Painted Milk Vetch is a rare plant found on the Sandhills
Painted Milk Vetch Painted Milk Vetch is a rare plant found on the Sandhills © Andrey Zharkikh/Creative Commons

Places We Protect

The Centennial Sandhills Preserve

Montana

A place that thrives on disturbance and shelters rare plants.

NOTE: This preserve is completely undeveloped so bring a detailed topographical map if you plan to hike around. The road into the preserve can also become impassable in winter and early spring. A high-clearance, all-wheel drive vehicle is recommended any time of year.

In southwestern Montana, on the northeastern side of the vast Centennial Valley, is a unique ecological system of dynamic sandhills. The 1,400-acre preserve, part of a larger community of sandhills, supports four rare plant species and several uncommon plant communities. 

Restoring Balance

The Centennial Sandhills thrive on disturbance.  Before European settlement, regular fire cleared out large older plants, allowing wind to scour the ground, moving soil and sculpting a shifting landscape that sustained a diversity of plants and animals. Migrating herds of bison also helped keep bunchgrasses and shrubs from taking over. But, when the bison and natural fire all but disappeared, the system teetered out of balance. Woody sagebrush crowded out patches of rare plants, and the animals that lived with them.

How We Work in the Sandhills

Conservancy stewardship staff are developing a preserve management plan that is ecologically beneficial, financially viable, and helpful to advancing conservation elsewhere in the valley. Staff are studying how prescribed burns combined with grazing affect the plants and sand formations. 

The Conservancy purchased the sandhills as part of the larger 11,500-acre Staudenmeyer Ranch acquisition. We are in the process of transferring most of the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for expanding the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We will keep the sandhills portion because of their unique character and need for specialized management to maintain the conditions necessary for the rare plants that occur there.

The preserve is completely undeveloped and there is no sign to indicate its location. You are welcome to hike the area, but it is best to camp at the nearby Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. An all- or four- wheel drive vehicle with good clearance is recommended on North Valley Road, which can be deep sand in spots. It can become very difficult to drive in wet weather.

Combine a visit with a stay at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

What to See: Plants
  • Fendler's cateye  
  • Painted milkvetch       
  • White-stemmed pale evening primrose
  • Sand wild rye
What to See: Animals
  • Pronghorn antelope
  • Sage thrasher
  • Brewer’s sparrow
  • Long-billed curlew
  • Pygmy rabbit
  • Elk
  • Wolves
  • Grizzly bear

Check weather and road conditions before making a trip. Roads can become impassable in winter and early spring.