Powder River Examiner -

Sonnette Fuels Project Discussed


March 12, 2020

By Shanna Talcott

Approximately 36 people consisting of contractors, landowners (20), and agency personnel met on February 24th to discuss fuels reduction projects in western Powder River County. Corey Swenson, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), introduced speakers and contractors.

Shanna Talcott, Broadus NRCS District Conservationist, gave the opening presentation explaining how NRCS goes about identifying priority resource concerns and how funds from USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) will now be allocated in Montana. In this instance, the NRCS and Powder River Conservation District, through listening meetings conducted around Powder River County for landowners and partners in early 2019, identified high wildfire hazard on private lands in the Sonnette Community as a legitimate and treatable concern with a readily identifiable target area.

Talcott described the physical extent of the “Sonnette Fuels Targeted Implementation Plan” area, which is roughly 205,000 acres consisting mostly of Custer NF lands surrounded by and dissected by narrow corridors of privately-owned properties. Broadus NRCS has requested EQIP funds to assist private landowners in this target area with implementing practices such as fuel breaks, tree thinning and forest slash treatment over the next 3 years.

Libby Olson with Broadus NRCS gave key points of the EQIP program. Interested landowners were encouraged to apply for financial assistance to implement these practices, and EQIP applications were made available at the meeting. Completion of an EQIP application in no way obliges a landowner to participate in the program, but landowners would need to apply by March 13, 2020 to be considered for 2020 funding. EQIP applications can be requested via phone 436-2321 x3 or at the Broadus NRCS office. Applications received after the cutoff date will be considered in 2021.

Ron Hecker, District Ranger for the Ashland Ranger District, Custer NF, spoke of Forest Service plans to address forest health and wildfire hazard concerns in the immediate future: the “South Otter Creek” project (veg management is the main order of business) and the “Ash Creek” Project (prescribed burns to reduce dead and down fuels, tree plantings and wildlife enhancement work). Hecker discussed the possibility of Forest Service personnel applying their prescription burns (when requested) to deeded lands in the name of “ease of implementation.” In other words, when they apply something like a prescribed burn, if deeded land is positioned such that it would be hard to keep prescribed fire off, and when landowner desires, their property can be treated in the same action.

Scott Studiner, Ashland Ranger District fuels management officer, was also in attendance and shared about USFS burn philosophies. Scott has 30 years of experience locally. He has a power point presentation he offered to share if desired in a future gathering of this working group.

Andy Miller, staff Forester with MT Department of State Lands, from Miles City shared about the technical assistance he can provide private landowners: assisting with forest management plans that provide stocking prescriptions and coordinating with forest contractors to accomplish commercial harvests or fuel management projects. Some locally implemented fuel reduction projects, coordinated by Mr. Miller, were completed using Forests in Focus grant money to offset costs following the 2012 Ash Creek Fire. Examples of timber harvest contracts were available as well as a forest contractor contact list.

Ryan DeVore, Region 7 Biologist with MT FWP stationed in Broadus, gave a presentation about various on-going and future projects concerning the Sonnette Community. He pointed out that a catastrophic event such as the Ash Creek Fire (2012) is a disaster in the short term, but in the long-term it can re-set the vegetation succession and benefit a species such as Rocky Mountain elk, deer, bear, turkey and sharptailed grouse. MT FWP is continually adjusting the number of elk tags/permits available in Region 7 and is concerned with, among other things, whether number of tags available could influence elk preference for using private versus public lands during archery and rifle hunting seasons.

MT FWP administers a Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program (WHIP) that can assist private landowners with improving habitat for game birds and big game and promote noxious weed control. Interested groups or individuals may send inquiries about WHIP to 406-853-8886.

DeVore concluded by sharing results from the department’s 2019 study of incidence of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in harvested deer and elk in this portion of the state. Positive tests for deer were few locally, but the disease was confirmed in 3 instances within a 50-mile radius of Sonnette. Symptoms of CWD, which are only evident after a several months-long incubation period, were discussed.

Contractors Russ Compton and John Blain, Abel Meza, and Saul Ordonez were present available to answer questions about their equipment and services provided.

Broadus NRCS would like to thank the attendees for their interest, the presenters for sharing their knowledge and resources, and Powder River Conservation District for sponsoring the meeting and providing the meal.


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