skip to Main Content

NRCS’s Targeted Implementation Plan, ‘Horseshoe Hills Landscape Restoration Initiative,’ is accepting applications.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in the United States plays a crucial role in assisting landowners and land managers in addressing various environmental and conservation challenges, including conifer encroachment on rangelands. Conifer encroachment refers to the gradual expansion of coniferous tree species into historically open rangeland areas.

Rangelands are vital ecosystems covering vast expanses of our planet, supporting a myriad of wildlife while also serving as essential resources for agriculture and livestock grazing. An explosive increase in pinyon-juniper tree acreage has been observed across the western United States in the last century. Historic rangelands and sagebrush steppe have been encroached at an alarming rate, jeopardizing the integrity and functionality of the entire ecosystem, and presenting threats to the health and safety of the current residents. While conifer encroachment is a natural part of ecological succession, the current issue stems from the absence of critical disturbance events on the landscape. Secondary succession disturbances, including severe weather, insect infestations, disease outbreaks, avalanches, fires, and human-induced disturbances, have been significantly curtailed. Fire has played a pivotal role in the ecological history and function of maintaining a healthy and productive landscape.

Human & Ecological History

While historical records offer limited insight into the impact of early humans on the landscape, it is evident that they relied on the land’s resources. In some instances, controlled burns were employed to drive game, clear underbrush, and provide pastures for native wildlife. Naturally occurring fires have also been integral to shaping the region’s ecological composition over time. As these areas were settled over the last two centuries and railroads were constructed, the likelihood and occurrence of human-caused fires increased significantly.

“The Big Blowup”

In 1910, a catastrophic event known as “The Big Blowup” unfolded, engulfing approximately 3 million acres in flames within a matter of days, fueled by hurricane-force winds in northern Idaho and western Montana. Tragically, this event claimed the lives of 78 firefighters. In its aftermath, fires were no longer viewed as positive ecological processes but rather as grave threats to public and private resources. Consequently, fire suppression efforts across the U.S. intensified, inadvertently allowing excessive conifer encroachment into areas that historically experienced regular, natural intervals of fire events that set back succession. The Horseshoe Hills region exemplifies this phenomenon, witnessing large-scale conifer expansion into historic open rangelands.

Current Landscape Conditions

Most of the high-elevation meadows have filled in and become densely populated conifer woodlands in historic rangeland. Rocky Mountain Juniper and Douglas Fir have thrived in the Horseshoe Hills due to fire suppression and favorable growing conditions. The overabundance of young densely growing conifers has greatly increased the fuel accumulation on the landscape, elevating the risk to humans and property in the event of a wildfire. The overstocked nature of these encroaching woodlands can lead to fires that burn far hotter and longer than historically observed. This has the potential to damage the soil and seed sources present on the site, particularly those of fire-sensitive species such as Mountain Big Sagebrush. Consequently, areas can take decades to return to a healthy state and due to a changing climate, some areas may never recover. In the past 23 years within the Horseshoe Hills, the fires that have occurred were caused by humans. With an increasing population, there will be a greater risk of ignition.

Other impacts of conifer encroachment onto rangelands can have detrimental impacts on the ecosystem and society.

  • Loss of Biodiversity: Conifers often form dense stands that limit sunlight and reduce groundcover vegetation diversity, affecting native plant and animal species that depend on open rangeland habitats.
  • Reduced Water Availability: Conifers consume more water than grasses, which can lead to decreased water availability for both wildlife and human consumption. This water loss can also impact downstream users and aquatic ecosystems.
  • Loss of Forage: When conifers start to encroach on the rangeland, they inevitably outcompete the grass and forbs species causing extensive losses in the amount of forage available to wildlife and livestock.
  • Economic Impact: The invasion of conifers can reduce the productivity of rangelands, affecting ranchers and the livestock industry.
  • Altered Fire Regimes: Dense conifer stands are more prone to catastrophic wildfires, which can threaten both ecosystems and human infrastructure.

Mitigation & Management

Addressing conifer encroachment on rangeland requires a multi-faceted approach. The overarching goal of the ‘Horseshoe Hills Landscape Restoration Initiative’ is to restore the ecosystem function of the historic rangelands within the Horseshoe Hills region.

The primary NRCS conservation practices that will be used include:

Brush Management (314), Woody Residue Treatment (384), Forest Stand Improvement (666), Herbaceous Weed Treatment (315), Restoration of Rare or Declining Natural Communities (643), Prescribed Burning (338), Firebreak (394), Range Planting (550), and Prescribed Grazing (528).

Conifer encroachment on rangelands is a complex issue that demands an approach that considers historical ecological processes, human influences, and future climate dynamics. By developing and implementing targeted plans like these, NRCS can play a vital role in addressing conifer encroachment on rangelands, preserving the health and functionality of these ecosystems, and supporting the well-being of both ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Talk to us!

NRCS staff can provide information, and guidance, and often schedule appointments or site visits if necessary. If you are interested in speaking to NRCS staff about this opportunity, stop by during operating hours at the USDA Service Center located at 3710 Fallon St., Bozeman, MT 59718, or call the office at (406) 522-4000. Remember that NRCS staff members are there to assist you in implementing conservation practices and achieving your land management goals. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them for guidance and support.

Applications for this financial assistance program are accepted on a continual basis. However, it is important to note that NRCS establishes application ranking dates for the evaluation, ranking, and approval of eligible applications. Any applications received after the ranking date will automatically be deferred to the next funding period.

NRCS is the lead agency for the project, but there are many partners who share similar goals and will provide additional technical or financial support, these include the Gallatin Watershed Council, the Gallatin Conservation District, Gallatin Watershed Council, Gallatin County Weed District, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Gallatin County Local Water Quality District, Department of Natural Resource Conservation, Bureau of Land Management, Trout Unlimited, Montana Outdoor Science School, along with the community of Clarkston and The Gallatin River Ranch.


For more information: check out this link to the NRCS website!

Back To Top