Wildlife Management in the Missouri River Breaks

The NWTF, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and various other wildlife organizations demonstrated shared stewardship in what was a multiyear wildlife habitat restoration in the Missouri River Breaks region of central Montana.

A recent controlled burn of 7,290 acres was the 10th segment of a nearly 42,000-acre project in the Missouri River Breaks region of Montana. The NWTF has supported the project since its outset, three years ago. The prescribed fire relieved unnaturally dense conditions caused by almost 100 years of fire suppression.

“Before the middle of the 20th century, most forest managers believed that fires should be suppressed at all times,” said Collin Smith, NWTF district biologist. “The extensive fires of 1910 solidified the Forest Service as the premier fire control organization, and fire suppression remained the only fire policy for all federal land management agencies until the late 1960s.”   

Before prescribed fire became a management tool, areas such as the Missouri River Breaks region became irregularly dense and more susceptible to severe wildfires, which can do critical damage to wildlife habitat.  

By thinning out small-diameter trees and unwanted vegetation in the Missouri River Breaks, controlled burns lessened the chance of severe wildfires. The project also increased vegetation growth, improving habitat for wild turkeys, elk and mule deer. Thinning of conifer stands also improved foraging conditions and brood habitat. Controlled burning helped to lessen conifer invasion in meadows and streamside communities and promoted plant diversity, such as sumac, silver buffaloberry and chokecherry. 

Discussing the short-term effects of the project, Smith said, “Nutrients are immediately returned to the soil and new growth of grasses and forbs are stimulated and begin the next growing season.” The long-term effects of the project will last 10-20 years, making future controlled burns and area maintenance easier due to the project’s comprehensive scale.

The Missouri River Breaks region is a large complex of publicly accessible lands comprised of BLM, USFWS, Montana state lands and private lands enrolled in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Block Management Program. The area is accessible via state and county roads, and it provides unique hunting opportunities.

“The Missouri Breaks provides for some of the best and most diverse hunting opportunities in the nation,” Smith said. “Opportunity for hunting elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mule deer, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, ring-necked pheasant and waterfowl exist.”  

In addition to hunting, other outdoor enthusiasts are sure to benefit, too, as the Missouri River Breaks region of Montana offers opportunities for camping, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and many other outdoor activities. One can “even canoe or boat along the Missouri River in one of the most geologically unique and remote places in the lower 48,” Smith said.   

The NWTF’s contributions through the Montana State Chapter’s Hunting Heritage Super Fund helped fund helicopter ignitions, flight hours, additional fire staff, equipment use and fuel needed to complete hand ignition. 

“The prescribed fire management program that BLM has been implementing over the past decade in the Missouri River Breaks region of central Montana has truly benefitted the maintenance of an extremely unique ecosystem, and improved wildlife habitat for a multitude of wildlife species,” Smith said. “The NWTF in Montana is proud to be a part of these ongoing collaborative efforts to apply managed fire to the fire dependent communities found in the area.”

— David Gladkowski

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