From NRCS: Early Winter Snowfall Hit or Miss Across the Treasure State

After last winter’s record-setting snowfall, the mountains across the state of Montana have received sporadic snowfall so far this year, leaving some river basins near normal for snowpack, while others are below normal on January 1. Early season snowfall has favored regions along the Continental Divide in western and south-central Montana so far this winter, and this is where the highest snowpack percentages can be found.

“What’s been unique about this winter so far is that the snowpack in these regions would be below normal for this date if it weren’t for the storm that dropped significant totals during the last week of October into early November,” said Lucas Zukiewicz, hydrologist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Many areas that were overlooked by the early November weather remain below normal for snowpack at this time, except for some regions of western Montana along the Idaho border which received heavy snowfall during the latter half of December.”

The month of December was also well above average across the state with regards to temperatures, aside from a cold arctic air during the first week of the month. Monthly temperature departures were 3-7 degrees above average in northwest and north-central Montana and 1-3 degrees above average in southwest and south-central Montana.

“After a long and hard winter of shoveling and shivering last year, it’s been a mild winter so far this year,” Zukiewicz said. “While that’s nice in some ways, it’s the cold snowy weather during winter and spring that assures our water supply when it warms up in the summer.”

Long-term weather forecasts by the National Weather Service combine the effects of long-term trends, soil moisture, and, when appropriate, ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation). “Forecasts issued for the month of January aren’t painting a pretty picture of things to come and are calling for above average temperatures and below average precipitation,” he said.

Currently ENSO-neutral conditions are present, but El Nino is expected to form and continue through the Northern Hemisphere during winter of 2018/2019 (~90% chance) and through spring (~60% chance). “It should be noted that a single climate index to predict future snowfall before runoff isn’t always the best idea, as other climate conditions such as the Artic Oscillation can impact week to week weather patterns,” Zukiewicz said. “That being said, it would still be wise to keep this in mind as we get further into winter, as it will certainly play some role in the weather patterns over the coming months.”

Reservoir storage across the state is above average in many basins due to abundant runoff last spring and summer. Zukiewicz said this could prove to be important should the weather take a turn to the dry and warm side through the rest of winter. The NRCS Montana Snow Survey will issue its next Snowpack and Water Supply Outlook on February 1.

Monthly Water Supply Outlook Reports can be found at the website below after the fifth business day of the month:

Source: NRCS Press Release

Montana NRCS Announces Conservation Initiatives for 2019

NRCS is offering additional funding through EQIP to target specific resource concerns in Montana in 2019: on-farm energy, honey bee pollinators, high tunnel systems, Sage Grouse Initiative invasive conifer removal and cropland seeding, Capital 360 Forestry Project, and the National Water Quality Initiative.

While NRCS accepts EQIP applications on a continuous basis, NRCS has set a deadline of Oct. 19, 2018, to apply for 2019 initiatives funding. Below is an overview of each initiative:

National On-Farm Energy Initiative:  This initiative has two components. In the first component, agricultural producers work with an NRCS-approved Technical Service Provider to develop Agricultural Energy Management Plans or farm energy audits that assess energy consumption on an operation. In the second component, NRCS may also provide assistance to implement various recommended measures identified in the energy audit through the use of conservation practice standards offered through this initiative.

Honey Bee Pollinators:  NRCS will work with agricultural producers to combat future declines by helping them to implement conservation practices that provide forage for honey bees while enhancing habitat for other pollinators and wildlife.

High Tunnel Systems:  NRCS helps producers implement high tunnels that extend growing seasons for high value crops in an environmentally safe manner. High tunnel benefits include better plant and soil quality and fewer nutrients and pesticides in the environment.

Sage Grouse Initiative Invasive Conifer Removal:  Conifer encroachment into sagebrush rangelands affects the productivity of grazing lands and can be detrimental for sage-grouse and other species that depend on sagebush-steppe habitat. The most cost-effective approach for conifer treatment is to target early encroachment stands, where small trees can be completely removed and the existing sagebrush community sustained. By targeting early stages of encroachment in intact sagebrush landscapes, habitat for wildlife can be improved.

Sage Grouse Initiative Cropland Seeding:  Loss and fragmentation of sage-grouse habitat is the primary threat to sage-grouse. Through this initiative, landowners can work with NRCS to seed cropland in sage-grouse habitat back to perennial species to improve the connectivity for not only sage-grouse, but the many other species that depend on large, intact landscapes.

Capital 360 Forestry Project:  The goal of the Capital 360 partnership project is to improve forest health by integrating resource management across all administrative boundaries. Through this localized initiative, fuels reduction treatment projects will be strategically placed across Broadwater, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Powell counties.

National Water Quality Initiative: This initiative helps producers implement conservation systems to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous, sediment and pathogen contributions from agricultural land in the Camp and Godfrey Creeks (Lower Gallatin) Watershed.

EQIP offers financial and technical assistance to eligible participants to install or implement structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land. Conservation practices must be implemented to NRCS standards and specifications. In Montana, socially disadvantaged, limited resource, and beginning farmers and ranchers will receive a higher payment rate for eligible conservation practices applied.

For more information about EQIP, or other programs offered by NRCS, please contact your local USDA Service Center or

NRCS Sets Program Funding Application Cutoff for October 19

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has set a Oct. 19, 2018, application cutoff for agricultural operators to be considered for 2019 conservation program funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

NRCS provides funding and technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers implement conservation practices that provide environmental benefits to help sustain agricultural operations. Conservation program participation is voluntary and helps private landowners and operators defray the costs of installing conservation practices.

NRCS accepts conservation program applications year-round; however, applications for 2019 funding consideration must be submitted by Oct. 19, 2018. Applications made after the Oct. 19 cutoff will be considered in the next funding cycle. Additional information is available on the Montana NRCS website at under the Programs tab or you can contact your local NRCS service center.

Source: NRCS Press Release

Montana CattleWomen host Ranch Run

CattleWomen host run to highlight the importance of agriculture and land stewardship

Join the Montana CattleWomen for their 4thannual ranch run on Saturday, August 25thin Lennep, Montana. Registration begins at 8 am and the race starts at 9 am.  This scenic  25-mile run is designed to showcase the importance of agriculture and land stewardship to the running community.  The course can be run solo or with a team of 2-5 members.  Parts of the course are challenging so have your teammates read through and choose appropriate leg assignments.  For a team of five, the cost is $35 per person or $50 to run solo. Runners will receive a t-shirt and enjoy a delicious meal, featuring beef, served the Montana CattleWomen at the end of the race. Visit to register.

The course extends through three-multi generation ranches, as well as US National Forest, and runs deep into the heart of the Castle Mountains.  The ranch run has five legs, all approximately five miles long, but the course is such that it can be run solo OR with a team of 2-5 members.  The closest lodging is in Harlowton or White Sulphur Springs or camp at the race site. Teams will need a high-clearance vehicle to drive on the course.  Prizes will be awarded to first, second and third place teams.

This year’s generous sponsors include the Montana Beef Council, The Montana CattleWomen, Northwest Montana Keller Williams Realty, the Montana Stockgrowers Foundation, Montana Land Reliance, Western Ranch Supply, Rabo AgriFinance, Montana T-Bone CattleWomen, the Central Montana CattleWomen, Rangeland Resources Executive Committee, the Montana DNRC.  For more information or any questions, contact Kari Berg Marks at (406) 572-3316 or email at

Montana Ranch Honored for Outstanding Environmental Stewardship

The Hahn Ranch, in Townsend, Mont., has been selected as one of six regional honorees of the Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP). The award, announced during the 2018 Cattle Industry Summer Business Meeting Aug. 1, 2018, recognizes the operation’s outstanding stewardship and conservation efforts. This year’s regional winners will compete for the national award, which will be announced during the Annual Cattle Industry Convention in New Orleans, La., in February 2019.

Established in 1991 by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to recognize outstanding land stewards in the cattle industry, ESAP is generously sponsored by Corteva Agriscience, Agriculture Division of DowDuPont, McDonald’s, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Cattlemen’s Foundation.

“Cattlemen and women everywhere understand that the land, air and water resources in their care are the cornerstone of their success and they are only stewards of those resources for a short time,” said NCBA President Kevin Kester. “Each of us understands the importance of improving those resources and leaving them better for future generations. This year’s nominees are outstanding examples of what is possible for the beef industry and they serve as an inspiration for producers everywhere to continue improving their stewardship practices.”

Operated by the Hahn family, the Hahn Ranch raises 550 cattle across nearly 28,000 acres of public and private land and has been doing so for nearly a century. Today multiple family members work together on the Hahn Ranch.

“I’m the third generation on the ranch,” Chuck Hahn said, “and my sons are the fourth. The fifth generation is coming up with nieces and nephews.”

With fewer than 12 inches of rain each year, the Hahns have installed more efficient irrigation systems and have added new stock water tanks to allow them to fence their cattle out of riparian zones.

“We’re looking at ways to maintain water quality in those watersheds to maintain a healthy ecosystem and also to do things to improve the streambank health,” said Dusty Hahn, Chuck’s son and the fourth generation on the ranch.

The Hahn family was also part of the restoration of Deep Creek, the Missouri river tributary that crosses the Hahn Ranch. The family worked with private and public partners to install the Montana ditch siphon, rerouting irrigation water under instead of through the creek, reducing sediment issues, improved water flow, and allowed fish to return.

“Immediately after that project was done, we started having fish move up from the Missouri river into Deep Creek here to start spawning,” said Ron Spoon, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

“There’s more grass on the range units due to the rotational grazing system that the Hahns are implementing, getting stock water away from the creeks and the springs so those areas can be left for wildlife with less livestock impacts,” said Justin Meissner, a district conservationist with USDA NRCS.

The Hahn Ranch also grows wheat, barley and hay crops, extending the grazing season to allow for longer rest periods on the range. Additionally, reduced tillage and cover crop rotations have had a positive impact on soil health.

“I want to do things better and leave the land in a better condition than I found it for the next generation who will hopefully take as good or better care of it than we have,” said Dusty.

USDA-NRCS Montana Offers Funding for Conservation Gardens, High Tunnels

Bozeman, Mont., July 11, 2018–The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is accepting applications for grants to establish community gardens, pollinator gardens and seasonal high tunnels through the Montana NRCS Conservation Garden Project.

Proposals will be accepted from eligible entities for projects located in Montana, including city or township governments, county governments, special districts, state governments, nonprofit organizations, independent school districts, institutions of higher education, and Federally recognized Native American tribal governments.

The NRCS has funding available for the Montana NRCS Conservation Garden Project as follows:

  • Grants up to $4,000 will be available for a community garden. Funds are to be used for garden supplies which can include tools, seed, fertilizer, soil and soil additives, irrigation materials and garden materials. Technical assistance by NRCS staff will be available to help determine site, slope, placement, etc.
  • Grants up to $3,000 will be available for pollinator gardens. NRCS will provide technical assistance based on pollinator specifications.
  • Grants up to $6,500 will be available for construction of a seasonal high tunnel. NRCS specifications for the construction of a Seasonal High Tunnel will be followed.
  • Grant applicants may request funding for a combination of the choices above:  community garden, pollinator garden and seasonal high tunnel.

Applications for the Montana NRCS Conservation Garden Project are due by Aug. 10, 2018. The Notice of Funding Opportunity is available at The Opportunity number is USDA-NRCS-MT-18-01, and the title is Montana Conservation Garden Project. Applicants must have a DUNS number and an active registration in SAM. Questions can be directed to Lori Valadez, (406) 587-6969.

Nominations open for Environmental Stewardship Award

The Montana Environmental Stewardship committee has opened nominations for their 2019 award.

The Environmental Stewardship Award Program is an opportunity to honor and showcase ranchers in the state who go the extra mile in the conservation and stewardship of their natural resources. Ranchers can be nominated for the award before June 1 at

Sidney, Montana rancher Jim Steinbeisser chairs the state’s Environmental Stewardship Award Program committee. The committee consists of a team of ranchers and conservation organizations who are focused on showcasing how innovative stewardship and good ranching business go hand-in-hand. He says the award program is a place to start an open, honest dialogue in ranching communities and Montana cities about how ranchers care for their land and livestock.

“Ranchers, in general, are just humble people. We don’t want to brag or pat ourselves on the back, but that’s not what this award is about,” he said. “It’s about sharing the facts of environmental stewardship and the story behind why it matters so much to us. We know it’s important to our livelihoods that we reach out to our customers and show them what we do and how we do it, and to encourage our fellow ranchers to do the same.”

The award nomination process is an opportunity for county conservation districts, water districts, local livestock associations, wildlife organizations or other local and state agencies focused on conservation and multiple land use to recognize partnerships with ranchers who help them accomplish mutual goals. Any Montana Stockgrowers Association member who is working to leave the land better for the next generation would be an ideal candidate.

For more than 25 years, the Montana Stockgrowers Association has proudly sponsored and honored ranchers across the state with the program. Today, the program is sponsored in a partnership between the Montana Stockgrowers Foundation, the Montana Beef Check-Off and the World Wildlife Fund.

“The Environmental Stewardship Program has now gone far beyond encouraging fellow ranchers to improve the management of our resources,” Steinbeisser said. “We’re focused on reaching out to our customers and consumers so we can share what we do on our ranches and how we manage our resources to provide safe, healthy, sustainable food.”

Nominations can be submitted online at before June 1. The winning ranch will then have the assistance of a professional writer and photographer to capture their ranch’s story – their family’s legacy of caring for the land and livestock – to represent Montana in the regional Environmental Stewardship Award Program. The winner will be recognized at the Montana Stockgrower’s Annual Convention and Trade Show in Billings this December.

To learn more, visit, contact Kori Anderson at or call (406) 442-3420.

Environmental Stewardship 2016 Winner | Cherry Creek Ranch

Reukauf family ranch thrives in arid eastern Montana by going for environmental gains

By Laura Nelson
Montana Environmental Stewardship Program

Cherry Creek Ranch Environmental Stewardship Lon ReukaufPersevering in the harsh ranching climate of eastern Montana can build character, that’s for sure, Lon Reukauf jokes. But lessons of the land often run on repeat, so a well-read history book can point to opportunities to learn, grow, conserve and preserve a sustainable future.

Fortunately, the Cherry Creek Ranch in Terry, Montana has a well-read history to help build the future. When Lon Reukauf’s grandparents homesteaded the area along Cherry Creek in 1910, there was a new pioneer home every half-mile along the dusty trail. Families were eager to try their hand at eking out a living with the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. While 160 acres in the vast, dry land of eastern Montana could not sustain a family, this act allowed for 320 acre settlements.

Today, the Reukaufs are one of five original ranches still left on the homesteading land that once held 200 families. Lon married Vicki, his high school sweetheart, after graduating from Montana State University. They returned to Cherry Creek Ranch in 1982, faced with many of the same struggles his grandfather’s family persevered through decades before. Namely, they faced the onset of another lengthy, browbeating drought. Still, Lon and Vicki raised their two children on the ranch while tending to the land and cattle.

Cherry Creek Ranch Lon ReukaufThey added another page to the Cherry Creek Ranch history book this winter when the Montana Stockgrowers Association honored the Reukaufs with the 2016 Montana Environmental Stewardship Award. The family accepted the award at the Stockgrower’s annual convention in Billings.
“The advantage of good stewardship is, your sustainability and longevity depend fully on it,” Lon says. “You’re much more likely to weather serious disasters like drought, fire and the like if you’ve taken good care of the land.”

The overall objective of the commercial cow-calf ranch is simple, Lon says: “Take good care of the land, plants and animals while making some profit to live on, retire on and pass on to the next generation.” Achieving that goal is a touch more complicated. To do it, the Reukaufs focus on four primary areas of stewardship: build a forage reserve, build a financial reserve, build on cow reproduction and build and preserve a healthy landscape to pass along.


“What you do during the drought, once it’s that dry, really isn’t that relevant. It’s what you do before and after that grass is dry and dormant that’s really going to matter,” Lon says. Precipitation is scarce in a good year at the Cherry Creek Ranch, and lengthy drought patterns are normal throughout thousands of years of history.

Strategic grazing allows the Reukaufs to maintain a full bank of forage reserves that will keep the family and their base cattle herd afloat in dry years. The strategy also works to continually invigorate their landscape and encourage diversity in plant growth.
“A big part of the forage reserves is about having an opportunity to pick the market you’re selling into, as opposed to being forced into selling into a market you don’t like,” Lon says.


Like a forage reserve, a financial reserve is critical to the long term sustainability of the ranch. Adversity is easier to overcome if an emergency fund is built in good years.
“One of the biggest problems with the legacy of farm and ranch families is ensuring the older generation has enough savings in order to step out of the way if and when the next generation comes home, so you’re not both there starving to death,” Lon says. That focus is not only geared to ensuring the ranch can safely transition to the next generation, it’s a key component to maintaining today’s stewardship.
“I can’t think of anything that will make ranchers make worse environmental decisions than buying land at too high of prices, then trying to figure out how to make money off it,” Lon says.


Longevity and fertility in the cowherd are the top two production goals at the Cherry Creek Ranch. On the arid eastern Montana landscape, cows must be super-efficient. They’re expected to average at least eight calves in a productive lifetime.
“Cow longevity is our number one cost, if it’s not there,” Lon says. “We want to be mindful of feedlot performance and carcass quality, too, but a super high-production cow just isn’t going to be efficient out here.”
At least 95 percent of cows should breed up and then calve in the first 30 days of the reproductive cycle, which hinges largely on an adequate plan of nutrition during breeding season, made possible by the previous year’s forage reserve and pasture movements timed for this purpose.


Cherry Creek Ranch Lon ReukaufLike his father and grandfather before him, Lon’s biggest goal is to better the landscape so it may continue to be sustainable, profitable and productive for the next generation.

“If I could say what his motto was, it would be to leave the land better than he found it. That’s what he’s worked his whole life for,” Vicki says.
That’s quantified by managing the land for increased production and increased plant and animal diversity. “The problem with that goal is, you never know how far you can go with it. So you just keep improving and keep raising the bar,” Lon says. “There’s never really an end in sight.”


Water quantity and natural water quality pose the largest challenges at the Cherry Creek Ranch.
“Water is so important to us. We could have cattle thirst to death in a matter of a couple days out here,” Lon says. “So we have to have a plan, and we better have a plan B.”

While the ranch has nearly 15 miles of riparian zones, these are small, ephemeral springs that do not provide reliable stock water in the 20 days of the year they run.“The rotational grazing has a lot to do with keeping the vegetation around the reservoirs from becoming nothing but dirt. By having our watershed covered with an adequate amount of litter and vegetation, it greatly decreases the amount of silt that runs into our reservoir,” Lon says.


The main management objective of the Reukauf’s six-pasture rotation is resting one pasture for 14 months and then using it exclusively the following May. The ranch utilizes winter grazing with the pastures constituting the majority of the cow’s winter diet, supplemented by high protein for part of the winter. As a result, the tree and shrub regeneration in winter pastures has been successful. In general, grazing use levels of herbaceous plants during the dormant season (October-April) can be higher than during the growing season without significantly stressing the plants. It is important to maintain ground cover to decrease the amount of soil exposed to wind and water erosion. This will also capture more snow and retain moisture.
All cattle are placed in one pasture that was rested the year before for the month of May, or used ‘light and late.’ The other five pastures get deferred until after June 1. All livestock are concentrated in a single pasture except in the fall. Four of the six pastures are deferred until late July.

The combination of these tactics allow for adequate surplus root growth, seed production and new seedling establishment. The ranch also has two, three-pasture deferred rotation systems with the goal of using one pasture only from June 15 to Sept. 1. This allows shrubs and trees to receive no hot season use two years out of three to encourage growth. The late used pasture becomes the early grazed pasture the next year.


Cherry Creek Ranch Environmental Stewardship Lon Reukauf BLMThroughout the year, mineral, salt and protein blocks are strategically placed as bait to draw cattle into areas with extra forage and away from sensitive areas. No salt or mineral is placed within one-half a mile of water during winter to allow riparian areas to regenerate, and strategic feeding areas feed into a dike system that grows a small amount of hay.

“Manure is a wonderful thing, as long as you don’t pile it up too high,” Lon says. “The two things we can’t afford to lose here are nutrients and water.” Animals are supplemented on a rotating location schedule, with the goal to maximize the use of nutrients by avoiding runoff into clean water. Meanwhile, runoff is captured in a system of dikes to grow forage. Without the diking system, the ranch would be unable to grow a hay crop. The nutritional content of the manure runoff also eliminates the need for synthetic nitrogen.

“We feed like we would spread fertilizer,” Lon says. The 300 acres of hay production on the ranch adds an estimated $50-75,000 of value to the ranch each year.


Decades of market analysis and studying forage availability led Lon to weaning early and selling lighter calves to help his cows be more efficient, and also to increase his bottom line.

“When you wean that cow and calf, you can figure you’re cutting your forage consumption in half. You have a dry mama who’s not lactating and a calf who’s no longer eating. That early weaning is a fast way to decrease forage consumption per cow-calf unit,” Lon says. While it costs about $150 per head to feed the calf for an extra 100 days off the cow, it pays off in cow efficiency, near-perfect conception rates and an increased forage bank.
Selling calves at just below 500 pounds has also increased efficiency at the ranch. While they normally wean at 180 days, drought conditions may call for weaning 100-day old calves.

“For us, the cost of adding pounds after 500 is just not worth it. If you put 50 pounds on, how many more dollars per pound per head do you get? It’s not that much when you pencil the true costs in our environment,” Lon says.


A healthy landscape is a diverse landscape, and the Cherry Creek Ranch is home to a wide variety of grasses, shrubs and trees that offer shelter to domestic and wild animals. Years of tree planting efforts throughout the family’s history created a healthy seedbed for regeneration, and the rotational grazing system is geared toward creating a healthy environment for trees to thrive in.Cottonwoods are slowly making a comeback on the ranch, where Lon started placing a square of woven wire paneling around the seedlings to protect young growth. The BLM successfully borrowed his technique for use on other public land in the area.

“It’s not much, but if we can add even just two trees each year, and they live for 80 years – well, that’s a lot of trees,” Lon says. He protects the regrowth of new shrubs and trees by avoiding grazing on 2/3 of the pastures during their most critical growth – June 20 through August 20 – to give the green ash, buffalo berry, snowberry and other woody species a chance to establish. The change has been hugely noticeable, particular over the past 20 years.

“You can see the diversity of the age of these trees; that shows in the landscape,” Lon says. “My dad was an avid bird watcher, but we also just don’t want to live on a barren landscape.”


Cherry Creek Ranch Reukauf FamilyThat dedication was drilled home each spring of the family’s early years, filled with “character building” memories from Vicki and the kids.“There aren’t many trees here in Eastern Montana,” Vicki says. “Every spring, Lon would order 200 trees, and the kids and I would be out in the mud, creeks and shelterbelts planting hundreds of those trees with shovels.”

The success rate is small – water is scarce, the environment is harsh – but the effort is worthwhile. Each tree that survives improves wildlife habitat and the ranch’s landscape. Year after year, the same painstaking effort goes into water development, strategic grazing and native rangeland health.“It’s all gradual – there’s no magic shazam to doing things right,” Lon says.

Rather, it’s the discovery of little successes – one new cottonwood, a shade greener stream bed, a fresh patch of native grass, a higher percentage of bred cows – that continues to drive stewardship, conservation and sustainability at the Cherry Creek Ranch.
“I didn’t return here to this place and this lifestyle for money.” Lon says. “I love the land. What’s important to me is taking care of things now so the next generation can make a stable income and enjoy a beautiful, clean, diverse place to call home.”

 To learn more about the Montana Environmental Stewardship Award program, click here. The Montana ESAP program is partially sponsored by the Montana Beef Checkoff programs.

Sage Grouse not listed as Endangered Species

sageGrouseOn Tuesday, September 22, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services announced that the greater sage grouse would not be listed as an endangered species. This is a significant accomplishment following extensive work by officials, industry and conservation groups in 11 states who have worked to form plans for conservation of the bird’s habitat.

Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made the announcement on Tuesday via video. Click here to watch and read her statement.

Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Public Lands Council and Montana Association of State Grazing Districts are supportive of the recent decision. Even with sage grouse not listed under ESA, our organizations will still be working on this issue on our members’ behalf, at both the state and federal level.

At the state level, Montana has developed state legislation and a state plan, which will be operational by January 1, 2016. In order to accomplish this accelerated time schedule, we will be participating in all facets of the program, such as:

  • Attendance at the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team (MSGOT) meetings
  • Further developing program rules for mitigation and habitat exchanges
  • Development of landowner incentives

The MSGOT will hold two more meeting this fall, with the next being November 17 in Helena. Click here to learn more about Montana Sage Grouse Management.

In addition to the state plan development, our organizations will be also working on the federal level. On the federal side, BLM has just released their Resource Management Plans (RMP) for the state. These plans provide the direction for public land and federal minerals managed by the Bureau of Land Management and provide a framework for the future management direction for the planning area.

With the release of these RMPs, we will be:

  • Reviewing these plans as it relates to impacts to livestock grazing
  • Work with the agency to ensure livestock grazing is not impacted by sage grouse decisions
  • Clarify specific criteria and requirements within the document and how they will impacting livestock producers.

Montana’s leadership provided statements regarding the DOI and USFWS announcement on Tuesday:

Our organizations also request input from our members on areas of possible concerns or program areas where livestock producers can receive some benefit. Please contact the MSGA office if you have any further questions. Stay tuned to MSGA News updates and emails for more information as it becomes available.

Guest Column: Ag, Development at Risk with Sage Grouse Listing

sageGrouseThere is an ongoing debate in the Endangered Species area that could have grave consequences for agriculture and resource development in Montana. Namely, the Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus.)

The sage grouse, or sagehen, as it is commonly called, is a slow-moving, larger, clumsy, flying member of the Phasianidae family that relies almost exclusively on sagebrush for nourishment and habitat.

Its mating “dance” is extremely colorful, occurring on specific locations called leks. As with most Phasianidae family members, sage grouse return to the same lek year after year to “dance” and mate.

They have become somewhat more scarce in recent years, but not necessarily more scarce than 100 years ago. Wildlife data counts and inventories by various state and federal agencies on sage grouse numbers do not go back even 50 years.

Herein may lie the dilemma of whether the sage grouse should be listed as endangered. Nature is always in a state of flux. Wet years produce abundant forage; dry, hot summers enhance grasshopper cycles; and hard winters decimate antelope populations. That’s just to name a few environmental “fluxes” over which we as humans have absolutely no control.

World War II drew a lot of young, rural males “off the farm,” so to speak. The sheep industry here in Montana was huge – 4,280,000 head in 1934. Carter County boasted that it was the largest sheep-raising county in the USA! It currently ranks number one in Montana today.

The sheep business can and did respond to better climatic and economic conditions after the droughts and financial crises of the 1920s and early 1930s. Smaller farm flocks are very productive when labor (big families) are available. As economists would say, farm flocks do not necessarily conform to the economy of scale rule, i.e., bigger blocks are not quite so profitable.

Although we take it for granted today, Montana and many western (range) states were not always as “fenced in” as they are presently. Bands of sheep were “herded” by sheepherders in various rotational patterns over large ranges based on a known water supply. In addition to guiding the sheep, herders kept a wary eye for predators including coyotes, feral dogs, mountain lions, bears and raptors that would kill newborn lambs.

In 1942, a rodenticide named sodium fluoroacetate became available. It is commonly referred to as 1080 today. It is an extremely potent chemical that will kill any mammal or bird that ingests it – even in minute quantities. When injected into a dead or dying ewe’s veins, it permeates the entire carcass. Now sheep ranchers had a new tool to combat predators, while their traditional herder was gone to war.

Because of its indiscriminate toxicity, all the normal predators were reduced in number. Predators that harassed the sheep rancher where not the only victims. Skunks, raccoons, foxes, magpies and raptors including bald and golden eagles all experienced population declines. With minimal predator depredations, other non-carnivorous species multiplied. “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge, wild turkeys, ringneck pheasants and the sage grouse itself were able to multiply under an ideal environment.

Case in point: Jack rabbits really multiplied in the absence of the normal predator numbers. (How many of you can remember spotlighting jack rabbits at night in the 1950s and coming home with 50 or 75 head in one evening? One dollar per head, and it made good walking-around money).

By 1972, the predator imbalance was so great and national concern so high that an executive order was issued banning 1080.

In 1932, wheat was 25 cents per bushel. By 1974, it was $5, and in 2008 hit $10.20 per bushel. With bigger tractors, larger plows and better cropping methods, lots of grazing land including sagebrush areas got turned “wrong side up.”

When oil in January of 2008 hit $100 per barrel, well, rigs started to sprout up, sometimes in sagebrush areas.

Now the factors that led to the increase in sage grouse numbers beyond their historical (100-year inventory) work against them.

A slow-moving, not-too-smart, completely inedible bird is confronted with trying to exist in a fast-moving, energy- and food-reliant economy.

It is entirely possible that our 2014-2015 sage grouse numbers are exactly equal to 1914-1915 numbers. Records are not available, and not too many living souls can reliably remember what the population numbers could have been in the 1930s.

A comparable situation in this avian dilemma is the Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis). Lots of time, energy, money, fears, legal confrontations and federal intervention have not necessarily increased the spotted owl numbers. In the interim, the Northwest lumbering industry has been decimated. Although not entirely clear at this time, the Barred Owl (Strix varia) seems more likely to be the culprit in spotted owl number reductions.

An old business maxim: “In order to solve a problem, one must define the problem accurately.” Spotted owl aficionados did not accurately assess their problem, and subsequently the logging industry took an enormous economic hit.

An economic hit of the same magnitude could occur if listing the Greater Sage Grouse as endangered is allowed.

Plowed farm land is not going to be reseeded to sagebrush. The demand for natural resource recovery is relentless. Who, where and when can accurately, objectively present the sage grouse inventory numbers for 1915, 1935, 1975 and 2014?

How can any plan for restoration and preservation of the sage grouse be implemented without base line data?

Grazing, farming and other development strategies throughout the West are at risk here, all based on conjecture and imperfect data.

Editor’s Note: William (Bill) E. Almy, Jr. of Miles City is a 67-year resident of Montana. He and his wife own Keystone Ranches of Ismay and were the recipient of the Montana Stockgrowers Association’s Montana Environmental Stewardship Award for 2011. Almy has been a bird watcher cum amateur ornithologist for 80 years. This column was originally published in the Miles City Star.