Sagebrush grasslands in southwest Montana have been disappearing for decades, putting ranchers and wildlife in jeopardy. A project is aiming to reverse this trend and engage a local workforce left in limbo by the novel coronavirus.
In the Sweetwater Hills southeast of Dillon, Sean Claffey drives his pick-up truck on a rutted, dirt road through sagebrush steppe.
He points out islands of curl-leaf mountain mahogany, galleries of cottonwood and willows in the drainages: all evidence of a healthy sagebrush ecosystem.
“There’s 13 different species of sagebrush in just Beaverhead County alone and they all have their own little niche. So the diversity within our sagebrush rangelands is pretty incredible if you zoom in and take a hard look at it," Claffey says.
But there’s something here that’s threatening that diversity: Rocky Mountain Juniper.
“All those trees that you're looking at, if you look at a photo from 1953, which we have, 98 percent of those trees were not there," Claffey says.
Rocky Mountain Juniper is native to Montana but a century of active wildfire suppression has allowed it and Douglas fir to expand from rocky mountain slopes into sagebrush grasslands. This “conifer encroachment” has affected half a million acres across Beaverhead and Madison counties since the early 1950’s, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
“Conifer expansion is a subject that may not be all that well understood to folks, but it affects everyone, whether you fish, ranch, hunt, recreate. I mean it affects fire intensity as well,” Claffey says.
Claffey coordinates projects to push back on conifer expansion and protect remaining sagebrush habitat on private and public land. The work is part of the Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership, which formed in 2018 and is made up of state and federal agencies, three watershed groups and the Nature Conservancy. So far it’s removed conifers from 9,000 acres of land that have not fully converted to forests and plans to complete another 5,000 acres this season.
Claffey says conifers suck a lot of moisture out of the ground whereas sagebrush thrive in drier conditions and help connect mountain snowpack to streams and rivers.
This particular area of state land managed by the DNRC only receives eight to ten inches of rain a year.
“If you talk to any rancher out here about their springs and their pastures, and how they’ve dried up as they’ve seen the trees increase and how they see their spring outflows come back when the trees are removed, they don’t have any doubt that removing these trees has a direct effect on how much water is available,” Claffey says.
Conifer expansion into sagebrush grasslands also reduces critical habitat for more than 350 wildlife species, including sage grouse.
The place where we’re standing is core winter range for pronghorn and mule deer. Even moose come here to eat the protein-rich mountain mahogany leaves. Claffey points out moose calf droppings next to the small shrub, which he says should be taller than him.
“What we’re looking at here is you’ve got half of this mahogany is completely dead and that’s due to this juniper growing right next door, shading it out," Claffey says.
A small crew has been using chainsaws and loppers to cut down four to five foot high conifers at this nearly 90 acre site. They leave the slash behind. In some areas on federal land, crews will then follow-up with prescribed burns.
Claffey says it depends on the type of sagebrush. Some are well-adapted to fire and bounce back quickly while others take decades to recover.
Not far from the road, Justin Hartman starts up a chainsaw.
Normally this time of year, Hartman would be out on the water, not hacking his way through juniper. He and his wife run Tight Line Adventures, a fly fishing outfitting company in Dillon.
When the state required all non-essential businesses to close mid-March to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, Hartman says Sean Claffey thought about the out-of-work guides and outfitters.
“And so he called me and said, ‘Hey, there’s an opportunity out here for guides to work before you guys get back on the river. If you’re interested, let me know.’ And so I started talking to him and said, ‘Hey, we’d rather go out and work, and let’s see what it takes,’” Hartman says.
He says the restoration work is something he’ll be able to mix into his guiding to fill in gaps if fewer people book fly fishing trips.
In the past, contracts for this type of work typically went to a crew out of Oregon. But that wasn’t an option this year with travel restrictions due to COVID-19.
Tim Egan, manager of the DNRC Dillon Unit, says the agency managed to contract a crew of four people from the area.
“It was a heavy lift to get this done because people were concerned about keeping people safe so we talked to the Beaverhead County Public Health Department and then we had to pass it through DNRC upper management to make sure they were fine with it and they were in full support," Egan says.
The Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership plans to work with more local crews later this month. Egan says there’s a lot of interest from local guides and outfitters, but figuring out insurance and workman’s compensation have created some hurdles.
He and Sean Claffey say there are a lot of benefits to building a local workforce for these types of conservation projects and hope to maintain that after COVID-19.
Justin Hartman of Tight Line Adventures says he’s hunted in this area before, but he’s learned more about the ecology and the purpose of this work since joining a crew.
“You’d see all these trees that were cut and just left there, and I never knew what it was, and I never did look into it. I just couldn’t quite figure it out, and so doing this work now, we’ve learned a lot, we’ve learned a lot about stewardship and why it’s happening,” Hartman says.