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Great Grey Owl

Conservation > Wildlife Management Nongame Wildlife

What is "Nongame" Wildlife?

In 1973, the Montana legislature passed a law clarifying FWP's responsibility to manage all wildlife, including nongame species. Montana statute defines nongame wildlife as "any wild mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile, fish, mollusk, crustacean, or other animal not otherwise legally classified by statute or regulation of this state" (MCA 87-5-102 (6)).

Basically, nongame animals are classified by what they're not - meaning any animal not classified as big game, upland game birds, migratory game birds, furbearer or predator.

Over 85% of Montana's birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are classified as nongame, totaling almost 500 species. Think of all the familiar wildlife in your backyard — finches, bluebirds, robins, and woodpeckers, as well as chipmunks, shrews, toads, salamanders, and turtles. We are surrounded by nongame wildlife everyday and everywhere we go in Montana. These species are incredibly important to the balance of nature as they serve as predators, prey, excavators, pollinators, and so much more. These species also enrich our lives serving as entertainment during our days outside and as educational tools for our children to learn about the natural world.

The public, not the sportsman, owns the game.

The public is (and the sportsman ought to be) just as much interested in conserving non-game species, forests, fish, and other wild life as in conserving game.

In the long run lop-sided programs dealing with game only, songbirds only, forests only, or fish only, will fail because they cost too much, use up too much energy in friction, and lack sufficient volume of support."

— Aldo Leopold, Report to the American Game Conference on an American Game Policy, 1930.

Annual Reports

The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Nongame Program strives to meet five fundamental objectives:

  1. Conserve, restore, and enhance habitat for nongame wildlife

  2. Maintain nongame species distribution and abundance

  3. Increase internal and external support and appreciation for nongame wildlife

  4. Increase the public's access to nongame wildlife

  5. Minimize the negative impacts of Endangered Species Act listings to landowners, recreationists, and user groups


Montana's State Wildlife Action Plan

In the early years of fish and wildlife management, the focus was on restoration of game animals and their habitats. This focus was, and continues to be, a result of hunters and anglers providing most of a state fish and wildlife agency's funding through purchasing hunting and fishing licenses. However, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is statutorily mandated to manage all wildlife, including species not typically fished for or hunted.

Without reducing the attention focused on important game species, FWP needs to find a way to manage for other species with the most critical needs. The problem is, however, funds to manage other species are very limited.

To help address the conservation needs of these other wildlife species, Congress created the State Wildlife Grant (SWG) funding program in 2000. SWG funds are intended "... for the development and implementation of programs for the benefit of wildlife and their habitat, including species that are not hunted or fished." Congress stipulated that each state and territory that wished to participate in the SWG funding program must develop a State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) by October 1, 2005. All 56 states and territories submitted SWAPs by the deadline and made commitments to review and perhaps revise their SWAP at least every 10 years.



Sagebrush and Grassland Bird Responses to a Rest Rotation Grazing Management Strategy

Livestock grazing is pervasive and managed by private landowners, federal agencies, and state agencies across the west, and wildlife conservation objectives are often primary considerations in grazing management programs. Most recently, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has embarked on the Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI), which provides for grazing management on private lands over a vast area with the intent of benefitting sage-grouse. Sagebrush-obligate migratory birds respond quickly to habitat changes by shifting their distributions and adapting their reproductive performance. Thus these birds can serve as an initial barometer of sagebrush ecosystem integrity and the impacts of grazing management designed to positively benefit avian communities. In 2012, we initiated a research project building off of the existing infrastructure established by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Park’s (MTFWP) sage grouse research, to evaluate the impact of SGI’s rest-rotational grazing regimes on migratory bird species associated with sagebrush landscapes. The results of this study will inform sustainable and economically viable land management practices that maintain habitat for migratory birds.

Concomitant with a decline in sagebrush systems is a decline in grassland-, shrub-, and sagebrush-associated birds. Approximately 76% of birds that are sagebrush, desert, or chaparral obligates are declining nationally (North American Bird Conservation Initiative 2009). Shrub-nesting species make up the largest number of Species of Continental Importance within the Intermountain West (Rich et al. 2004). The greater sage-grouse, a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act, has shown significant declines over the last 30-40 years (Graton et al. 2010). Several other birds found in Montana’s sagebrush and shrub-grass systems are of conservation concern because of declining population and high threats, including Brewer’s sparrow, sage thrasher, loggerhead shrike, and lark bunting (Casey 2000, Rich et al. 2004). Grasshopper sparrows are also of conservation concern and may be found in the grassland associated with shrub-steppe systems (Knick et al. 2003, Rich et al. 2004). Therefore, conservation actions directed at sagebrush ecosystems or sage-grouse habitats in particular may provide substantial conservation benefits for other birds (Rich et al. 2005).

Livestock grazing is the most widespread land use across the range of sagebrush ecosystems (Knick et al. 2010), so effects of livestock grazing on sagebrush ecosystems and the associated bird populations are likely to be widespread. Management of livestock grazing therefore theoretically could be manipulated to positively affect populations of sagebrush-associated birds. Depending on the timing and utilization rates of livestock, livestock grazing can directly increase sagebrush size, cover, and density, decrease forb cover and density, and decrease grass cover and density (Beck and Mitchell 2000, Crawford et al. 2004). Heavy livestock grazing can also decrease invertebrate biomass (Krausman et al. 2009), which is important because invertebrates area a food source for several bird species. Rest-rotation grazing strategies area a common tool used to improve habitat for wildlife in managed sagebrush ecosystems. For example, MTFWP currently funds approximately 600,000 acres of rest-rotation grazing systems in Montana. More recently, due to emphasis on conservation for the greater sage-grouse the NRCS has developed the SGI. In Montana, delivery of this initiative includes implementation of rest-rotation management to control the location and timing of grazing on areas with relatively high sage-grouse densities, called “core” areas. To date, 120,000 acres have been enrolled, and this program is likely to grow substantially.

Despite the ubiquitous distribution of livestock grazing in sagebrush ecosystems and the widespread and growing use of rest-rotation grazing management to benefit wildlife in these areas, little data exist to demonstrate an empirical link between livestock grazing, sage-grouse habitat, and sage-grouse populations (Krausman et al. 2009). For example, an empirical link between livestock grazing, sage-grouse habitat, and sage-grouse populations has not been established (Connelly and Braun 1997, Beck and Mitchell 2000, Connelly et al. 2004, Knick et al. 2010). Limited data suggest that rest-rotation grazing may not have large short-term effects on the density of songbirds (Lapointe et al. 2003). A clear need exists to evaluate the relationship between rest-rotation livestock grazing management and sagebrush-, shrub-, and grassland-associated bird populations.

Project Reports


Diversity Monitoring

Completing statewide baseline assessments of the status and distribution of terrestrial reptiles and bats (Tier 1 Inventory priorities) provides the foundation for determining the appropriate steps to be taken to conserve these species groups. Establishing statewide sampling schemes for monitoring the status and distribution of bats and reptiles, compatible with efforts undertaken by the USFS and BLM for these same species groups, is essential in providing a cost effective and disciplined approach across all landownership jurisdictions.

This project was undertaken to provide a sampling scheme and framework of methodologies that can be combined with those previously developed for small mammals, birds, and amphibians for simultaneous long-term monitoring of a diversity of wildlife on public and private lands. This work was accomplished utilizing existing Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) and Montana Natural Heritage Program (MNHP) staff, seasonal technicians, and other cooperators. The project included up to 6 inventory crews who were active during the May-August field survey period. Bat-call recordings were analyzed by MNHP staff for verification purposes, and strict protocols for amphibian and reptile inventory procedures were followed at all times. All species information was placed in the statewide Point Observation Database. Vegetation characteristics were documented at each sampling site to gain information on habitat relationships of detected species. Digital maps of species distributions and key habitat areas were produced and maintained on file, along with habitat images in digital format.

Project Reports


Project Personnel
Lauri Hanauska-Brown

Nongame / Threatened and Endangered Species Section Manager

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks


Dan Bachen

Senior Ecologist

Montana Natural Heritage Program


Adam Petersen

Fish and Wildlife Information Specialist

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks


Project Funders

Financial support for this project has been provided by State Wildlife Action grant federal dollars, matching state FWP dollars and state MNHP dollars.


Management and Conservation of Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs

Numerous animal and plant species are dependent on, or closely associated with, the burrowing and foraging activities of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). In Montana, these species include the federally endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) and numerous state Species of Concern such as the ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis), mountain plover (Charadrius montanus), and burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) (MPDWG 2002, MTNHP and MFWP 2010). To manage and protect black-tailed prairie dogs and associated species, the Conservation Plan for black-tailed and White-tailed prairie dogs in Montana calls for statewide prairie dog abundance and distribution standards, including complexes defined by a 7km distance to nearest neighbor rule that are greater than 5,000 acres (Category 1), between 1,000 and 5,000 acres (Category 2), and less than 1,000 acres (Category 3) (MPDWG 2002). The conservation plan also calls for inventorying and monitoring prairie dog distribution and status and identifying isolated colonies in need of special consideration for conservation or possible use in restoration of colonies depopulated by plague.

A 2008 statewide aerial survey by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks of black-tailed prairie dog habitat resulted in an estimate of 78,000 hectares of active prairie dog colonies. Subsequent efforts by the Montana Natural Heritage Program digitized 2005 and 2009 NAIP images to further refine the knowledge of occupied habitat across the state. The findings of these efforts led the Montana Prairie Dog Working Group to prioritize additional work for 2011 and 2012. The prioritized tasks included: 1) Prairie dog colony identification (aerial confirmation of activity) and 2) Colony ground truthing (only in areas identified as occupied through aerial work) and colony density documentation (occupied vs unoccupied).

During the summer of 2012 a contractor was hired to ground truth the select complexes in attempts to identify the highest conservation priorities. Specific tasks included:

  1. Ground truth spatial data collected through NAIP imagery evaluation and aerial survey data to confirm presence of a Category 1 prairie dog complex in southern Montana as defined in the Conservation Plan for black-tailed and White-tailed prairie dogs in Montana (Montana Prairie Dog Working Group 2002).

  2. Map spatial boundaries of as many individual prairie dog towns within the overall complex that can be accessed as possible.

  3. Create GIS coverage of complexes for use by agency and non-government organization staff to prioritize conservation efforts for prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets.

  4. Collect information on prairie dog presence and any evidence of plague events.

An Oral Vaccine against Sylvatic Plague in Prairie Dogs

In recent years, the USGS began research on the development, testing, and registration of a plague vaccine for prairie dogs that can be delivered via oral baits. The current method to manage plague, which is dusting with insecticide in prairie dog colonies is not satisfactory. It is time consuming, expensive, and is limited to the treated area. An oral vaccine against plague that could be broadcast via plane or vehicle in the form of baits would provide wildlife managers a critical management tool. The benefits of an oral vaccination program would include: more efficient and economical management of prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and other species of concern; the ability to balance prairie dog management with other land use needs; reduced use of pesticides on public lands; and a potential method to reduce the risk of plague transmission to humans in national forests, parks and other areas. By creating and distributing a vaccine in the field, managers can stabilize prairie dog populations reducing the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation. Field testing of an oral plague vaccine began in Montana and other western states in 2013.


Project Reports

Project Personnel
Justin Gude

Research and Technical Service Section Supervisor

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks


Lauri Hanauska-Brown

Nongame / Threatened and Endangered Species Section Manager

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks


Bryce Maxell

Senior Ecologist

Montana Natural Heritage Program


Ryan Rauscher

Wildlife Biologist

Montana Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks


Project Funders

Financial support for this project has come from State Wildlife Action grant federal dollars, matching state FWP and Montana Natural Heritage Program dollars.



Sprague’s Pipit Monitoring and Predictive Modeling

The Montana Natural Heritage Program estimates approximately 18% of the continental population of Sprague's pipits breeds in Montana. They are a Species of Concern in Montana and are listed as a Priority 1 species, or species in need of conservation action, in the Partner’s in Flight Bird Conservation Plan, Montana.

The majority of moderate to high suitability habitat for Sprague's pipits in Montana is in north Valley County. Neighboring Phillips and Blaine counties also have some relatively large areas of moderate suitability habitat. Breeding Bird Survey data for Montana is of moderate credibility and indicates potential but not significant declines in Sprague's pipit abundance statewide. Breeding Bird Survey trend maps, however, indicate increases in Sprague's pipits throughout the north-central grasslands of eastern Montana. Sprague's pipits were detected on 49.8–71.4% of points surveyed on Bureau of Land Management lands in north Valley County from 2001–2007. They were the fourth most abundant grassland bird Species of Concern in this study area. In north Blaine and Phillips counties in 2007, Sprague's pipits were detected on 46.9% of point surveyed. In comparison, Sprague's pipits were detected on 1% of points on bird surveys in Petroleum and Fergus Counties in 1998 and 1999. In 2009, 31 Sprague's pipits were detected at 226 sampling locations throughout Bird Conservation Region 17, which includes southeastern Montana (Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, unpublished data). Clearly the native grasslands of Valley, Phillips, and Blaine counties provide important habitat for Sprague's pipits in Montana.

Threats to Sprague's pipit populations and habitat include continued loss of native prairie and loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands. From 2005-2009, 46,871 acres of grassland were converted to agriculture in Montana (Ducks Unlimited, pers. comm. ). State lands managed for school trusts support some of the highest Sprague's pipit densities in north Valley County (BLM, pers. comm. ) These lands are not in permanent protection and may be sold or converted to other uses to generate revenue for state schools. Additionally, contracts have expired on approximately 465,000 acres of lands enrolled in CRP in the prairie pothole region of Montana between 2007 and 2009. Another 3.4 million acres under CRP contracts are expected to expire in the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and Montana by 2012 (Ducks Unlimited news release, Nov 10, 2009).

Grazing patterns and energy development also have the potential for negatively impacting Sprague's pipits habitat, however impacts may vary depending on local vegetation structure and composition, management techniques, and other site-based factors. Heavy cattle grazing that reduces vegetation height or density may negatively impact Sprague's pipits, although moderate grazing may provide suitable habitat. Recent research at the Judith Gap Wind Farm in Montana found no evidence of Sprague's pipit displacement or fatalities in response to wind farm construction and operation.

Traditional Section 6 ESA Program funding was received to help verify and improve predictive occurrence models in Montana and provide needed location and abundance data. This work will highlight areas of conservation importance for this species, and will also provide the information necessary to articulate measureable benefits from conservation action for Sprague's pipits. Ultimately, we anticipate targeted conservation action will reduce threats on Sprague's pipit populations and keep the species from being fully listed under the Endangered Species Act. Landowners would be able to continue their tradition of stewardship without regulations that could potentially impact economic operations.

Approach: FWP's specific goals for the Sprague's pipit project is to conduct field surveys to verify and refine existing predictive models of Sprague's pipit occurrence and collect location and abundance data in Montana. This corresponds with Conservation Action 1.B.3 and 1.B.4 as identified in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Sprague's pipit Conservation Plan. We plan to use model output to identify priority areas to target conservation activities (Conservation Action 1.A.2) and will feature priority areas in recommendations to federal and state habitat initiatives and in discussions with local landowners (Conservation Action 5.4).

FWP plans to use existing information to develop maps predicting Sprague's pipit optimal and suitable habitat, and will conduct structured surveys for Sprague's pipit within these two strata using standardized point counts. Sampling will be conducted in cooperation with existing survey efforts conducted by the Bureau of Land Management, Montana Natural Heritage Program, The Nature Conservancy and Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory to maximize efficiency and model inference.

Partners in the Montana Bird Conservation Partnership will collect and analyze data. We will use distance sampling and occupancy modeling in analysis. Priority areas for Sprague's pipit conservation will be identified during the modeling process. FWP plans to include these priority areas in FWP’s Comprehensive Fish and Wildlife Conservation Strategy revision and Crucial Areas Planning System, and make them available for inclusion in BLM Resource Management Plans and NRCS habitat initiatives. Priority areas can also be targeted for conservation by nongovernment organizations working within Sprague's pipit distribution such as The Nature Conservancy.


Project Report
Project Personnel
Lauri Hanauska-Brown

Nongame / Threatened and Endangered Species Section Manager

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks


Bryce Maxell

Senior Ecologist

Montana Natural Heritage Program


Catherine Wightman

Sagebrush, Wetlands, Grassland and Farm Bill Coordinator

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks


Project Funders

Project Funders Traditional Section 6 ESA Program funding provided the seed money for this work. Matching state FWP dollars and state Montana Natural Heritage Program dollars were also used.


Other Research