Snowbanks to Grassbanks

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $349,709.98
Projected End Date: 05/31/2023
Host Institution Award ID: 4W7748 & 4W8243
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
Dr. Andrea Litt
Department of Ecology, Montana State University
Megan Van Emon
Montana State University

Information Products


  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: range improvement

    Proposal 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 from proposal:

    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)?
    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.