Conservation Easements in Montana Improve Sage-Grouse Migration

February 13, 2015

Birds don’t stop at human-made map boundaries. They don’t know the difference between Canada and the U.S., or between a private ranch and public land. That’s why conservation easements are a crucial piece of the puzzle for protecting and linking key sage-grouse habitat in the West.

Recent large-scale conservation easements in Montana help maintain the sage-grouse’s longest-known migration corridor, a 150-mile route between Saskatchewan and the Missouri River. These easements protect sage-grouse habitat in perpetuity, while also connecting privately-owned lands with those in federal and state ownership.

Montana is located in the northernmost range of the sage-grouse. During the winters, these birds migrate out of the short, sparse silver sagebrush in the north to find more reliable food sources amidst the tall, dense big sagebrush further south that stay above the snow.

A report released this month by the NRCS shows that easements help maintain the longest-known sage grouse migration corridor by reducing the threat of agricultural conversion by 34%.

One of SGI’s easements ecompasses the Hart Ranch, located 20 miles northwest of Malta, Montana. The ranch is a core area for sage-grouse, and provides high-quality resources for both livestock and wildlife. With its location along the Milk River near the Canadian border, water is plentiful on the Hart Ranch. The area is covered with undulating hills, small breaks, coulees, and wet areas, which support dozens of bird species, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Historically a cow-calf operation, Hart currently leases the property for grazing and manages the land for wildlife. Part of his management plan includes a Grassland Reserve Program easement, which is designed to improve plant and animal biodiversity, and to protect the grassland from being converted to other uses. Participants like Hart voluntarily limit future development and retain the right to graze livestock under a grazing management plan.

The Hart easement covers 2,434.4 acres of critical sage-grouse habitat on the 3,520-acre Hart Ranch. Easements like this help sage-grouse nest and raise their young in silver sagebrush habitats in Canada, north of the Milk River, before the birds migrate up to 100 miles south to winter in big sagebrush habitats in northern Montana.

A story on the Hart Ranch originally appeared here on the NRCS Montana website, written by Byrhonda G. Lyons.

Learn more about how the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is working with private landowners to improve sage-grouse habitat in Western states.