granted to the USFWS in fiscal year 2023 towards sagebrush ecosystem conservation across the range, conservationists across the West are building on and leveraging existing initiatives to deliver infrastructure improvements and habitat restoration work at a larger scale than has been possible before.

Preventing Fragmentation in a Complex Ecosystem

Because of their rich, arable glacial-deposit soil base, grasslands like the one found in north-central Montana are especially vulnerable to conversion to fields of crops like wheat and hay, which can fragment the ecosystem into something much less hospitable to wildlife.

“It can be devastating when this land is converted into annual cropland. It turns into a monoculture,” Sather said. “Our most imperiled sagebrush and grassland species just completely stop using it…and not just that particular parcel of land. For Greater Sage-grouse, for example, there’s at least a two mile buffer. If there’s cropland within that buffer, they’re just abandoning the whole area.”

Unlike row crops, there is one agricultural product that Greater Sage-grouse and other grassland- and sagebrush-obligate species don’t skitter away from: cows. Thus, cattle and the ranchers that tend their herds have become essential partners in the larger effort to conserve wildlife habitat in Montana’s Northern Great Plains.

“We’re lucky enough to have an area of intermixed grasslands and sage that is remarkably intact compared to the rest of the biome, and that is because we have a solid base of public land and the associated livestock operations that use that land,” said Sather.

Land managers in this region contend with an ever-present risk: Continual variability in the ecosystem, and especially the threat of drought and insufficient water, threatens the viability of profitable ranching businesses. In turn, this can cause fragmentation of this vital ecosystem when land is purchased for alternative uses, like cropland or development.

In Montana and across the West, governmental agencies and conservation NGOs partner with organizations like Montana’s Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, a cooperative group dedicated towards tackling the integrated problem of rangeland improvement for the betterment of both wildlife habitat and the economic health of cattle ranching businesses. For conservation professionals like Martin Townsend, the Conservation Coordinator for the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, this partnership is a no-brainer.

“We have been working with conservation partners the last few years to increase the availability of options for ranchers,” he said. “We try to find partners for ranches that share common values of keeping grasslands functional.”

Conservation Planning at an Unprecedented Scale

Those acquainted with rangeland improvement projects will be familiar with the kind of work that Ranchers Stewardship Alliance does in northern Montana: everything from improvements in water infrastructure, to building wildlife-friendly fences, to re-seeding native vegetation. The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is currently working with the USFWS to invest BIL funds to expand these efforts to a scale that befits the vastness of this landscape.

“These projects aren’t new, but the scope is,” Sather said. “This is our first opportunity to work on these large scale projects.”

Townsend concurred. “This funding will help with whole-ranch project planning—on the ranch as a whole, not in pieces,” he said. “We can address more than just the first problem we find, and we can work more effectively towards long term goals through short time-scale projects. And if we do enough of these projects, they add up to gigantic landscape scale conservation changes.” For example, while re-seeding native vegetation is a standard habitat restoration project for Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, this BIL project will re-seed 1,500 acres along a creek oxbow in Phillips County that will exponentially expand the impact of previous restoration projects.

“In this area, there is sagebrush—which serves as winter cover and nesting habitat for birds like sage-grouse—but there is a lack of riparian riparian
Definition of riparian habitat or riparian areas.

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habitat,” Townsend said. “Grouse and other wildlife need healthy riparian area, so the direct improvements to the forage base and wildlife habitat on about 700 acres of riparian habitat along this corridor could impact 50- to 60,000 acres of surrounding upland in terms of how the land is managed—unlocking the surrounding area as habitat.”

In Townsend’s eyes, this new scale of conservation planning provided by BIL funding is needed in Montana’s north-central ocean of grass and sage—not because the undisturbed habitat is so vast, but because it’s so interconnected.

“I used to think this area was gigantic,” he said. “You can stand on a prairie and feel so small: It’s so expansive, so wide and flat. But then, when you work with ranches or public land agencies, and spend your time mapping and driving through this land, you start to realize it’s actually so small in some ways, and so connected. What feels like it might be in a different world might be two neighbors away from where you are. One positive interaction and one project can have a ripple effect across land and wildlife.”

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The projects described in this story would not be possible without the assistance of many partnering organizations and entities, including the participating ranching familes; the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and Sagebrush Ecosystem Team; Ranchers Stewardship Alliance; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Natural Resources Conservation Service; Pheasants Forever; Ducks Unlimited; The Nature Conservancy; World Wildlife Fund; National Wildlife Federation; and others. For more information on this BIL-funded sagebrush conservation project, visit the project page on the USFWS website here.

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