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Study shows winter range
improvements on private land

September 2, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder


I was troubled the other day to receive a first draft of Hank Jorgensen's report on FWP's vegetation management. It wasn't because I lack interest in Hank's report, or the vegetation management for which I share responsibility.

I was troubled because Hank had clipped a note to the first page, handwritten on stationery from "The Palmer House, A Hilton Hotel." As a footnote on the preprinted paper, the proprietors of The Palmer House went on to describe the new Executive Fitness Center, with "28 workout stations, sauna, steam room, pool, tanning, massage and more."

More, Hank?

My first impression was that FWP will be in a much improved position to negotiate Hank's consulting fee during any future negotiations, now that we know we're not haggling over his family's next meal of cornbread and goat's milk.

But, after reading his report on changes in vegetation between 1992 and 1999 on the Murphy Ranch, next door to the Game Range, I'm forced to conclude that his work has earned him a tan and massage.

What business is it of FWP's to manage grassland vegetation on the Murphy Ranch? None, without permission and active cooperation from Ted Murphy and his family, which we have enjoyed for almost 10 years. In the spring of 1990, Ted and FWP agreed to a rest-rotation grazing system for Ted's cattle. Both parties hoped the result would be improved range condition for cattle, and for a group of about 200 wintering elk.

In exchange for Ted's cooperation in moving his cattle from pasture to pasture in the manner prescribed by FWP, Ted was awarded the grazing lease on appropriate pastures of the Game Range.

You can view this grazing system by driving to the junction of Woodworth Road and the driveway to the Game Range headquarters. The property on the east side of Woodworth Road, including the rolling grasslands on the horizon, belongs to Ted Murphy and is managed according to FWP's rest-rotation grazing prescription. The land on the west side of Woodworth Road, immediately north of the headquarters driveway, is a Game Range pasture that is also part of this cooperative grazing system.

We were pleased when Ted first agreed to FWP's prescription for managing his cattle and vegetation. But, with this agreement came a responsibility to monitor the results. After all, if we're going to ask a landowner to do things our way, we'd better be able to answer the simple question, "Is it working?"

That's where Hank comes in. When Hank was a plant ecologist employed by FWP, he and I spent part of 1991 establishing 24 monitoring sites across the Murphy Ranch. Then he returned in May 1992 and took a series of photographs at each site. Seven years later, he again returned and rephotographed the sites, now as a retired employee under a temporary contract with FWP.

Hank's is a professional operation. He photographs in early spring, before grass leaves broaden and elongate, so his photographs provide an opportunity to count individual grass and flowering plants, and to measure whether their bases have expanded or are in decline. Hank knows that leaves grow like crazy or wither from one year to the next, depending on little more than the week to week vagaries of weather. But, plants reproduce and grow or die at their bases in response to long-term trends in weather patterns, grazing management, fire or fire suppression and other factors of interest to land managers.

The comparison between the photos from 1992 and 1999 suggests that the range is responding favorably to the conditions of this decade, including rest-rotation grazing. The amount of soil surface occupied by grass plants was generally higher in 1999. Idaho fescue showed the greatest improvement of the grass species monitored. Forbs (flowering herbaceous plants) generally declined, which is an indication of range improvement toward "pristine" conditions. (Although selected portions of the Murphy Ranch have been sprayed with herbicide to control knapweed and spurge in the 1990s, most of the monitoring sites were not treated with herbicides during the study period. So, herbicide treatment cannot be blamed for the overall decrease in forbs.)

Two of Hank's monitoring sites were in the 60-acre leafy spurge patch along the east side of Woodworth Road, near the big cottonwood tree just north of Highway 200. FWP and Ted Murphy have cooperated to spray most of this patch every June since 1994. Although spurge is still present, Hank's monitoring project shows a steep decline in abundance. Good news!

When Hank was first establishing monitoring sites across the state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he wasn't sure if he was wasting his time or not. Because for monitoring to do any good, someone has to go back years later and see if anything has changed.

Now we can all see that Hank's investment was an important one that has paid off already, and will do so again when we rephotograph these sites in another few years.

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