Dan Casey, Coordinator, Northern Great Plains Joint Venture,
The spring and early summer of 2019 have been kind to the Montana prairies. Cool and wet weather has kept grass green and yellow sweet clover is blooming everywhere. The vibrant green and yellow palette of the landscape is in stark contrast to the brown hues of recent drought years, and many bird species have taken advantage. This is the Musselshell Plains of Montana, one of the most intact mixed grass prairie landscapes in the Northern Great Plains. Here ranchers and conservationists are working together to meet mutual goals of healthy rural communities, livestock production, and grassland bird habitat conservation.
National Partners in Flight (PIF) Coordinator Bob Ford joined me in late June to conduct point count transects, visit with local ranchers, and discuss ongoing opportunities for collaboration. We saw no fewer than eight Short-eared Owls on the drive to our first transect and the wetlands which are often dry by this time of year had nesting Eared Grebes, Wilson’s Phalaropes and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. We were here to conduct landbird monitoring on grazing lands, part of a coordinated effort to assess the soil, vegetation and wildlife conditions across this working landscape while providing data to develop better models of the distribution of Watch List species.
Our first morning was spent on mixed-grass prairie managed by the Lake Mason Grazing Association. Right away we were treated to the flight displays of McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs; by the end of the transect we had seen both Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows feeding young and found a Baird’s Sparrow nest with five eggs. A Prairie Falcon and a Northern Harrier coursed overhead looking for a meal.
Next we visited a ranch in Petroleum County, a county nearly the size of Delaware but inhabited by fewer than 500 people. Here two generations of the Brady family are managing three separate cattle herds along Box Elder Creek, a tributary to the Musselshell River. The family shared their beautiful home and tasty beef with us, and daughter Brenda accompanied us on our bird transect. The songs of Lark Buntings formed the soundtrack of our Airbnb cabin, which provides supplemental income, particularly during the hunting season. Indeed, Lark Buntings were second only to Western Meadowlarks on our survey points here, which also included Short-eared Owls, Grasshopper Sparrows, Long-billed Curlew, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Golden Eagle.
Laura Nowlin, one of the Brady daughters, has helped lead both the Musselshell Watershed Coalition, and the Winnett ACES (Agricultural Community Enhancement and Sustainability), a collaborative group seeking to assist young ranchers, implement conservation and to improve land, life, and community in and around Winnett, Montana. Bob and I attended an ACES meeting where we were welcomed into discussions about the potential for grassland and wetland conservation projects in the area. Bill Milton, a progressive rancher and facilitator of multiple community working groups, expressed particular interest in working toward a local North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) proposal. Throughout the prairies, NAWCA grants often conserve many acres of upland grassland for every acre of wetland, making the Act a valuable tool for grassland songbirds as well as providing habitat for nesting waterfowl. And in a wet spring such as this, it was easy to se the value of these prairie wetlands.
Our third morning of point count transects brought us to the ranch of Charlie and Reba Ahlgren. The NGPJV had provided PIF implementation funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Ahlgrens to install a new water delivery system on one of their large (3500 ac) pastures, improving their ability to manage their grass resource through rest-rotation grazing. A Short-eared Owl perched on the ranch entrance gate greeted us on arrival, and we were escorted through the first half of the transect by alarmed and watchful Marbled Godwits and Long-billed Curlews. This was our most diverse transect, with Baird’s Sparrows, Sprague’s Pipit, Loggerhead Shrike, Ferruginous Hawk, and Upland Sandpipers all showing well.
Our trip in the Musselshell bears out a simple truth: the working lands of central Montana are managed by good people with a strong conservation ethic. Furthermore, these private lands offer a stronghold for a number of PIF Watch List species whose future depends on the availability of suitable nesting habitats. The NGPJV is committed to working directly with ranchers and communities such as these, by providing technical assistance and conservation decision support through a network of partner biologists, and enhanced financial support through grants and incentives programs such as our Northern Grassland Restoration Incentives Program (N-GRIP). It is our vision that the songs of Lark Buntings will be the soundtrack of the Musselshell Plains for many years to come.
Picture credits: Dan Casey