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Montana Stories

Fire for Birds

Endangered species listing was deemed to be warranted for Greater Sage-grouse, but is precluded due to a backlog of other candidates. Landowners are highly motivated to improve habitat in hopes of avoiding mandatory restrictions that could accompany a listing. Greater Sage-grouse is just one of the birds that benefit from the use of controlled burns. Check out some others

 

Greater Sage-grouse can be very picky birds...especially the females. Many people are familiar with the elaborate displays of puffed up, thumping breasts and competitive dancing that the males perform to catch the eye of the drabber females. Sage-grouse are also picky about where they perform that spectacle (leks) and where they nest and fledge their young. Wide open, fairly flat ground with little plant cover is the ideal setting for their mating ritual. But once the hens are bred and ready to nest, they seek out the cover of sagebrush where they and their young are less visible to predators.

In Montana's Centennial Valley and Northern Prairies, The Nature Conservancy is using two tools to help maintain Sage-grouse habitat: Cattle and fire. Cattle are modern surrogates for bison that once grazed and churned up the prairie. Like bison, natural fire has mostly disappeared from these grasslands, so we're bringing back the flames, with controlled burns, to help maintain the mix of plants most beneficial to Sage-grouse and other wildlife.

Intentionally setting fires is a tricky business. Not only does it require changing a century of anti-fire sentiment, but people also need to be convinced that you really can control the burn. No rancher wants to lose vital summer pasture to a fire that got away from the burn crew. But even when everyone’s on board, Mother Nature calls the most of the shots.

This May, in the Centennial Valley, crews were in place to burn out Douglas fir that were encroaching on good Sage-grouse habitat due to decades of fire suppression on the land. But, before torching the trees, the right combination of weather, soil moisture, and vegetation were crucial but, despite all the planning, the stars just didn’t align.

“Two weeks ago, we were post-holing through deep snow to reach the site,” recalls  Conservancy Scientist and Land Steward Nathan Korb, “but then came a wave of unseasonable hot weather, which melted the snow and got the grass growing too high for us to accomplish our goals for the burn.”

But, burn crews are nothing if not nimble. They are already laying out plans to return to the site this fall. By then, vegetation should dry out and early winter snows will be coming to help with the final mop up. Or at least, that’s the hope!

 

 

 

 

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