Creating a healthier landscape that attracts more animals

Story & Photos By TODD TANNER
We live surrounded by beauty. Every bend in the road here in Northwest Montana has the potential to reveal amazing vistas – some bucolic and pastoral, others so awe-inspiring that they literally take our breath away. North or south, east or west, the Flathead is incredibly generous, sharing its grandeur on trips to town, and from picture windows, and on backroads bicycle rides. It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular valley, or a better place to call home.

But while the scenery remains relatively consistent, with the occasional new home or building the only real variable, the shifting patterns of wildlife are far more fickle. Sometimes the local fauna seem to be everywhere we look, while other times we’re lucky to catch the occasional fleeting glimpse of a deer or fox or pheasant. My wife and I truly enjoy watching the valley’s wildlife, but for three or four years now it seems like things have been trending in the wrong direction. Whatever the reasons, we’ve been seeing far fewer animals on our 25 acres near Bigfork.

So this past spring, after a couple of years spent waiting and hoping, we decided it was time to try something new. I researched habitat improvement on the web and then called Lee Buller of Heritage Custom Farming in Creston. It’s no longer legal to put out corn or grain here in Montana – supplemental feeding can spread disease, which is one of the reasons the state outlawed the practice – but there’s nothing unlawful or unethical about improving private lands for the benefit of wildlife. Lee, as it turns out, has decades of experience farming here in the Flathead, and he agreed to drive over and take a look at our land.

We’re fortunate to have good water and cover on our property, but the rough grass in our meadows doesn’t seem to hold much nutritional value or attract much in the way of wildlife. Lee asked what kind of animals we saw on a regular basis, and I laid it out in black and white. Every once in a while we’ll have a few deer swing through in April and early May, when the grass shoots are still small and tender, but as soon as the nearby agricultural fields start to kick in, the local deer and turkeys head for the farms down the road. That makes for lots of wildlife on the highway as we drive into town, but it also means that we don’t see much game close to the house.

Lee’s solution was both simple and elegant. He told us that he was happy to come in, plow an acre or two of our meadow, and then plant the kind of crops – clover and alfalfa, with a little wheat and chicory thrown in for seasoning – that would help pull in the local birds and wildlife and keep them stopping by on a regular basis.

On May 14, Lee rolled up with a big John Deere tractor and got right to work. Over the course of a day or so, he rototilled a couple of acres, cultivated it, fertilized it and seeded it. Then it was time to wait, pray for rain, and see how things turned out.

Long story short, the experiment went exactly the way we had hoped. The wheat sprouted, then the clover kicked in, and before long the whitetails were wandering around just like they used to, while a good-sized flock of turkeys was making a regular appearance. In addition, we started seeing everything from songbirds to raptors to the occasional red fox. The landscape was healthier, too, with fewer weeds and far more forage for the local wildlife.

So was it worth the effort and expense? Absolutely. Whereas we used to live in an animal-free zone, we now wake to the possibility of a doe and fawn wandering by the house, or a majestic buck strolling out of the forest, or a tom turkey gobbling at first light and then strutting his stuff in our meadow. If we made a mistake, it was in not calling Lee back when the deer and turkeys first started to grow scarce. While we’re still not Montana’s version of Wild Kingdom, my son and I actually watched a gorgeous red fox try to take a full-grown turkey right out our front window last summer. It’s nice to know that our landscape is far healthier than it was a year ago, and that our attempts at stewardship are benefitting the local wildlife.

Author’s Note: You can find Lee Buller on the web at HeritageCustomFarming.com