Montana's Northern Great Plains 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. These include disappearing birds, such as mountain plover, burrowing owls, chestnut-collared longspurs and Sprague’s pipits. Interspersed sagebrush steppe also provides habitat for one of the healthiest greater-sage grouse populations in the world.
Although other treks may be better known, migrations by pronghorn through Montana’s Northern Great Plains are the longest land mammal migrations in the continental United States. Pronghorn travel more than 500 miles roundtrip on their seasonal migrations, more than twice as far as Wyoming’s Path of the Pronghorn. Greater sage-grouse make a similarly record-setting journey for the species, more than 100 miles one way each spring and fall.
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 have been destroyed in the U.S. That’s twice the rate of forest loss and faster than the Amazon rainforest is disappearing.
The push for energy development is also putting the prairies in peril as grasslands are converted to crops for biofuel and broken by development associated with oil and 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 to native prairie.
Making Good Progress
A new study, co-authored by TNC scientists, presents evidence that private land is absolutely essential to protect the epic wildlife migrations of the Northern Great Plains. The study also has good news: not only is it still possible to protect these pathways, conservation is on track toward success.
Since wildlife doesn’t recognize ownership lines, conservation must span these boundaries, and the work TNC has been doing for nearly a decade is paying off. Guided by cutting-edge science with partners at the University of Montana, we have successfully targeted the most crucial private lands in need of conservation. As a result, we have permanently conserved much of the private land within the path of pronghorn migration. A side benefit is the protection of habitat for several species of declining grassland birds. Willing private landowners have played a vital role in this success.
The study also notes that many wildlife migrations on the Northern Great Plains fall within the same timeframe and duration. That makes coordinating conservation measures—such as opening gates to allow movement of pronghorn, deer and elk, or keeping cattle off pastures while sage-grouse are using them for mating—much easier.
Goals and Strategy
The Conservancy’s goal is to conserve grassland through direct land protection and partnership with the local ranching community. We're using a three-pronged approach:
- First, we are investing in science to help unlock even more of the undiscovered secrets of the northern plains. We are using our 60,000-acre Matador Ranch as a center for learning that allows researchers and ranchers to work together.
- Second, we are employing the best conservation tools developed by science and engaging the people that live in the grasslands through the Matador grassbank. The grassbank extends wildlife conservation management on an additional 240,000 acres of cooperating ranches; it’s the most successful grassbank in the country. Additionally, by implementing a wildlife-friendly fencing program, we are removing barriers to movement for pronghorn and sage-grouse.
- Third, we are permanently conserving grasslands vulnerable to habitat destruction through the purchase of conservation easements.
More Innovation on the Prairie
The Nature Conservancy has long been an innovator on Montana’s Northern Great Plains—beginning with the pioneering Matador Grassbank. Now, we have completed a multiyear plan that helps local ranchers, protects vital habitat and fights climate change.
After purchasing 4,340 acres in Phillips County (south of Malta) in 2019, TNC did the opposite of what is often expected of conservation organizations. We sold it to neighboring ranch families, with a conservation easement in place. As part of the partnership, those families placed easements on some of the land they already owned. The result: more than 13,000 acres of land conserved.
The project began, as so many do, over the kitchen table among TNC staff and our ranching partner. The idea was that TNC would purchase land on the Second Creek Ranch, holding it until the neighboring families could secure financing for its purchase.
“TNC’s original purchase of this land was a leap of faith for us, since we didn’t wish to be permanent owners. It was based on the trust that we have forged with this ranching community. We are glad to have it in the hands of ranch families with a demonstrated commitment to conservation,” says grassland conservation director Brian Martin.
The land, which is intermingled with extensive public holdings, is a rich mix of native prairie and big sagebrush grassland, as well as more than 700 acres of wetlands. It harbors several important and/or declining bird species, including greater sage-grouse, burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, long-billed curlew and chestnut-collared longspur. Its wetlands provide vital nesting habitat for waterfowl and other wetland birds, while the uplands are important winter and summer range for pronghorn and mule deer.
Rancher and Matador Grassbank member Jesse Blunt says that the land he bought will make his operation more efficient, since it’s just across the road from one of his pastures. He also appreciates TNC’s approach to grassland conservation. “We enjoy the fact that TNC understands there needs to be cattle on the ground to make it more productive for wildlife and birds.”
One exciting element of our Second Creek project is that it includes carbon offset payments, because the easements prevent the conversion of grassland to crops. Cultivating unbroken grassland releases carbon that contributes to the changing climate. A typical acre of grassland on the Northern Great Plains stores as much as 64 tons of carbon dioxide—that’s equivalent to about one year of emissions from the average motor vehicle. Multiply that by 4,340 acres and we are making an impact!
In addition to helping pay a portion of one easement, the carbon offset payments, over time, provide an annual funding stream that will be shared by TNC and our ranching partner. This is one of a handful of such projects ever completed in the Great Plains and one of the first by TNC.
Matchmaking on the Prairie
Sometimes the right match just falls into place – with the help of timing, partnership, and creative thinking, The Nature Conservancy helped the Vogel family realize a vision for their land while helping a nearby ranching collaborative gain a little more ground.
When Curt and Kate Vogel initially reached out to donate their 680 acres on the Northern Great Plains to The Nature Conservancy, we didn’t know exactly how it would work. It took a few steps to sort out, but, in the end, we found a solution that is good for both nature and rural communities.
The Vogel Ranch has been in the family since it was homesteaded in 1911. Although the home is no longer standing, you can still see traces of the foundation through the soil. Curt’s grandfather, Jacob Vogel, came to Montana from Switzerland with his family when he was just six years old. After working as teachers in Lewistown, he and his wife decided to try their hand at ranching and homesteaded on lonesome piece of prairie near Winnett. This is a tough land, dry and blasted by the wind. But there are still small stands of ponderosa pines interrupting the nearly flat horizon.
“My grandfather referred to it as the desert claim,” Curt laughs.
Curt spent his childhood exploring the land with other ranch kids. Curt says there were a lot more of them back then. His favorite memories all involve exploring the outdoors.
“Going down to the creek and playing with the tadpoles, catching frogs, looking for arrowheads, finding tipi rings, building forts, playing in the creeks,” he said. “It was a great way to grow up.”
Grassland birds, deer, elk, pronghorn, raptors, amphibians, and reptiles live in this semi-arid landscape and Curt was well-acquainted with all of them. While many people overlook the great diversity of the grasslands, those who grow up on the prairie, have a keen eye for all the life that makes a home there.
When he was young and doing his ranch chores, these open spaces and soaring birds brought him peace.
“I’d be working outside, sweating like crazy, the heat of the prairie all around, but then I’d look up and see red-tail hawks.
They’d screech and you’d get lost in that sound and the majesty of it, and your mind is allowed to wander.”
Although Curt enjoyed ranching, after college, he opted for a life in Bozeman. But he remained connected to the land and to the community, eventually inheriting about 680 acres of the ranch. He remembers his grandfather taking sheep out there and spending his summers in a sheep wagon.
Right away, he decided to put a conservation easement on the property. The easement would prevent subdivision and development of the land and ensure that it remained in agriculture and benefited the local community.
But Curt wasn’t interested in being an absentee landowner.
“We wanted to keep it local, not in the hands of an outside owner who’d block it off as a private hunting preserve.”
“TNC wasn’t looking to own this land,” said Brian Martin, TNC’s Grassland Conservation Director, “but we thought it would be perfect for the Winnett ACES.”
ACES – Agricultural and Community Enhancement and Sustainability – is a locally-based ranching collaborative focused on sustainable rural communities and land management in central Montana.”
With a bit of creative thinking, Brian and Curt came up with a plan. First, Curt donated the land to TNC. After securing an easement, TNC gave it to the ACES.
“It’s in really good shape and we believe it looks a lot like it did when my grandfather acquired it. Donating the property to ACES was a natural thing to do.”
The ACES are still working on a future for the land but want it to provide a place for education and engagement, spreading the word on sustainable ranching.
Curt couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.
“I’m happy to know that this piece of land I was responsible for will continue to support local ranchers and continue to be a productive habitat.”
Support our work in Montana, including preservation of our Northern Great Plains, by making a charitable contribution today.