We’re Better Together: Sage Grouse Restoration in Montana

Written by Morgan Marks, North-Central and Eastern Montana Field Representative with Montana Wildlife Federation. 

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The project site outside Winifred, Montana, with much work being performed by project partners. Photo taken by Sarah Bates.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) brought partners and diverse organizations together to support the restoration of habitat for Greater Sage-grouse populations this past August as part of a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) three-year grant. 2021 was the final year for the grant and NWF rounded out the work in a good and strong way. In the process of restoring habitat for Greater Sage-grouse, the restoration work also supports the landscape and other wildlife such as other birds and prairie animals.

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Morgan Marks with Montana Wildlife Federation is pictured with Sarah Bates with National Wildlife Federation, at the project site outside Winifred, Montana. Photo taken by Sonya Smith.

Organizing takes hard work! NWF brought together many dynamic partners for this project, including, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), specifically the folks in Montana in the Lewistown and Glasgow offices, Great West Engineering, Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), University of Montana, U.S. Geological Survey, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Montana Trappers Association (MTA), Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF). All partners were involved in various capacities from supporting the work with on-the-ground people and man-power, project design, site selection, project research, financial support, monitoring, and volunteer recruitment and outreach coordination.

 

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Montana Conservation Corps crew members working to cut and haul materials at the project site outside Winifred, Montana. Photo taken by Sonya Smith.

MWF was involved in engaging and recruiting volunteers, supporting the preparation of materials for installation, and working with a few good folks from MTA to provide volunteer coordination and on-the-ground support for the project. The project had multiple people turn out and show up to support on volunteer days, which were purposefully scheduled before installation so that materials could be gathered and ready in advance.

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Nick Hagen with Great West Engineering and Montana Trappers Association is pictured working to move willows at the project site outside Winifred, Montana. Photo taken by Sonya Smith.

Installation involved BLM staff, Great West Engineering, and Montana Conservation Corps crews to make and install low-tech methods to stall and slow water on the prairie landscape. Volunteers were affiliated with various organizations, such as Montana Trappers Association, Keep it Public, American Prairie Reserve, and the U.S. Forest Service.

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Morgan Marks with Montana Wildlife Federation is pictured with Justin Schaaf with Keep it Public, both working alongside BLM staff to remove fencing outside Winifred, Montana. Photo taken by Eric Clewis

Volunteers showed up and worked in very hot and dry conditions, and then the rain came. They cut, hauled, and prepared willows and other woody materials and drove many miles from site to site across Phillips, Valley, and Fergus counties. People carpooled, they camped at BLM campsites in both remote and beautiful locations, and people gave their time in service to the restoration of riparian lands to support the essential species, the Greater Sage-grouse. Volunteers and MWF staff also worked alongside BLM staff to support the removal of old and fallen down fencing on BLM land.

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BLM staff working at the project site outside Winifred, Montana. Photo taken by Sonya Smith.
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Montana Conservation Corps members working to weave willows between posts to create a beaver dam analog outside Winifred, Montana. Photo taken by Morgan Marks.

We’re better together. That was the overarching theme of the Greater Sage-grouse riparian restoration project. Conservation should be about working together to support wildlife and habitat, and this project was a shining example of just that. The focus of the location of the projects took place on BLM land. All sites were originally identified and selected as the best options for this project because they were the most viable to experiment with to see if low-tech methods and tree planting would work to restore water to prairie landscapes. Great effort went into understanding the history of the sites and whether or not such methods should be tried.

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Amy Chadwick, Restoration Ecologist with Great West Engineering, the implementation lead for this project, directs and supports BLM staff on how to install posts for a beaver dam analog outside Winifred, Montana. Photo taken by Morgan Marks.

The prairie is a special place year-round, and especially in late summer, where thunderstorms can roll through, pour rain, and leave the land seemingly unchanged, albeit some thick mud, since Montana has been experiencing drought. In some parts of the state, regions of the state were experiencing drought since the beginning of the year. While the land was mostly bone dry, there were a few pools of water present at multiple sites this past month.

It’s easier to build beaver dam analogs (BDA’s) and log jams when the landscape is wet. When a structure is built in a flowing stream, the results of a BDA and/or log jam are immediate because the water slows down allowing the floodplain to reconnect and reverse the incision in a stream that limits water availability for riparian vegetation. Even with the surprise of rain, everyone shared big smiles during installation, and gratitude was felt for a bit of much-needed moisture. It became a joke that this project “makes it rain” because every year of the three-year cycle, it has rained where the project has taken place. Laughs were shared between people that going forward, activities to re-water the prairie through this grant and the people involved should be known as “the rainmakers.”

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Log jam that was just built with wood materials sourced from the immediate landscape. In the background, MCC crew members work on building and installing a beaver dam analog (BDA). Photo taken by Morgan Marks.

The prairie landscape has changed over time, with the land not keeping and holding water for as long as it once did. The land becomes drier, faster. Prairie streams have changed course, changed the landscape, and erosion has occurred in many areas yielding small, deeply cut streams across prairie landscapes.

Over time natural ways of slowing water down on the land have gone away. For example, beavers are an animal that was typically found in the prairie and on the land, and their dams allowed for water to slow down and pool in places. Without this creature, streams now cut through the land and allow water to rush by with little to stop it or make it stay in one place.

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Amy Chadwick, project lead, in yellow, teaching BLM staff how to build and install a beaver dam analog (BDA). Bonny Richard, hydrologist with the BLM, in blue, led the project for sites supported by the BLM office in Lewistown. Photo taken by Morgan Marks.

For this three-year project, restoring riparian habitat took many hands and much coordination. It’s important to highlight a few key terms:

Riparian refers to the intersection of land and water along a stream creating habitat and vegetation that depends on access to this intersection and specifically, the access to water; most wildlife and bird species depend on the riparian zone for part of their life cycle.

Restoration refers to work being done to improve, sustain and change the land and existing habitat.

Low-tech methods, which can be referenced in Joe Wheaton’s Riverscapes manual, were used to install structures made of natural materials such as willows and fallen trees, with the intention that the structures would slow the flow of water, and thus, keep water on the land for longer periods of time. Wetter habitat means greener habitat. Greener habitat means that Greater Sage-grouse have places to nest, food to eat and forage, and habitat to support them.

These low-tech methods, in some instances, mimic the work of beavers. Beaver dam analogs or BDA’s are one way to slow water down on the land and literally dam a prairie stream, mimicking the beavers that once were a part of the natural landscape. The goal is to imitate and mimic beavers to restore the land back to its’ natural functioning state, using natural methods and minimal technology. While no land can go back to the way it originally was, these methods will allow the landscape to change to what it can become now – something new, ideally with water staying on the land for longer periods of time to support wildlife and habitat restoration.

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A newly built BDA at the project site outside Winifred, Montana. Photo taken by Sonya Smith.

Beavers are the natural stewards of the land when it comes to holding water back, and with increased knowledge and people-power, along with many partners working together, these low-tech methods are being tried, tracked, and monitored to see what works on prairie landscapes without beavers being present. Questions have been posed about whether or not the goal is for beavers to exist again in locations where these methods are being tried. The answer is that sometimes beavers make their way back, and sometimes they don’t. The work is about much more than beavers. It’s about learning from nature to strategize about how to best steward the land, and in this case, learning from beavers is one way to positively change prairie landscapes and support the land with riparian restoration.

While the goal of the project was to ultimately support Greater Sage-grouse, as they are a key species on the prairie landscape, it’s important to note that riparian restoration work supports many other species of wildlife, not only sage grouse populations. BLM staff explained how, when they’re looking at the health of the land, they look for Greater Sage-grouse and signs that the bird is on the land and present. The Greater Sage-grouse helps the BLM know how healthy the land is.

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Bonny Richard, Hydrologist with the BLM, stands on the left, with another BLM staff-person to her right; Sarah Bates, in the middle is chatting about the project with Amy Chadwick, project lead, with Great West Engineering and Nick Hagen with Great West Engineering and Montana Trappers Association, on her right, at the project site outside Winifred, Montana. Photo taken by Sonya Smith.

Together, we can support conservation, habitat restoration, wildlife, and public lands.

Together, we can make strides to improve landscapes and support the natural environment.

Together, we are moving forward and creating pathways for positive change to occur – because we’re paying attention to the master, mother nature, and learning as we go.

Readings and Resources to Check Out:

Re-watering the Prairie, Montana stream restoration project imitates beavers to spread water, expand riparian habitat, by Sarah Bates, Acting Regional Executive Director and Senior Director, Western Water, with National Wildlife Federation, Northern Rockies, Prairies and Pacific Region: https://blog.nwf.org/2020/09/re-watering-the-prairie/

Low-Tech Riverscape Restoration Practices Improve Riparian-Wetland Health, by Alden Shallcross, State Lead – Montana/Dakotas Aquatic Habitat Management Program: https://www.blm.gov/blog/2021-02-25/low-tech-riverscape-restoration-practices-improve-riparian-wetland-health

Clark Fork Coalition, Beaver Conflict Resolution: https://clarkfork.org/our-work/what-we-do/restore-the-best/beaver-conflict-resolution

Now is the time for wildlife advocates to raise their unified voices

At the Fish and Wildlife Commission August 20, 2021 the commission charged with stewarding our fish and wildlife went on to vote against the will of the people and enacted extended elk shoulder seasons on public land along with measures meant to exterminate wolves. Commissioner Byorth was the only one to stand up for Montana’s hunting ethic. Byorth said, “I just want the commission to recognize how the preponderance of comments, both in the elk shoulder seasons and wolf seasons, is clearly opposed to the decision we’re making, and I just want to caution us to remember that these are the owners of the wildlife and we gotta be cautious about listening. It’s just propagating, I think, the perspective that this administration has a war on wildlife and they’re not interested in the voice of the many and they’re just interested in the voice of the few. It’s a dark road we’re going down.” 

The following is a memo prepared by MWF staffers Eric Clewis and Marcus Strange that details the actions taken by the commission, the changes implemented, and the concerns MWF has with these actions.

Wolf and Furbearer Trapping Setbacks

  1. No Setbacks – Designate the following new areas as No Setbacks Required for any species. 
    1. Region 1 
      1. All of Sanders County (unless designated as a no trapping area or maintaining current setbacks) and southern portions of Lincoln County south of Highway 2 to Big Cherry Creek, then west following Big Cherry Creek to the intersection of Lincoln and Sanders County lines. 
      2. Exceptions – Maintain current setbacks of 50 ft for furbearers and 150 ft for wolf at: 
        1. Trout Creek-Hope Valley Road from the Forest Service boundary to East Fork Trout Creek and Granite Creek junction. Maintained road for public access in the winter. West of Trout Creek.
        2. Prospect Creek Road from the end of snow maintenance to the junction of Prospect Creek and Demont Creek, west of Thompson Falls. High use public use-ski area. 
        3. Forest Service Roads #7507 and #340 in the Baldy Lake area north of Plains. Snowmobile and ski area. 
  2. No Trapping – Designate the following new areas as No Trapping allowed.
    1. Region 1 – all sites are small in size and feature high-use winter public recreation. 
      1. Mule Pasture recreation area, Thompson Falls. 
      2. Finely Flats recreation area, between Thompson Falls and Trout Creek.
      3. Trout Creek recreation area near Trout Creek.
      4. Trout Creek administrative and recreation site, Trout Creek.
      5. Bend Ranger Station- forest service rental cabin and recreation area in the Thompson River Drainage.
      6. Sheldon Flats recreation area, Libby.
      7. Flower Creek recreation area, south of Libby.
      8. Bear Creek Ski Area, south of Libby.
      9. Round Meadow Ski Area- North of Kalispell on Star Meadow Road. (Consolidate current expanded setbacks area).
      10. Blacktail Ski Area, in Lakeside (Consolidate currently expanded setbacks).
      11. Schnaus Rental Cabin-Sonderson Meadow – North Fork of the Flathead.
      12. Cedar Flats Recreation Area, north of Columbia Falls.

Primary concerns:

  1. Setbacks are in place for the good of all public land users. Removing setbacks will further damage the trapping image.
  2. Removing setbacks presents a significant danger to pets when viewed in concert with the addition of wolf snares.
  3. The provision for expanded setbacks was wholly removed from the proposal.

 

2021 Wolf Season Quotas, Regulations, and Season Dates

  1. Bag limit of 10 wolves.
  2. Up to 10 wolves per hunting license.
  3. Trapping and snaring season dates of 1st Monday after Thanksgiving – March 15th for the entire state
    1. There will be a floating open season for trapping within districts located within grizzly bear recovery zones. The department may pick a start date based on conditions. If the department does not select a date by December 15th, then the season will open on December 15th and run through March 15th.
  4. Snaring is allowed on public lands, with the following restrictions:
    1. Snares must be equipped with a loop stop that will close to a loop no smaller than 2.5 inches in diameter (stop placed at no less than 8 inches from the end of the loop).
    2. Snares must have a breakaway device rated at 1,000 lbs. or less installed on the loop end.
    3. Snares must be placed such that the bottom of the snare loop is at least 18 inches above the ground’s surface.
    4. If snares are allowed on public lands, power-assisted (e.g., spring-loaded) snare locks are prohibited on wolf snares on public lands.
    5. A relaxing snare lock is required on snares in lynx protection zones (LPZ’s).
    6. Snaring is not allowed within areas designated as grizzly bear recovery zones.
  5. Night hunting is allowed on private lands statewide.
  6. No hunting over bait is allowed except on private lands statewide:
    1. Bait is defined as the meat or viscera of a mammal, bird, or fish, or any part thereof more than one pound in weight. Bleached bones are excluded.
  7. Quotas around YNP and GNP are eliminated.
  8. A harvest of 450 wolves shall initiate a commission review with the potential for rapid in-season adjustments to hunting and trapping regulations. After that, the commission shall be similarly re-engaged at intervals of each additional 50 wolves harvested, if season adjustments allow for additional wolf harvest.
    1. The following regional quotas will also be instituted to allow for rapid review as the season progresses.
      1. Region 1: 195
      2. Region 2: 116
      3. Region 3: 82
      4. Region 4: 39
      5. Region 5: 11
      6. Region 6: 3
      7. Region 7: 4
  9. A non-target capture of one lynx or grizzly bear shall initiate a commission review with the potential for rapid in-season adjustments to trapping regulations. After that, the commission shall be similarly re-engaged for any additional non-target capture of lynx or grizzly bear.
  10. All non-target captures shall be reported to the department within 24 hours, including captures from foothold traps and snares. 
  11. All other aspects of regulations adopted for the most recent past season remain unchanged, except for those influenced by routine calendar rotations or other proposals pending before the commission.

Primary concerns:

  1. Running trapping through March 15th will mean traps will be out when grizzly bears emerge from their dens.
  2. The 2020 wolf harvest and population data have not been released.
  3. There is no sound mechanism by which the F&W Commission can meet quickly if and when the quota is reached.
  4. Quotas in the areas around Yellowstone National park and Glacier National park have been removed.
  5. Night hunting and the use of bait are not consistent with ethical fair-chase hunting.
  6. Snares will lead to non-target capture of grizzlies and lynx.

2021-22 Elk Shoulder Season Adjustments

  1. Should Season Expansion and Continuation
    1. Added a shoulder season in HD 314 (LPT 314-00).
    2. Extend the late season to Feb. 15, 2022, for all relevant license-permit types for antlerless elk shoulder seasons in Hunting Districts 262, 290, 298, 314, 390, 391, 393, 411, 417, 502, 510, 511, 520, 530, 540, 560, 575, 580, and 590.
  2. Shoulder Season Public Lands
    1. The department recommended not expanding shoulder seasons to public land as part of the 2021 shoulder season structure but considering it later as part of the biennial season setting process.
    2. Expanded shoulder seasons onto public land in the east half of HD 411 and potentially other hunting districts.

Primary Concerns

  1. The results of the 2020 shoulder seasons have not been shared with the public. 
  2. The shoulder seasons were not meeting the agreed-upon criteria before 2020, and it is still unknown if they met the requirements in 2020.
  3. Shoulder seasons on public lands run counter to the purpose of a shoulder season: to move elk off private property and back onto public land.
  4. Hunting pregnant cow elk in the dead of winter is poor wildlife management and a detriment to the image of hunting.
  5. These hunting districts are in areas where there is heaving trophy elk outfitting. The department is catering to the interests of outfitters.
  6. These shoulder seasons lay the groundwork for a move to a ranching for wildlife model, as seen in other states.
  7. The voice of the people is being ignored. The majority of comments opposed these changes.
  8. The department is blatantly ignoring its standards and the best available science. 

The Fish and Wildlife Commission made it abundantly clear that they will continue to push the rhetoric and legislative agenda that came out of the 2021 Legislative Session. As Commissioner Byorth pointed out, public testimony overwhelmingly opposed these measures, and yet every proposal moved forward. Both elected and appointed officials continue to ignore the will of the many in favor of special interests. Now is the time for wildlife advocates to raise their unified voices in support of our hunting heritage and fairchase hunting principles.

 

By Montana Wildlife Federation Programs and Partnership Director Marcus Strange and Montana Wildlife Federation Western Montana Field Coordinator Eric Clewis.

MWF calls on Gianforte to Protect Montana’s fisheries from Impacts of Climate Change

In response to unprecedented drought conditions across the West that have caused a record number of fishing restrictions and closures in Montana, MWF is calling upon Governor Greg Gianforte to step up to confront the impacts of climate change on Montana’s cold-water fisheries.

In a letter sent to Gianforte on Tuesday, MWF cited a recent statement released by the World Aquatic Scientific Societies that references the many impacts of climate change on aquatic systems, including several major impacts to Montana’s world-class trout fisheries.

Gianforte recently withdrew the State of Montana from a bipartisan coalition of states committed to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. In addition to urging for immediate action on climate change, MWF urged the Governor to rejoin the multi-state coalition and also work to implement the recommendations of the collaboratively developed Montana Climate Solutions Plan.

MWF continues to be one of the only Montana-based sporting organizations to advocate for action on climate change to protect sporting opportunities for current and future generations. Learn more about MWF’s climate advocacy work here.

Historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Package To Strengthen Montana

Legislation Includes Key Wins for Montana Workers, Communities, Wildlife & Habitat

MWF calls on Rosendale, Gianforte to Support Return of Tax Dollars to Rebuild State

Montana’s outdoor economy rides on 70,000 highway miles and 169,829 river miles within the state.  Hunters and anglers, small businesses and landowners have sought a return of our tax dollars through a federal infrastructure deal for a decade. Today, Montana Wildlife Federation is proud to thank Senator Jon Tester for delivering results. 

Today’s bipartisan and lopsided 69-30 vote will invest $2.82 billion to rebuild Montana roads and bridges, boosts Montana small towns through $1 billion for critical rural water projects, acknowledges Montana tribal leadership with $2.5 billion to complete all authorized Indian water rights settlements, and increases sixfold the state’s annual federal Abandoned Mine distribution, fueling jobs and improving habitat.

MWF calls on Representative Matt Rosendale to set aside politics and support Montana jobs, businesses, our outdoor economy, workers and families by supporting the bill as it goes the House of Representatives, and we call on Governor Greg Gianforte and all Montana elected officials to leverage the tools available to create jobs, strengthen community, wildlife and habitat resilience, address environmental injustices, and confront the drivers of climate change that are ravaging Montana’s fisheries, rivers, forests, ranches, communities and economy.

 

Contact: Frank Szollosi, Montana Wildlife Federation, frank@mtwf.org 406-417-9909

Reconnecting Southwest Montana

Southwestern Montana is a patchwork of public and private land. While many people consider our public forests and mountain peaks to be pristine wildlife habitat, private lands consistently harbor abundant populations of wildlife and provide critical habitat for wintering big game. Pronghorn, in particular, typifies the relationship that wildlife has with private land. Year after year, our resident antelope completes a roughly 200 mile round trip journey from wintering grounds in the Beaverhead River watershed, to higher-elevation meadows nestled along the continental divide south of Anaconda in the summer. This migration route, one that has been used by generations of pronghorn, presents barrier after barrier with the most prominent being fences.

Pronghorn, like all ungulates, struggle to overcome the thousands of miles of fence in our valleys. Where elk and mule deer have evolved in a way that allows them to bound over fences in a single leap, pronghorn have evolved to crawl below. That makes this species particularly vulnerable to fencing. Luckily, biologists and wildlife managers have put their heads together to develop wildlife-friendly fence modification standards that both enable pronghorn to move freely while also keeping livestock in their pastures. Now, after years of studies, pronghorn movement data has shown us exactly where we need to focus our efforts and wildlife conservationists are chomping at the bit to make a change.

That’s why the National Wildlife Federation, our national partner in conservation, is now spearheading efforts to modify fences across southwest Montana. Through partnerships with the Montana Wildlife Federation, 2% for Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks, the Wild Rockies Field Institute, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Bureau of land Management, and, most importantly of all, willing private landowners, NWF is reconnecting southwest Montana. Volunteers from across Montana are chipping in to change the landscape and join together under the banner of conservation. 

MWF was fortunate enough to be able to come out for a long day pulling fences, rolling barbed wire, and ripping posts out of the compacted prairie soil and, while we were able to get a significant chunk of fence pulled, that’s not what this project was really about. This project wasn’t even just about the pronghorn or wildlife in general. It’s about proving the collaborative nature of conservation in Montana. Volunteers, agency staff, nonprofits, and landowners working side by side, day in and day out is the Montana way. If good fences make good neighbors then it’s time to get to work.

 

 

By Montana Wildlife Federation Western Montana Field Coordinator Eric Clewis

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Alec Underwood

Federal Conservation Campaigns Director

Alec is responsible for developing and implementing MWF’s federal conservation advocacy and policy campaigns to protect Montana’s fish and wildlife. He spends most of his free time hunting big game and fly fishing Montana’s cherished trout rivers. He also enjoys backpacking, skiing, photography, and woodworking. 

alec@mtwf.org