In Cahoots for Conservation

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Removing trees in strategic areas favors grass that is better for livestock and for upland wildlife.

Winnett ACES is a grassroots, rancher-led, nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation, agricultural and community vitality in the Musselshell Plains of Central Montana

By Joshua Hobbs, Pheasants Forever Coordinating Wildlife Biologist with Winnett ACES

Since Pheasants Forever’s inception 40 years ago, the organization has made unbreakable bonds with conservation and agricultural-minded communities. In my opinion, none are as unique as the partnerships formed with local rancher-led groups like Winnett Agricultural Community Enhancement and Sustainability (ACES), based in Petroleum County, Montana.

Winnett ACES is a grassroots, rancher-led, nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation, agricultural and community vitality in the Musselshell Plains of Central Montana. Winnett ACES was granted 501c3 status in 2019 and has made impressive impacts in conservation in a short amount of time.

Sage grouse
Above, a sage grouse booms. Photo by Jeremy Roberts

Conservation

Pheasants Forever, Northern Great Plains Joint Venture, (NGPJV), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Partners for Fish and Wildlife, Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and others have partnered with ACES to tackle the challenge of conserving Montana’s extensive and intact grasslands as well as the wildlife and ranchers who call it home.

My position as the wildlife biologist here in Winnett helps bring on-the-ground conservation, wildlife, technical expertise, grant dollars and ranchers closer to the goal of ecological resilience for our grassland-based communities. The partner support for the position has helped create an impressive impact in the community and on the landscape. Water pipelines, water tanks, pronghorn migration fence modifications, sage grouse fence modifications and native grass seedings all make the bulk of our conservation efforts thus far:

  • 32 miles of fence marked for sage grouse
  • 66 miles of new and modified fence for antelope migration
  • 2,275 acres of tilled ground planted back to native grass and forbs
  • 19 water tanks
  • 16 miles of water pipeline for wildlife and livestock

These improvements account for:

  • 24,375 acres directly impacted for conservation
  • $173,980.82 direct cost to ACES and partners
  • $368,563.48 direct cost to participating producers

The participating producers covered 69 percent of the total cost of the conservation improvements, showing the prodigious commitment ranchers have to conservation and wildlife.

Beaver Dam
Staff Photo

Agricultural and Community Vitality

Conservation and community enhancement go hand in hand, and often benefit each other.

Winnett ACES is making strides to revitalize the community aspects of the town of Winnett while retaining its rich history. Currently, there are limited businesses and opportunities for community members to interact with each other. Without robust businesses, shops and stores in a town, there isn’t a strong draw for kids to stay in or come back to the area and take over agricultural operations.

Limited opportunities for the next generation and no succession for family ranches often means big losses for wildlife, conservation and communities. Through grants, generous donors and the hard work of the Winnett ACES team, we have set out to revitalize Winnett by first restoring the historic Odd Fellows building with apartments and adding a local bistro, coffee shop, ice cream parlor and breakfast nook.

Dam
A beaver dam analog at work, catching the flow and adding much-needed water to the landscape.

A new community building is also currently being built in Winnett. If you build it, they will come! A strong Winnett community allows for improved agricultural operations and improved wildlife conservation. Grants, individual donations and fundraising tallied $130,595 for the initiative.

Farmers, ranchers and private landowners have always been among ACES, NGPJV and PF’s most valued partners. These land stewards work with us by protecting grasslands and other wildlife habitats on their property by enrolling land in programs such as the ACES Rangeland Improvement Cost Share, EQIP, N-GRIP, RSVP and now the BIG HIP RCPP (Regional Conservation Partnership Program).

These partnerships support what is known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which is made up of landowners, sportsmen and other conservation partners. This model is the idea that wildlife is public property and as such is a shared resource that must be conserved for the greater good.

Landscape
Photo by Aaron Blackschmidt

Partnerships

Partnerships are the glue that holds this collective conservation, agricultural, community ideology and team together.

Working together, ACES and partners have built an extensive habitat network that not only helps sustain ungulates but also grassland birds such as the Sprague’s pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, thick-billed longspur and Baird’s sparrow. In addition, sportsmen and other outdoor enthusiasts have volunteered to help with conservation projects and have benefited immensely from this habitat, some of which is open for public hunting in the form of Block Management or BLM properties.

Habitat conservation and biologist positions such as mine would not be possible if it were not for the collaborative partnership efforts by ACES, Pheasants Forever, NGPV, Natural Resource Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy, Partners for Fish and Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund, Petroleum County Conservation District and above all, the dedicated farmers and ranchers of Montana.


By Joshua Hobbs, Pheasants Forever Coordinating Wildlife Biologist with Winnett ACES

This story originally appeared in the 2022 Fall Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a member today!