High School Students Help Restore Montana Sagebrush

July 12, 2018

Partners come together to improve working lands for wildlife in southwest Montana

This summer, high school students helped improve sagebrush country near Dillon, Montana. A Montana Conservation Corps crew funded by the USFWS Partners Program spent two weeks in the field: the first week the students cut down conifers encroaching onto native sagebrush rangelands, and the second week they repaired degraded wet meadows.

In beautiful southwest Montana, sagebrush country is home to grizzly bears, elk, moose, antelope — and one of the most stable populations of sage grouse in the western U.S. Here, local land managers and conservation partners are working to ensure southwest Montana’s intact sagebrush ecosystem, called the “High Divide Headwaters” region, stays healthy and whole.

Sage grouse thrive here because they don’t face many of the pressures that fragment their habitat elsewhere, such as housing developments or invasive annual grasses that lead to hotter, more frequent wildfires.

However, an important priority in the High Divide Headwaters region is restoring mesic habitat: the precious wet, green places that sustain wildlife and livestock on working lands.

The crew of high school students built 24 simple dirt-and-rock structures in a small stream that crosses public and private rangelands. The goal is to slow down and spread out water on the landscape, which prevents erosion and creates nutritious summer vegetation sought out by sagebrush-dependent wildlife once the uplands dry out.

The mesic restoration structures were designed by Bill Zeedyk who presented this training workshop last summer in Montana. The Natural Resources Conservation Service and The Nature Conservancy provided instruction and oversight for the youth’s projects.

Before (right) and after (left) partners began working to restore mesic habitat and remove encroaching conifers.

Before (right) and after (left) partners began working to restore wet meadows and remove encroaching conifers near Dillon, Montana. Photo: Kyle Tackett

The crew’s project builds on existing work — last year, partners built 60+ Zeedyk structures to improve a wet meadow that begins on Bureau of Land Management public land and continues onto the private Hansen ranch.

This collaborative project in Montana is part of a broader range-wide effort called Partnering to Conserve Sagebrush Rangelands, led by the Bureau of Land Management and the Intermountain West Joint Venture. The partnership invests in field delivery of conservation projects, science and communications on public lands and is modeled after the private land conservation practices pioneered by the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative.

The partnership recently hired a new Southwest Montana Conservation Coordinator to support sagebrush conservation in the High Divide Headwaters region, including habitat restoration projects like the ones completed by these high school students.

Public Land Partnership

Water Is Life: Introducing SGI’s Mesic Habitat Conservation Strategy

Montana Ranchers Improve Sage Grouse Habitat And Reduce Fire Risk

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.