Bighorn Sheep and Elk Habitat Enhancement Project

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Stucky Ridge, a series of grassy, wind-blown benches and timbered gulches located near Anaconda in southwestern Montana, provides critical winter range for elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep, and is an important rutting and calving area for elk.

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Most of the site was acquired in the late 1990s by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Additional privately owned acreage on the Ridge was purchased in 2008 through a partnership between the American Land Conservancy, Five Valley Land Trust, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “The area is especially important to the bighorn sheep herd, which can be found on the site from fall through spring,” says Cameron Rasor, Range Management Specialist for the Pintler Ranger District. “Some of the other bighorn populations in Montana have been decimated by disease, so protection and habitat improvement on Stucky Ridge is important for sheep as well as the elk.”  

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One of the critical resource issues impacting Stucky Ridge was noxious weed infestation – primarily spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) – that threatened big game habitat. A key partnership was formed between the Pintler Ranger District, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Deer Lodge County Weed District, and the Blue Eyed Nellie Working Group, which involves private landholders adjacent to Stucky Ridge. Private organizations also joined forces with the partners including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, and the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club. Partners agreed to cooperate on a five-year, large-scale habitat enhancement project for the area. “Our main objectives were to protect areas not infested by noxious weeds by treating established infestations in higher elevation areas of Stucky Ridge,” explains Rasor. “We also wanted to shift vegetation toward the potential natural community by increasing native bunchgrasses and forbs, and stop weed re-invasion of previously treated areas.”

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Cost for the first year of the project in 2009 was calculated at $100,000, more that half of the district’s annual weed budget. Because of the importance of the area and partners involved with the project, the Tri County Resource Advisory Committee (RAC) and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation stepped up to provide $45,000, with the remainder of funds provided by the Sikes Act ($10,000), Region 1 Forest Service, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. “We never would have been able to implement the project on this scale if it wasn’t for our partners,” explains Rasor. “We aren’t just managing weeds, but we’re improving critical wildlife habitat and protecting a valuable resource for future generations.”

The project area was divided into three separate weed management units: 1) low elevation, fragile sites with dense populations of spotted knapweed and limited desirable native vegetation; 2) environmentally sensitive sites near aspen, conifers, and water; and 3) areas that were best suited to aerial herbicide application. The Forest Service implemented an integrated program that included release of biological control agents on spotted knapweed on low elevation sites. About 1,000 Larinus spp. (seed feeding insects) and 2,000 Cyphocleonus achates (root feeding insects) were released in 2009. “Our hope is that the insects will slowly remove the spotted knapweed allowing natural replacement of native vegetation,” explains Rasor. More releases are planned for 2010 with continued monitoring of insect populations to determine establishment.

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Ground herbicide applications began in June 2009 with three different herbicide treatments including Milestone® at 7 fluid ounces per acre, 2,4-D at 1.5 quarts per acre, and Transline® at 2/3 pint per acre. Herbicide treatments were applied to 379 acres with a specialized off-road vehicle called the Land Tamer. The Land Tamer is equipped with two boom-buster application nozzles and a center single nozzle, which gives a treatment pattern of 55 feet and a total application volume of about 11 gallons per acre. “The Land Tamer allows us to accurately treat areas of rough terrain with a higher level of safety to our operators,” says Rasor. Results the year of treatment showed excellent spotted knapweed control with Milestone and Transline treatments, but poor results on sites treated with 2,4-D.

In September 2009 the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) entered into a Stewardship Challenge Cost-Share Agreement for aerial herbicide application on 1,050 acres infested with spotted knapweed. With the help of the RMEF, a contract was issued to Heli-works Flight Services to apply Milestone at 6 fluid ounces per acre. “We reviewed results of our aerial treatments in July 2010 and had excellent control of spotted knapweed with the fall aerial treatments. The wildflowers, perennial grass, and sagebrush look great and healthy,” Rasor says.

Funding for the project was also used to construct a jackleg fence and install a closure gate to help keep unauthorized vehicles from entering the area. This should reduce movement of spotted knapweed to non-infested sites and limit disturbance caused by off-road vehicles. The final segment of the 2009 project included purchasing materials to re-develop a spring in 2010 to provide water for wildlife during summer months.

The importance of Stucky Ridge preservation and habitat enhancement was described by James Weatherly, executive director of the Montana Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. “If Stucky Ridge weren’t conserved, another piece of land vital to bighorn sheep would be lost,” says Weatherly. “Saving this critical habitat helps keep our wildlife populations from further decline.”

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is proud of the partnerships and accomplishments in 2009. Total cost of the habitat enhancement project to date is about $72,000 to treat 1,429 acres of spotted knapweed, release 3,000 biological control agents, secure one road closure, and purchase material for a spring re-development. “We have money remaining from 2009, plus additional funding to put toward our future ground and aerial herbicide treatments and rehabilitation efforts. Our goal is to treat about 1,500 spotted knapweed acres each year through an integrated program, for a total of 5,094 acres over five years. Most importantly, the Forest wants to expand our partnerships and increase weed awareness with adjacent landowners and special interest groups,” says Rasor.

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