New year, new projects

Ranching for Rivers hopes to bring new ideas to the county’s river-ranchlands nexus

MADISON COUNTY — The balancing of ranching with environmental conservation and habitat protection is a perennial subject of thought and debate in southwestern Montana. In 2019, a new program may be making its way to Madison County in an attempt to offer some assistance to solving the problem.

Ranching for Rivers is a cost-share program designed to assist ranchers in instituting riparian pasture projects. Instead of completely excluding livestock from the areas of their ranches abutting streams and creeks, riparian pastures help to allow cattle and other animals access to the water source while still protecting fishery habitat, instream flow and riparian plans like willows and cottonwoods.

What began as a pilot project in 2016 blossomed into four successful embodiments of riparian pastures on the Missouri and Milk rivers in a partnership with the Missouri River Conservation District. Those projects helped transform around 10 miles of river-ranch nexus areas to increase riparian health while maintaining livestock access.

The Montana Association of Conservation Districts’ Jessica Makus says there is one key element conservation districts need to have that serves as a limiting factor for where the projects can take place.

“It’s through the soil and water conservation districts of Montana. They were looking for some pro-management, pro-conservation complementary program ideas,” says Makus, who helped spearhead those earlier projects. “But funding is limited in that it has to be used in an area with a DEQ-approved watershed restoration plan.”

Not many of the 57 conservation districts in the state have such a plan, but thanks to recent efforts and years of data collection, the Madison Conservation District is on the brink of receiving its Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approval and instituting one. But it could still be months before that happens.

“We’re actively looking for other sources of funding that don’t come with that limitation, so we can build it more statewide,” says Makus. “I’d really like to see some projects happen in the Madison.”

Makus says that riparian pasture projects can vary from place to place in what form they take. Relatively small spaces, they allow ranchers to use livestock in managing weeds and overgrown riparian vegetation and provide space for greater wildlife access to streams, as well as lower maintenance costs for things like off-stream water sources and tanks.

Ranching for Rivers provides a 50-percent cost-share for ranchers who want to make a go at trying riparian pastures. That includes everything from labor and fencing materials to water infrastructure to keep livestock in the right areas. 

“It can be different ranch to ranch, but really, it’s just putting up a fence along a stream and then putting a pasture in that green line right there by the water,” says Makus. “Instead of excluding livestock from those areas, you can put them there in a manage way that doesn’t completely decimate the vegetation.”

Projects can also include creek crossings and water gaps, or anything that helps minimize livestock impact on the sensitive riparian areas while still allowing them the access they need. The program also comes with a customized grazing plan so that each unique riparian area can get the greatest possible benefits. Landowners can work with range specialists to come up with ways to best use their stream areas. 

The bottom line, Makus says, is to create a natural environment that best serves two of Montana’s most iconic and important industries: ranching and natural beauty.

“The point of the program is to make it okay to see cows in a riparian area,” she says. “It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, as long as they’re being managed correctly. 

“This program aims to benefit the ranchers’ plans, as well as water quality by limiting where and when cows come into contact with a stream, protecting those riparian plants that hold the banks together. That leads to improved habitat, fisheries, bird habitat and everything else.”

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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