Snowbanks to Grassbanks

Progress report for SW19-907

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $349,709.98
Projected End Date: 05/31/2023
Grant Recipients: MSU- Animal & Range Sciences; University of Montana Western; The Nature Conservancy; US Fish and Wildlife Service
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Bok Sowell
MSU- Animal & Range Sciences
Co-Investigators:
Dr. Andrea Litt
Department of Ecology, Montana State University
Megan Van Emon
Montana State University
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Project Information

Abstract:

High-elevation sagebrush rangelands in southwest Montana are used by livestock producers for summer grazing.  These areas also provide habitat for many wildlife species, including sage-grouse hens rearing broods.  The main source of water for these mesic (high moisture) sites are large snowbanks.  As they melt, snowbanks provide water to first order streams and promote green vegetation, if the release is gradual.  Several studies have documented decreases in the size of these snowbanks and predicted they will continue to decrease in size and melt earlier in the year as a result of climate change.  To slow the release of water from these snowbanks during the summer grazing season, several ranchers and conservation organizations have installed water slowing and spreading structures.  These structures aim to 1) convert the water stored in snowbanks into increased soil moisture that will prolong water release and 2) increase plant production to the benefit of livestock and wildlife.  The purpose of this project is to evaluate the effectiveness of these structures by comparing treated areas to untreated control areas, evaluating 1) cattle use, 2) vegetative changes, and 3) arthropod responses related to sage-grouse brood rearing habitat.  We do not know of another community project like this in the western United States. This unique effort should promote the sustainability of the grazing livestock industry, improve wildlife habitat and promote land stewardship.  Results from this study will be shared with other ranchers, scientists and conservationists.  This is a 3 year study.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of this proposal are to compare areas below snowbanks with water slowing/spreading devices to areas without these structures to answer the following questions:

  1. Do cattle use treated areas more than control areas without any structures?
  2. Do water slowers/spreaders improve herbaceous cover and plant production more than similar control sites without any structures?
  3. Do water slowers/spreaders increase arthropod abundance compared to similar control sites without any structures?
Timeline:

Year 1

April                Hire crew members and two graduate students; prepare for field season. 

                         Identify 30 treated areas and 30 control site areas to be sampled for objectives 1, 

                         2, & 3.

 

June                 Begin cattle observations for objective 1 and sample arthropods for objective 3.

 

July                  Continue cattle observations for objective 1, continue arthropod sampling for

                          objective 3, and sample plant production for objective 2.

 

August            Complete field work for all objectives.

 

Sept.–Oct.       Field students summarize data.

                           Sort and identify arthropods, Data entry and analysis.

 

Year 2   

April                Hire and organize field crew, prepare for field season.

 

June                 Begin cattle observations and arthropod sampling for objectives 1 & 3.

 

July                  Continue cattle observations for objective 1, continue arthropod sampling for

                          objective 3, and begin plant production sampling for objective 2.

 

August            Complete field work for all objectives.

                        On-Site field day

 

Sept-Oct.         Field students summarize and analyze data.

                          Sort and identify arthropods

 

Nov – March   Graduate students and advisors analyze data.

 

 

Year 3   

April                Hire and organize field crew, prepare for field season.

 

June                 Begin cattle observations for objective 1 and arthropod sampling for objective 3.

 

July                  Continue cattle observations for objective 1, begin plant production sampling for

                          objective 2, and compile data for objective 3.

 

August            Complete field work for all objectives.

                        Host 2nd on-site field day and Town Hall meeting in Dillon, MT.

 

Sept-Oct.         Field students summarize and analyze data.

 

Nov – March   Graduate students and advisors analyze data and write results.

                        Extension video completed.

                        Two scientific manuscripts submitted for publication.

                        Extension Reports completed.

                        Submit final report to SARE

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jim Berkey - Technical Advisor
  • Rulon Buhler - Producer
  • Kyle Cutting (Researcher)
  • Bryant Jones - Producer
  • Rebekah Levine (Researcher)
  • Barry McCoy - Producer

Research

Hypothesis:

The objectives of this proposal are to compare areas below snowbanks with water slowing/spreading devices to areas without these structures to answer the following questions:

  1. Do cattle use areas with water slowers/spreaders more than control areas without any structures?
    1. This hypothesis will be evaluated starting in 2021.
  2. Do water slowers/spreaders improve herbaceous cover and plant production more than control sites without any structures?
    1. Vegetation cover tends to increase in mesic meadows, as well as trend towards increased cover of graminoids and forbs.  We expect to see denser canopy coverage in treated sites (n = 26 reaches with slowing structures) when compared to untreated sites (n = 27 reaches without structures).
    2. Production also is likely to increase in mesic meadows.  We expect increased production in treated sites compared to control sites.  This hypothesis will be evaluated starting in 2021.
  3. Do water slowers/spreaders increase arthropod abundance compared to control sites without any structures?
    1. As soil moisture increases, we predict biomass of Coleoptera to increase, Hymenoptera to decrease, Hemiptera to increase, and Orthoptera to change little.
  4. Do water slowers and water spreaders increase known greater sage-grouse chick food resources (arthropods and vegetation) compared to similar control sites without any structures present?
    1. Early in summer, when most of the soils are still saturated from snow melt, we do not expect to detect differences in cover of herbaceous vegetation preferred by sage grouse chicks between treated and untreated sites.  Later in summer, we expect the water-slowing structures will hold enough soil moisture to allow succulent vegetation to persist.  Therefore, treated sites (n=26 reaches with slowing structures) will be more densely covered by herbaceous vegetation than untreated sites (n=27 reaches without structures) later in the summer. 
    2. Sage-grouse chicks have been shown to overwhelmingly select arthropods in the orders Hymenoptera (mainly ants), Coleoptera, Orthoptera, and larval Lepidoptera as food resources, such that we will focus on these 4 orders.  In treated areas, we expect biomass of Hymenoptera to decrease, Coleoptera to increase, and larval Lepidoptera to increase, relative to untreated controls.  We expect biomass of Orthoptera to differ little between treated and untreated sites.
Materials and methods:

In the summers of 2018 and 2019, field crews and producers installed water slowing and spreading structures.  We sampled 159 water slowing and and 3 water spreading structures. 

The initial selection and construction of these structures was conducted by Bryant Jones, Barry McCoy, and Rulon Buhler of our producer team, Dr. Levine of University of Montana Western, Kyle Cutting of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (NFWF), and Jim Berkey and Sean Claffey of The Nature Conservancy.  Half of the costs associated with the construction and subsequent monitoring came from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant.  The other half of the funds came from matching in-kind funds from the other cooperating institutions, including the Bureau of Land Management.  These funds were used to conduct first season monitoring of soil moisture, total area, water flow and plant cover. The NFWF grant funded a graduate student working with Dr. Litt on sage-grouse habitat, but did not include monitoring of cattle responses, plant production or all of the possible sage-grouse food items.  Our request from SARE is an attempt to assess the effectiveness of these structures from a livestock perspective, evaluate effects beyond the first season post-treatment, and to complement the wildlife habitat component.

These structures are within the 1.5 million acre core sage-grouse areas of southwest Montana, in Beaverhead and Madison Counties.  This region is nestled between the High Divide and the Greater Yellowstone area.  This region is not only important to many family-run cattle grazing operations, but is also vital towards ecotourism.  Most of the structures are located in mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentate spp. vaseyana) plant communities above 6,700 ft, with the majority located on private land, with the remaining structures on public lands. 

 

Experimental Design

Three or more water slowing structures constitute 1 experimental reach, our experimental unit (Figure 1). Reaches are considered separate experimental units when they are separated by 20 times the channel/gully width in an average year.  Each experimental reach was randomly assigned as a treated or control site.  Sixteen reaches (8 treatment, 8 control) were installed during fall 2018 and sampled during summers 2019 and 2020.  Thirty-seven reaches (18 treatment, 19 control) were installed during fall 2019 and sampled during summer 2020.  All 53 reaches were sampled during the summer of 2020, collecting 1-year post-treatment data on 53 reaches and 2-year post treatment data on 16 reaches.  We used identical sampling methods in treated and control (untreated) reaches.

 

Schematic of sampling design

 

Objectives:

Objective 1.  Do cattle use areas with water slowers/spreaders more than control areas without any structures?

This objective will be evaluated beginning in 2021.

Thirty macroplots that are obviously influenced by water spreaders will be selected.  They may vary in size from a quarter of an acre to several acres.  Thirty macroplots of the same size will be chosen on the same ecological site to represent the control sites.  All macroplots will be visited four times when cattle are actively grazing, beginning when the cattle are turned out (June) until the end of the grazing season (August) for three years, for a total of 720 observations.  All plots will be examined for evidence of cattle use such as tracks, plant grazing use or fecal material and a resulting index of use will be estimated.

The response variable will be the number of cattle observed and the cattle use index.  Data from treated and untreated plots will be analyzed with a linear mixed model, accounting for the experimental design and repeated sampling. 

 

Objective 2.  Do water slowers/spreaders improve herbaceous (grasses and forbs) cover and production compared to similar control sites without any structures?

In 2019 and 2020, we sampled vegetation in each experimental reach 3-4 times during the course of each summer field season (once monthly from June-August 2019, June-September 2020, Figure 1).  We sampled in June as both treated and untreated sites would likely be saturated from snow melt; in July to capture treated and untreated sites during a transitional stage from saturated to dry; and in August to compare treated and untreated sites when they are at their driest.  One additional sampling period was added in September during the summer of 2020. Data from treated and untreated plots will be analyzed with a generalized linear mixed model, accounting for the experimental design and repeated sampling.

Production will be evaluated beginning in 2021.

 

Objective 3:  Do water slower/spreader structures increase arthropod abundance for sage-grouse broods compared to similar control sites without any structures? 

In 2019 and 2020, we sampled arthropods in each experimental reach 3 times using pitfall traps during the course of the summer field season (once monthly from June-August, Figure 1).  Arthropod samples are being sorted and identified to the level of taxonomic order and family (in some cases) to focus on groups commonly consumed by sage-grouse broods.  Data will be analyzed with generalized linear mixed models, accounting for the experimental design and repeated sampling.

 

Project results will be shared with producers at 2 local watershed field days and supervised by Dr. Van Emon, our producers, Jim Berkey, Dr. Levine and Kyle Cutting.  Producers, public land managers and the general public will be invited to these field days and information will be shared at agency offices in town hall forums.  The Nature Conservancy will share results on their website and social media.  Two Extension articles will be published in the Montana State University College of Agriculture and Extension Research Report.  Two research manuscripts detailing how the installation of water spreading devices influence cattle use, plant cover and productivity, and sage-grouse food items will be led by Drs. Litt and Sowell and their 2 Master’s students. Undergraduate students, supervised by Dr. Levine, will support the graduate work by assisting in field data collection and summarizing results.  A video summarizing the findings will be posted on the MSU Extension website and a podcast will be delivered as part of the outreach effort.

Research results and discussion:

The 2019 and 2020 field seasons were an overwhelming success.  We sampled 16 reaches (8 treatment, 8 control) and 4 water spreaders (2 treatment, 2 control) 3 times during the summer of 2019, and 53 reaches (26 treatment, 27 control) and 4 water spreaders (2 treatment, 2 control) in the summer of 2020.  This totaled nearly 800 vegetation plots, 750 pitfall traps, 750 vacuum samples, 8,600 soil moisture readings, and an estimated 6,500 driving miles. 

The 2020 field crew also deserves special recognition.  They were able to accomplish these milestones while adhering to strict COVID-19 safety protocols and living at a remote field camp.  They managed to expertly execute these methods while having no known incidents of COVID-19 exposure. 

Arthropod sorting and identification is in progress and will be completed during summer 2021.  Thomas Sutton and Andrea Litt mentored an undergraduate student (Ethan Palen) to complete a research project related to the arthropod data.  Ethan presented his findings as a poster at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in April 2021.  Thomas also has been mentoring two additional undergraduates as they help with sorting and identification.

Data analysis also is in progress.  Thomas Sutton is on track to complete his thesis focused on this project in December 2021.  He aims to present his findings at the national meeting of The Wildlife Society in fall 2021 and the Montana chapter of The Wildlife Society in February 2022.

Field data collection will continue in summer 2021, with two new graduate students leading the research.

Research conclusions:

None to report at this time.

Field work has not been completed.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

Producer & Ag Professional Educational Activities:

 We plan on having two field tours of our water spreaders in August of years 2 and 3.  We will invite all local producers, federal and state land managers, and the general public.  These field tours will be hosted by Montana State University Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, Dr. Megan Van Emon, Jim Berkey from The Nature Conservancy, and Kyle Cutting from US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Results from the study will be summarized in a ten-minute video and posted on the MSU extension website.  In August of year 3, an open townhall will be held at the MSU extension office in Dillon, MT to summarize the results for all interested parties that are not able to attend the field tours due to their remote location. 

Two Montana State University College of Agriculture and Extension Research Reports will be developed and published based on the results collected during the project.  In addition, an Extension MontGuide will be published with results along with how to effectively use snowbanks, with or without water spreaders, to manage rangeland moisture.  A podcast and video update will be produced annually to provide progress on the project to stakeholders and the public.  The podcasts and videos will be posted online at the Montana State University Beef Cattle Extension Facebook page, as well as other social media sites.

Scholarly Publications & Educational Materials:

 The findings of this study should result in two Masters theses.  Dr. Litt will supervise one student working on a companion study funded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.  A manuscript titled “Providing food resources for sage-grouse using water conservation structures” will be submitted to the Journal of Wildlife Management for publication by August of year 3.  Dr. Sowell will supervise a M.S. student funded by this proposal.  Their manuscript “Vegetative responses to water conservation structures in sagebrush rangelands”, will be submitted to Rangeland Ecology and Management by August of the third year.  Both graduate students will present their findings at one scientific meeting.  One 10-minute educational video will be produced and posted on MSU’s website, as well as The Nature Conservancy website.  Two extension publications: “Cattle and plant response to water conservation structures” and “Sage-grouse brood rearing food item responses to water conservation structures”, will be produced by August of the third year.

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

3 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

None to report at this time.

Field work has not been completed.

Learning Outcomes

3 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • Knowledge of Riparian Restoration: After our interaction or field day, we hope that producers have some knowledge of the overall goal of the project. They should be able to remember material we present, including the long-term predictions of snowfall and runoff in this area, as well as describe and recognize predictions for abiotic factors that will influence the production of beef cattle in this valley for the next 25-50 years. They should also be able to describe and recognize the role of small, water-slowing structures to offset these changes.
  • Application of Riparian Restoration: We are most interested in the application of this information and how willing producers would be to adopt our methods and apply our findings on their property. We want to assess their willingness to adopt or modify their current management practices to include some water-slowing structures to increase soil moisture to benefit livestock and wildlife.
Key changes:
  • Riparian Restoration

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
3 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
2 Grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

None to report at this time.

Field work has not been completed.

Success stories:

None to report at this time.

Field work has not been completed.

Recommendations:

None to report at this time.

Field work has not been completed.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.