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Cows Rescue Rare Plants in Southwest Montana

Ryan Martin
Range Specialist
Dillon Field Office

sand dunes after prescribed fire


September 2008. Sand dunes allotment after prescribed fire.
  BLM photo

sand dune habitat

September 2010. Solar-powered well, troughs, electric fence, and sand dune habitat.
BLM photo

“Hammer it, take it to the dirt and make it look like a golf course.”

That’s what I told J Bar L Ranch Manager Bryan Urling in the spring of 2009.  The two of us were discussing livestock management for the 780-acre BLM Sand Dunes grazing allotment in the beautiful Centennial Valley.

Bryan looked a little stunned as he scratched his head and assured me he would do his best.  This was uncharted territory for him, coming from a ranch that prides itself on healthy rangelands and sound livestock management practices.

Livestock management is the second important aspect of a management plan that focuses on restoring critical habitat for rare plants including painted milk vetch (Astragalus ceramicus), pale evening-primrose (Oenothera pallida), sand wild rye (Cryptantha fendleri), and fendler cat’s-eye (Leymus flavescens).

In the September 2008 issue of "Noteworthy News," we read about how changes in disturbance regimes—primarily fire suppression and reduced herbivore grazing—have allowed sagebrush and bunchgrasses to overtake much of the Centennial Valley Sand Hills, which has stabilized the sand dunes.  In most cases in Montana, we would call the overabundance of perennial bunchgrasses and sagebrush a “Proper Functioning Upland.”  However, rare plant populations depend on early successional, open sand habitat for survival, according to Dillon Field Office Rare Plant Coordinator Kelly Urresti.  For rare plants to remain in existence in the Centennial Valley, Urresti says we need to destabilize sand dune habitat by reducing perennial bunchgrass and sagebrush and give rare plants a competitive advantage for establishment and growth.

In the Centennial Sandhills Area of Critical Environmental Concern, a prescribed burn in 2008 was the first step in implementing special management. Livestock grazing was the second step.  We hoped that after the 2008 prescribed burn, cattle grazing in electrified fence paddocks (guided by strategically placed mineral) could destabilize sand dune habitat where rare plants need to survive.

On the J Bar L Ranch, Urling attempted to graze the allotment shortly after the September 2008 burn to destabilize the sand dunes.  However, the long distance livestock had to travel to water made the cattle’s impact less than desired.

During the winter of 2009, J Bar L Ranch, The Nature Conservancy and the BLM discussed options to increase the grazing impact in core rare plant areas. We cooperatively decided to drill a solar-powered well and provide troughs in the central portion of the allotment.  This water, along with mobile electric fences, would give the permittee the tools needed to increase the stocking rate on the dunes, while maintaining a healthy rangeland on the remainder of the allotment.

In the spring of 2010, a well was drilled and a solar-powered pump and troughs were installed. By that autumn, the water system was tested and performed well. The collaborative project was a success!

Future grazing management will focus on providing rare plant habitat on the dunes while maintaining a healthy rangeland on the remainder of the allotment. This project is a prime example of unique groups—The Nature Conservancy, the BLM grazing permittee, and the BLM—working together for the common goal of restoring rare plants and their habitat.


Last updated: 06-28-2012