Wildlife Conservation - An Unexpected Side of MCC

  • August 26, 2016
  • Posted by Mark Dube

When I joined MCC I definitely came in with a certain idea of the type of work we would be doing. Chainsawing was obviously expected; clearing trails, fuels reduction, invasive species removal. Then there is of course trail work: building structures, waterbars, digging tread. And I had obviously heard about Warm Hearts, Warm Homes; going into low income areas and helping to winterize their homes. But so far this season we have gotten the chance to do something I wasn’t expecting: wildlife conservation.

Our first hitch of wildlife conservation had us dusting prairie dog holes. When I first heard this I could not for the life of me figure out what it meant. Let me tell you, it’s not what you would initially think. We were working in the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in NE Montana with the Fort Belknap Fish & Wildlife and World Wildlife Fund. This area is/was home to the black-footed ferret, which at a time became completely extinct in the wild. This was due to the prairie dog population, their main food source, dying off due to the sylvatic plague carried by fleas (similar to the bubonic plague the ravaged Europe in the 1300s). The ferret population was brought back from a captive group and has since been reintroduced, but rebuilding a healthy prairie dog population was key to sustaining the ferret population. And that’s where we came in. We would load up with battery powered sprayers filled with a pesticide and walk up and down the prairie dog fields spraying pesticide into every hole we came across. The hope is that by going in and out of the holes they will get pesticide on them and kill off the fleas carrying the plague. In the few years of spraying they have seen dramatic increase in prairie dog populations and therefore increase in the ferret population. It was definitely a hard project at times, very hot, and a lot of fireworks being shot off in the early evening, but overall we had a great time. We want to thank Michael at the Fish & Wildlife for always checking in with us, getting us a great place to camp, and hooking us up with showers at the local community center. On a side note, if you ever drive through Fort Belknap in the morning look for a gentleman in large grey truck parked outside the casino. He sells some of the best breakfast burritos I’ve had.

The other hitch we had dealing with wildlife conservation was just outside of Big Sandy, also in NE Montana working with the BLM office out of Havre. There we were helping to increase the sage grouse population in sage habitat. What has happened is juniper trees have started to invade into sage habitat which provides nesting for ravens and crows that raid grouse nests, and also provides foxes and coyotes hiding places to hunt the grouse. So we were tasked with walking up and down these sage hills cutting out all juniper above mid-calf. There was no shade, aside from the few junipers tall enough to provide it before we cut them down. Hot long days the culminated in us getting hit by a storm with winds up to 50mph, which broke a few of our tent poles in the process. Even through these not so pleasant experiences, the crew stayed positive, especially knowing we cleared 381 acres of juniper over the course of the hitch. I want to give a big thank you to Craig out of the BLM office in Havre for bringing us water and supporting us during the hitch.

Both these two hitches helped show me that in the conservation corps world you never know what kind of work you are going to do. It is always good to keep an open mind and be ready for whatever hitches they line up. I definitely take pride in knowing that these season I not only maintained trails for human use, but also helped some of my fellow animals live a little better in this world.


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