Invasive trees removed to improve river and floodplain health

Story by Alden Shallcross, Acting Billings Field Manager; and Larry Padden, Natural Resource Specialist, Billings Field Office 

Foresters removing Russian Olive trees in wooded area
BiFO has established a
cooperative agreement with the
MCC to fund and complete public
land improvement projects such
as this. For this project, MCC
provided six-person sawyer crews.
Photo by Larry Padden.

The Billings Field Office is improving by removing. 

Since 2010, the field office has been targeting Russian olive and salt cedar trees along the Yellowstone River. As the invasive trees are removed, the area’s riparian health, recreation opportunities and wildlife habitat improve. 

So far, work has been done on 1,141 acres of floodplain habitat including Pompeys Pillar National Monument, Bundy Island, Sundance Lodge Recreation Area (including the College Park acquisition), Young’s Point, and Four Dances Natural Area. In 2022, BiFO is employing youth from the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) to treat an additional 16 acres along the lower portion of Four Dances Natural Area and an adjacent island. 

Russian olive trees make up a burn pile in the middle of a wooded area.
MCC crews cut Russian olive trees
and build burn piles along the
Yellowstone River at Four Dances
Natural Area, 2022.
Photo by Larry Padden

Introduced from Eurasia in the early 1900s for use as ornamentals, wind breaks, and stabilization of irrigation canals, these non-native and invasive trees have spread rapidly along streams and floodplains, displacing native trees like willow and cottonwood. Unlike cottonwood and willow, however, these invasive species impair the health of streams and floodplains, as well as the habitat values for a wide array of native plants and animals. They can have a devastating impact on the surrounding ecosystem.  

Removing Russian olive is a highly labor-intensive process, especially where heavy machinery access is limited, as the trees contain an abundance of small, thorny branches. In fact, individual mature trees can take two hours to fully process into small, manageable burn piles.  

The project started in 2010 with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Additional funding was provided through

Yellowstone River, bank, and wooded area
River frontage at Four Dances Natural Area after
treatment. Photo by Larry Padden.

the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Program which distributes funds from the Exxon Pipeline Spill and settlement for riverscape health improvement projects. Since then, the BLM has continued to treat new areas and maintain previous treatments.