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The Northern Montana Prairies encompass some of the largest and most significant native grasslands remaining in the United States.
These glaciated plains, blanketed in native mixed grass, support what may be the largest assemblage of grassland species left on the Northern Great Plains.They provide refuge for rapidly disappearing birds such as Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owls, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Sprague’s Pipits. Interspersed sage brush steppe, also provides habitat for one of the healthiest Greater-Sage grouse populations remaining.
These prairies are also a key part of the longest migration of pronghorn in the world. Pronghorn are one of the fastest land mammals on earth -- second only to cheetahs. The grasslands also host deer, elk and such rare species as black-tailed prairie dogs, swift fox, and the black-footed ferret -- the rarest mammal in North America.
In Montana, the greatest threat to native prairie has been conversion to cropland, so-called “sod busting”. Over the last 25 years, more than 25 million acres of grassland has been destroyed in the U.S. – that’s 2 times the rate of forest loss. Grasslands are disappearing faster than the Amazon rainforest.
The push for energy development is also putting the prairies in peril as grasslands are converted to crops for biofuel and broken by roads and power lines associated with natural gas exploration.
Hundreds of miles of fencing create obstacles to migrating animals, such as pronghorn. Poorly maintained and designed fencing can even prove deadly for deer, elk , pronghorn and birds.
Invasions of noxious weeds and exotic diseases, such as Sylvatic Plague and West Nile virus, are also threats.
The Conservancy’s goal is to conserve grassland through both direct land protection and partnerships with the local ranching community.
At the heart of our work is the Conservancy’s 60,000 acre Matador Ranch. As the largest private ranch in the area, the Matador serves as both a model for grassland conservation and an innovative way to engage the community. The pioneering Grassbank offers discounted grazing on the Matador to ranchers who practice wildlife-friendly stewardship on their own operations. Discounts can accrue for practices such as no sodbusting, wild-life friendly fencing, weed control and preserving prairie dog towns and Sage-grouse habitat.
Another goal is to establish the Matador as a base for scientific research on grasslands and the diversity of wildlife that depend on it.
The Conservancy owns the Comertown Pothole Prairie Preserve, in the far northeastern corner of the state. Each year, millions of waterfowl and shorebirds migrate to the Prairie Pothole Region to breed . The preserve, and adjoining lands protected through conservation easements, secure important breeding habitat for wetland and grassland birds. We're also helping reseed hundreds of acres of marginal cropland on the preserve and adjacent private land, with native grasses and wildflowers.