A dozen Darby High School students partnered with the Mule Deer Foundation, CB Ranch, and the U.S. Forest Service to plant bitterbrush plants as part of a mule deer habitat restoration project.
Bitterbrush is a three to six foot tall deciduous shrub and a member of the rose family, according to the Montana Plant Field Guide. Typically found on dry slopes between 3,000 and 10,000 feet, the bitterbrush is an important browse plant favored by deer, pronghorn, elk, moose, bighorn sheep and livestock.
Bitterbrush can make up more than 90 percent of a mule deer’s diet in the early fall months.
The Mule Deer Foundation sponsors a number of similar conservation projects. Tracey Manning, is the youth event coordinator for Montana and co-chair for the Dark Horn Chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation. Manning said bitterbrush is crucial to mule deer in the area.
“Grass gets buried by the snow, but bitterbrush is tall enough that deer don’t need to dig for it. CB ranch only had about 15 mule deer last year, but the potential to get mule deer back is very good,” Manning said.
Bitterbrush has seen a small decline in the last 30 years. Some studies have shown that cheatgrass outcompetes bitterbrush after fire events.
In order for bitterbrush seeds to take, plantings need to be scheduled in the spring or fall when there is a lot of moisture in the ground. The seedlings are then surrounded with a small ring of fencing to prevent the plants from being eaten before they reach a mature stage.
Manning said the outing was successful. He hopes the project continues over the next two or three years.
“The kids planted 500 plants in less than two hours. Next year we should go for 2,000,” Manning said.
Nate Olson teaches the environmental science students who helped out with the bitterbrush project. Olson said some of the students needed to be there for a community-based project required to graduate, but there were others who volunteered just out of interest.
“A lot of our kids are interested in hunting and hiking and wildlife. It was kinda a project that put all that together,” Olson said.
Olson applied for the grant with the Mule Deer Foundation because his students have been studying animal habitats and ways to restore populations. The grant covered the purchase of bitterbrush plants and other supplies needed for the project and the CB Ranch provided fencing.
“It brought some of the things we were talking about in class into a practical setting,” Olson said. “If we can improve the habitat, we should be able to improve the abundance of the mule deer population.”
Mule deer populations dropped precipitously between 2006 and 2010.
According to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks estimates, mule deer populations hit a low of around 247,000 statewide, but have bounced back. The 2016 estimate was 363,000.
Steve Belinda is the executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership and has worked a habitat biologist for more than 25 years.
Belinda said he thinks the mule deer population probably dropped because of some large fires in the eastern part of the state during that timeframe, which burned a lot of good habitat.
Bitterbrush, mountain mahogany and sagebrush are crucial species for mule deer browsing that are eliminated by frequent fires, Belinda said. The fire-return interval on cheatgrass is much faster than those native plants and it can create a monotype ecosystem.
Cheatgrass, a non-native, invasive grass, is a competitor to bitterbrush and may be responsible for some of the decline in bitterbrush population, according to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
Maintaining the health of mountain shrub communities on public lands in the West has never been the primary focus of any federal agency, Belinda said.
“The Forest Service was set up to manage the harvest and sale of timber, on BLM land the focus was resource extraction and cattle grazing,” Belinda said. “It doesn’t produce anything, it feeds deer and houses sage grouse, but it doesn’t have an economic driver behind it,”
The multi-pronged approach needed to eliminate cheatgrass and support native shrub species would take cooperation among a variety of different land organizations and private landowners. But according to Belinda there's hope. There are different herbicides some organizations are trying out and others have considered putting in strategic fire breaks within large sections of rangelands.
“Realistically can we ever get back to the original habitat that existed before human intervention? I don’t know, probably not, but we can get back to a habitat that benefits mule deer and other game, that’s possible,” Belinda said.