The PBS series Earth: A New Wild features the Conservancy’s work on the Patchtop Ranch in Montana’s Centennial Valley a partnership between local ranchers and our science and stewardship team that uses cattle to improve and maintain wildlife habitat.
Patchtop Ranch offers ideal conditions for developing a model for wildlife-friendly ranching that can be replicated beyond the Centennial Valley. Located within nesting distance of the largest Greater sage-grouse lek in the valley, the 5,500-acre ranch is also within a wildlife pathway critical for elk, deer and other large mammals that need room to roam between the valley and the surrounding mountains.
The ranch is at the heart of an urgent effort to conserve 44,000 acres of the sagebrush-grassland essential for Greater sage-grouse survival. Our neighbors on the Martinell and J Bar L Ranches are also essential to the success of this endeavor. Together, we’ve created a grazing plan that uses cattle to help maintain the mix of plant types and varied grass height that sage-grouse need for nesting and rearing young. By coordinating grazing activities across the three ranches, we can alternate the seasons that certain areas are used and rested. We’ll also be able to restore wetlands and promote the kind of grass cover that’s important for the sage-grouse, and animals such as pygmy rabbits, over a broader area.
Patchtop sits on the margins of four diverse types of habitat: Sagebrush-grassland, sandhills, wetlands, and coniferous forest. Diversity also defines our neighbors. In addition to our private ranching partners, Patchtop is part of a patchwork quilt of state trust land, national forest, and the sweeping Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Together, these landowners are working together to protect vital wildlife habitat.
While cattle do their fair share of work on the ranch, an army of Conservancy staff, interns, and volunteers has helped remove miles of old fencing that made it difficult for wildlife to move freely across the land. We also plan to thin young Douglas-fir trees and use controlled burns to restore aspen forests, which benefit a diverse range of wildlife from butterflies and woodpeckers to moose and grizzly bears. The installation of bear-resistant garbage containers at Patchtop as well as the neighboring ranches will also help prevent unwanted encounters between humans and bears.
As with so much of our work, the Conservancy hopes that Patchtop Ranch can be a great example of how smart conservation and cooperation create a landscape that’s good for both wildlife and people.
The Sage Grouse Initiative
Funding for some of the work on Patchtop is being made available through the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). SGI is a cooperative program between the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), ranchers, and farmers in 11 western states. Given that 40% of remaining Sage-grouse habitat is on private land, these landowners are essential to the future of this at-risk bird. Fortunately, many of the conservation practices that promote healthy grazing lands also are good for Sage-grouse and other wildlife. Funds may be used for something as simple as installing escape ramps on water tanks to prevent birds from drowning, to undertaking complex changes in range management and securing conservation easements.
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