Dillon Field Office improves wet and mesic meadow areas in priority sage-grouse habitat

Story by Alden Shallcross, State Lead - Montana/Dakotas Aquatic Habitat Management Program. Photos by BLM.

Keystone Gulch (Priority Sage Grouse Habitat) contains a series of slope wetlands that capture and slowly release runoff and groundwater discharge in the headwaters to the Upper Missouri River Basin. As a result, they sustain unique plant communities, cover, and insects that are critical to sage grouse brood rearing, as well as many other species of wildlife.

During field assessments in 2016, however, staff noted that erosional features created by historical grazing practices and old access roads have concentrated surface water flow paths, causing the development of vertically unstable channels that incise (become deeper due to erosion) during runoff events and drain the wetlands.

In 2017, the Dillon Field Office partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to host an interagency workshop and begin work to halt the incision, restore diffuse overland flow, enhance infiltration, and restore shallow subsurface water storage. This workshop helped spark the Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership (SMSP). Since this workshop, the SMSP has now completed the following in Keystone Gulch:

• Installed 385 “low tech” erosion control/water harvesting structures within the meadow on both public and private land.

• Improved access road grade and added features to safely divert and infiltrate runoff back onto the meadow.

• Used prescribed fire and lop-and-scatter techniques to reduce conifer expansion within the basin.

Workers assembling a rock structure with a mountain in the background.
Construction Sept 2018: Work continues on a rock structure that will diffuse runoff across the meadow, controlling erosion, enhancing infiltration, and restoring shallow subsurface water storage.
View of a Media luna, which slows a stream's velocity. There is shrubbery in the background.
Media luna installed above a slope wetland segment to convert concentrated flow back to diffuse overland flow. Structures like these will reduce kinetic energy from incised segments and increase infiltration and storage within the downstream wetland complex.

In 2021, the newly formed Dillon Youth Employment Program (YEP) was hired to provide the labor to complete maintenance on a portion of the mesic structures and to lop remaining adjacent conifers. YEP is supported by the SMSP to enhance our communities' connection to conservation.

Immediately adjacent and surrounding the Keystone project, the SMSP continues to remove conifer expansion from both public and private lands. Through 2021, over 4,500 acres of invasive conifers have been removed within this project area by the SMSP.

Work at Keystone has been funded through various funding sources including NRCS, USFWS Partners Program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Beaverhead Watershed Committee through an Assistance Agreement with the BLM. Through the Intermountain West Joint Venture/BLM agreement (Partners in the Sage), The Nature Conservancy provided technical oversight for design and implementation.

Boots on the ground include BLM resource staff, staff from partner agencies/organizations, contractors, and various youth crews. Since 2017, the SMSP has now installed over 850 "Zeedyk" structures and completed over 25,000 acres of conifer removal in southwest Montana across federal, state, and private lands.

A view of the structure made of rocks a year after construction. A mountain is in the background.
September 2019: A year after construction.