Montana/Dakotas

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Bringing Back the Buffaloberries

by Craig Flentie, Lewistown Field Office

 Dana and Fred

Fred Roberts and Dana Harty are steering the BLM's silver buffaloberry reintroduction project in central Montana.
 Photo by Craig Flentie

crew preparing introduction site

Dana Harty, Jon Edwards and Fred Roberts (from the BLM's Lewistown Field Office) and Monte Stell (from the BLM's Montana State Office) prepare a silver buffaloberry reintroduction site. 
Photo by Crysta Robertson

The BLM Lewistown Field Office (LFO) has undertaken a unique field project designed to reverse a long-term decline in the number of silver buffaloberry shrubs gracing the rangelands of north central Montana.

They’ve not disappeared, but over the past 30 years buffaloberry have become considerably more difficult to find across our upland ecosystems and in the Missouri River Breaks.  Although they can still be found in the riparian habitats associated with many of the perennial streams in the central Montana prairie, the shrubs are not doing well in the upland habitats. 

The reasons for this decline are not totally understood, but the downturn is definitely related to a lack of reproduction over an extended time period. The lack of seedling establishment and survival over the last half a century is likely the result of a combination of changing weather patterns (including extreme differences between high and low temperatures and amounts of precipitation), changes in soil moisture, and periods of heavy browsing by wild and domestic animals.

The silver buffaloberry shrub is a deciduous, thorny, thicket-forming native shrub that’s drought and winter hardy. Its height ranges from 3-12 feet and it’s most commonly found on northwest to easterly facing slopes. Adult plants can live as long as 30 years and produce numerous red berries yearly that can be used to make jams.    

However, the plant is probably most notable for its numerous contributions as a component of a productive wildlife habitat.

Young buffaloberry shrubs provide important browse and cover for many wildlife species (white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, passerine birds and small mammals) and the berries are an excellent winter food source for sharp-tailed grouse and many other birds. Mature plants provide important nesting cover for numerous birds and can provide thermal cover for big game and livestock. The plants are also good soil and bank stabilizers. They can grow into dense, thorny patches which discourage large animals (wild and domestic) from walking on fragile slopes.

Sharp-tailed grouse rely heavily on various brush and tree species that provide berries and buds for forage and woody cover for protection from weather and predation. In a large part of eastern Montana and western North Dakota, silver buffaloberry has been documented as an important component of quality sharp-tailed grouse habitat. 

Sharp-tailed grouse populations are thought to be cyclic and their numbers have been relatively low for several years now. The BLM hopes a successful buffaloberry reintroduction program will help reverse that trend.

Under the direction of Dana Harty, wildlife technician, and Fred Roberts, wildlife biologist, the LFO is pursuing a buffaloberry planting program designed to give the plant a jumpstart toward reestablishing healthy stands on our public lands across the central Montana landscape. 

Beginning about 18 months ago, Dana (along with several other LFO staffers) started gathering buffaloberry seeds from several different sources. Some of these sources were on private property (with permission from interested landowners) and several were on public land. 
 
Some of the seeds were broadcast seeded on public lands following wildland fires last summer. These seeded fire sites will be monitored to determine if this casual approach is an adequate means of starting new buffaloberry shrubs.

However, the majority of the seeds collected were sent to the Special K Ranch in Columbus, Mont., for nurturing. The Special K Ranch is a working residential facility for developmentally disabled adults that provides opportunities for residents to learn vocational skills in horticulture, gardening and general farm maintenance. At the Special K, the seeds were planted, cared for and raised into seedlings ready for replanting in the uplands across eastern Montana.

This past spring, a number of BLM staffers combined their regular work duties with efforts to prepare potential buffaloberry reintroduction plots. Throughout this project, approximately 35 BLM staffers worked with some aspect of the reintroduction effort. 

There was nothing casual about selecting the potential reintroduction plots. Close attention was paid to slope, aspect, soil types, soil ph ratings, and soil moisture. Also, sites with the skeletal remains of dead buffaloberry shrubs were considered prime reintroduction sites because the shrubs had previously lived in that precise location.

Then in June, Dana Harty, Fred Roberts, and a dozen or so staffers from the LFO and the Montana State Office, ventured into the field north of Winnett between rain storms to plant the buffaloberry seedlings in 40 specific introduction plots. 

Each plot consists of five buffaloberry seedlings, enclosed by two 16-foot hog panels which are held in a circular or oval pattern with several steel t-posts. Each plot was located in a depression which will protect it from the prairie winds and hopefully collect drifting snow to provide additional protection and spring moisture for the young plants.

Of the 200 buffaloberry shrubs planted, 100 were two-year old plants and 100 were year old seedlings. The success rate of each age group will shed additional light on the methodology for future plantings.

These reintroduction plots will be monitored for three to five years to determine their success rate. If the planting project is successful, the panels will be moved to new reintroduction plots and used again to help protect other buffaloberry seedlings until they become established. 

In the interim, Dana and various LFO staffers will continue gathering buffaloberry seeds. Some will be broadcast seeded on wildland fire sites, but most will be sent to the Special K Ranch for nurturing. Continued monitoring of both the broadcast seeded fire sites and the carefully selected reintroduction plots will determine the most successful method for BLM to use in future buffaloberry reintroductions.    

Hopefully, with a little help from the BLM, the silver buffaloberry will once again find its place among the currents, snowberry, chokecherry, sumac and other native shrubs that add to the diversity and value of our public lands.