New Life From the Ashes of the Sandhills

Centennial Sandhills before fire (top) in July 2008 woody sage had taken over. Scorched ground after fire August 2008(middle). Followingyear (bottom) July 2009 grasses and forbs return.

Restoration is a set of steps…an intricate process of trial, discovery and adjustment. And such is the case on Montana's Centennial Sandhills.

In most places, fire and erosion are considered destructive forces. Here, they're a source of renewal The sandhills are a rare community within the vast  Centennial Valley that  thrives on disturbance. Healthy sandhills are really dynamic, with powerful winds sculpting and shifting the big dunes. Before European settlement, fire regularly cleared out older plants, allowing the wind to scour the ground, moving soil and shaping the landscape.Vast herds of bison migrated through, grazing, wallowing and churning up the ground with their heavy hooves.

But, after decades without fire and regular grazing, the system teetered out of balance. Woody sage and bunchgrasses had taken hold, creating a barrier that protected the dunes from the natural force of the wind. They also crowded out some of the rare plants that characterize this natural community.

In the summer of 2008, Conservancy scientists helped the Bureau of Land Management and set fire to about 700 acres of the Centennial Sandhills in an effort to restore the land. It was a risky move, setting a blaze at the peak of the traditional wildfire season, and there was a sobering moment as we looked out over the blackened hills. But, when spring arrived, the casual observer would have had no clue of the post-apocalyptic landscape we’d left before the winter snows.

Grasses and wildflowers burst from the scorched ground. Populations of Sandhill cranes, horned larks and long-billed curlews surged in the wake of the burn.

But, remember, this the Sandhills. Brilliant green grass is not the measure of health, only proof of resilience. We’re still in the early steps of restoration.

We’ve brought back fire, but not the bison. As stand-ins for the burly native grazers, we moved in a herd of cows from local ranches to chew up the grass and churn the soil. But, we're still trying to figure out how much grazing we need to do the job? 

Since we're committed for the long run to restoring this rare and wonderful place.  Each season brings us more knowledge as the process of trial, discovery and adjustment moves along.

Learn more about our Centennial Sandhills Preserve and the Centennial Valley.

 Fall 2009


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