Collaboration in Sagebrush Country

This story is by Sean Claffey, Southwest Montana Sagebrush Conservation Partnership Coordinator, and is part of a series highlighting local success stories and what made them possible.


Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 1.38.07 PM.png

The Place

The sagebrush steppe is a sometimes forgotten part of Montana when spectacular alpine peaks and deep forests dominate the skyline. Fortunately, the Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership (SMSP)* came together to advocate for this unique corner of the sagebrush sea. Here at the headwaters of the Missouri River, the sagebrush steppe connects our precious snowpack to headwater tributaries and provides migration routes for wide-ranging wildlife such as grizzly, pronghorn, and Greater Sage-grouse. This sagebrush steppe is home to multi-generational family ranches intermixed with public land and supports Montana’s important recreational and agricultural economies. It is these high-elevation sagebrush grasslands that have shaped communities, local economies, and a way of life in Southwest Montana, but some serious challenges are looming. This partnership is aimed at finding solutions and putting them to work on the ground.

MT_cut juniper 5Dillon FO_Hannah Nikonow.JPG

The Challenges

As Montana’s population grows, and development and increased use of public land is reaching into new areas of the sagebrush steppe, habitat is being degraded. This is creating barriers and dangers for wildlife, spreading noxious weeds, and increasing demands for water. A changing climate is altering the natural water cycles that keep streams fed and wetlands/wet meadows healthy. Invasive annual plants and expanding Douglas-fir and junipers are encroaching on and have already taken over tens of thousands of acres of historically productive grasslands. This is putting additional strain on our decreasing supply of water. Critical wet meadow habitat continues to be damaged and drained, which is allowing precious snowmelt to run-off rapidly in the spring, rather than being stored as groundwater or in wetlands so it can be slowly released.  These threats don’t stop at fence lines; they exist across both private and public lands.

Partnering for Solutions

In recognition of those challenges, the SMSP came together in 2018 as a coalition of state and federal agencies, local conservation districts, and The Nature Conservancy. These entities have agreed to coordinate restoration, enhancement of habitat, and ranch improvement projects in the region. Together, we can leverage funding to accelerate these goals, foster innovative collaborations between private landowners and public land managers, and improve the health of working rangelands for the good of people and nature. The SMSP is not meant to act as another group independently completing work, but to coordinate efforts that help seize opportunities to work across boundaries and increase the impact of conservation. 

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 2.08.52 PM.png

Overview of Capacity

  • Total Projects Planned for 2019: 11

  • Total Projects Completed in 2018: 9

  • Total Acres Impacted: 3,248

  • Partners Engaged: 14

  • Partnership Meetings/Field Tours: 7

Partnership Accomplishments (2018)

  • One partnership coordination position in BLM office

  • Conifers Removed: 3,207 acres

  • Wet Meadows: 41 acres

  • Mesic Structures Installed: 347

  • Mesic Habitat Preserved/Restored: 2 miles

“The SMSP facilitated several important projects that the BLM would not have been able to complete without their assistance,” said Pat Fosse, Assistant Field Manager at the Dillon, Montana BLM Field Office. “This includes conifer removal in priority sage-grouse habitat, as well as mesic restoration that will enhance and expand nesting and brood rearing habitat. In addition, we have been able to save a significant amount of money per acre by having a contractor work on several projects across boundaries with several different funding sources.”

The SMSP is enacting large-scale conservation across ownership boundaries that benefits the many diverse users groups in this sagebrush country. More information about this partnership and the projects they are leading, contact Sean Claffey at sean.claffey@tnc.org.

* SMSP members include the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Beaverhead Watershed Committee, Ruby Watershed Council, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, The Nature Conservancy, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, U.S. Forest Service - Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Red Rocks Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The momentum for conservation across the sagebrush landscape in the High Divide region of southwest Montana has been building for years. These are exciting times for landscape conservation in southwest Montana and I look forward to what the partnership will accomplish in the upcoming years.
— Kyle Tackett, MT NRCS Resource Conservationist for Initiatives