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.  In order to slow the release of water from these snowbanks during the summer grazing season, several ranchers and conservation organizations are in the process of building 200 or more water spreading structures.  Approximately seventy-five percent of these will be located on private ranch land and 25 percent will be located on public lands.  The objectives of these structures are 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 proposal is to request funding to evaluate the effectiveness of these structures by comparing 30 treated areas to 30 similar untreated control areas.  Our primary objectives will be to evaluate 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 proposal for a 3 year study.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of this proposal are to compare 30 of the larger areas below snowbanks with water spreading devices to 30 similar areas without water spreaders to answer the following questions:

  1. Do cattle use areas with water spreaders (n=30) more than control areas without any structures (n=30)?
  2. Do water spreaders (n=30) improve herbaceous cover and plant production more than similar control sites without any structures (n=30)?
  3. Do water spreaders (n=30) increase arthropod abundance compared to similar control sites without any structures (n=30)?

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 30 of the larger areas below snowbanks with water spreading devices to 30 similar areas without water spreaders to answer the following questions:

 

  1. Do cattle use areas with water spreaders (n=30) more than control areas without any structures (n=30)?
  2. Do water spreaders (n=30) improve herbaceous cover and plant production more than similar control sites without any structures (n=30)?
  3. Do water spreaders (n=30) increase arthropod abundance compared to similar control sites without any structures (n=30)?
Materials and methods:

In the summers of 2018 and 2019, field crews and producers will install at least 200 water spreading structures that vary in size from 10 to 50 feet.  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 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 will be used to conduct first season monitoring of soil moisture, total area, water flow and plant cover. The NFWF grant will also fund a graduate student working with Dr. Litt on sage-grouse habitat. The grant does 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.

 

The location of these structures will be 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 water-spreading structures will be located in mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentate spp. vaseyana) plant communities above 6,700 ft.  Approximately seventy-five percent of these structures will be located on private land, with the remaining structures on public lands.  The following objectives would be evaluated for three growing seasons.

 

Objective 1.  Do cattle use areas with water spreaders (n=30) more than control areas without any structures (n=30)?

 

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 spreaders (n=30) improve herbaceous (grasses and forbs) cover and production compared to similar control sites without any structures (n=30)?

 

At each water spreader area from June-August, and corresponding control areas, a 30x30m macroplot will be established at 10 and 20 m.  Herbaceous canopy cover and plant species frequency will be recorded on twenty 1/4m2 frames,  spaced every 3 m along the two lines (n=20 frames/plot).  Seven frames will be clipped and estimated for species production and 13 will be estimated for total herbaceous production. 

 

Forbs known to be used by sage-grouse will be estimated from canopy cover and frequency data.  Forb species richness will be calculated at each site.  Vegetation analysis will examine grass production, forb production, grass canopy cover, forb canopy cover, sage-grouse forb canopy cover and forb species richness.  Data from treated and untreated plots will be analyzed with a linear mixed model, accounting for the experimental design and repeated sampling.

 

Objective 3:  Do water spreader structures (n=30) increase arthropod abundance for sage-grouse broods compared to similar control sites without any structures (n=30)? 

 

Arthropods will be sampled in June of each year to match sage-grouse chick use.  Arthropod abundance will be measured using 4 pitfall traps per 30x30m macroplot.  Pitfall traps collected after 24 hours and repeated at least three times per year (monthly).  Only ground-dwelling stages will be included.  Arthropod samples will be sorted and identified to the level of taxonomic order (e.g. beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants) to focus on groups commonly consumed by sage-grouse broods.  The count data from treated and untreated plots 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 field work will begin in the summer of 2020.

Research conclusions:

None to report at this time.

Field work has not been initiated.

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 initiated.

Learning Outcomes

3 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • Riparian Restoration
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 initiated.

Success stories:

None to report at this time.

Field work has not been initiated.

Recommendations:

None to report at this time.

Field work has not been initiated.

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.