Prairie county, montana

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Notes: *Cropland acres equal irrigated plus non-irrigated land.

*Rangeland and cropland acres include land owned privately as well as Bureau of Land Management, State of Montana and Great Northern Properties.

*Cropland and rangeland acres owned by the BLM, State of Montana and Railroad is unknown.

Source: Farm Service Agency
Figure E.1 Cropland Figure E.2 Agricultural Land Use


According to the Farm Service Agency in Terry, approximately 14-15% of land in Prairie County is utilized as cropland. Table 5.3 displays information about Prairie County’s irrigated and non-irrigated cropland.

Table E.3 Prairie County: Irrigated versus Non-irrigated Cropland, 2002




Total acres













Durum Wheat




Home Garden








Garbonzo Beans




Grass Hay




Grazing Grass *








Mixed Forage **












Pinto Beans








Spring Wheat








Sweet Corn








Winter Wheat





24,210 Irrigated

1,033,382 Dryland


*Includes all rangeland/pasture.

**Mixed forage includes alfalfa and grass mixes; or 2 or more grasses seeded together.

Source: Farm Service Agency

Prairie County’s 2002 top crop commodities in the State of Montana are shown in Table E.4.

Table E.4 Prairie County Commodity Rank in State of Montana, 2002

Rank in State

Prairie County Commodity


Dry edible beans











Source: MT Dept of Revenue
According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, the top crop commodities in Montana included wheat, hay, barley, oats, and sugarbeets.

Figure E.3 Top Commodities in Montana

Source: Census of Agriculture, 1997
Montana ranked third in the nation in wheat production, with Prairie County ranking 31st in the State of Montana.
Montana ranked fifth in the nation in sugarbeet production, with Prairie County ranking 9th in the State of Montana.
Table E.5 Montana Commodity Rank in Nation

Rank in Nation

Montana Commodity






Cattle and Calves

Source: Montana Department of Agriculture

Conservation Reserve Program
Approximately 4% of Prairie County is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), 25% of our cropland. CRP is a long-term cropland diversion program that was established in 1985 with the primary goal of reducing soil erosion.
Approximately 80% of the land in Prairie County is considered rangeland. Livestock is a valuable commodity for agriculture in Prairie County. Livestock and livestock products are major sources of income, followed by dryland and cropland production.
According to the USDA, Montana livestock producers of cattle and calves rank tenth in the nation in commodity production and Prairie County ranked 28th in the State of Montana for livestock production in 2003 and ranked 30th in 2002.
According to the Prairie County Assessor’s office, livestock numbers in Prairie County in 2002 are shown in Table 5.5.
Table E.6 Prairie County Livestock Numbers, 2002









Hogs & Pigs










*Numbers include feedlots animals.
It takes an average of 30 acres for grazing a cow/calf pair yearly in Prairie County. Since the County has approximately 1,000,000 acres of grazing lands, approximately 30,000 pairs can be supported. (Source: 1993 Prairie County Comprehensive Plan)
Land in Farms & Average Size
According to the Census of Agriculture, there were 162 farms in Prairie County in 2002. The amount of land (in acres) in farms and the average size of farmland increased from 1997 to 2002 by four percent.

Table E.7 Land in Farms and Average Size of Farm in Prairie County



Land in Farms (acres)



Average size of farm (acres)



*Other cropland includes idle cropland or that used for cover crops or soil improvements, but not harvested and not pastured or grazed; cropland on which all crops failed or were abandoned; and cropland in cultivated summer fallow.

Source: 2002 Census of Agriculture
The number of U.S. farms has declined dramatically since its peak in 1935, dropping by two-thirds between 1935 and 1974, from 6.8 million to 2.3 million. The number of farms and ranches in Prairie County has gradually declined since 1940; subsequently, the amount of average acreage per farm has increased. According to the Census of Agriculture, there were 257 farms in 1940 and the average size of a farm was 1,111 acres. In 1997, almost 90% of the 213 farms in Prairie County were 2,000 acres or more.
The majority of farms in Prairie County are owned individually as sole proprietorships. Approximately 20% are organized as family-held corporations and 10% are organized as partnerships.
Table E.8 Farm Characteristics: Prairie County and Montana, 2001

Prairie County


Number of farms



Average farm size (acres)



Average operator age (years)



Average time on present farm

24 years

24 years

% Of total land in farms and ranches



Approximately 50% of farmers and ranchers in Prairie County are full time operators, 40 % part time operators and 10% tenant operators.

Noxious Weeds
Noxious weeds are a concern when it comes to wildlife habitat preservation and grazing land quality. Management criteria include awareness and education, containment, and suppression of existing infestations and prevention of new infestations. Prairie County employs 2-3 persons for seasonal weed spraying and the weed control operation is supported by a tax levy and the BLM. The Prairie County Weed Board is responsible for the control of noxious weeds on public lands and on private land through a cost-share program with producers.
The Prairie County Weed Board has noxious weed infestations in Prairie County mapped into three Weed Management Areas, covering approximately 116,300 acres or approximately ten percent of the total land area in Prairie County. The purpose of the Prairie County Weed Board and Management Program is to protect agricultural and natural resources from the spread of noxious weeds by containing large infestations and preventing new infestations from becoming established. The Prairie County Weed Board assists landowners by providing information about noxious weeds and services available to control or eradicate noxious weeds on their property. A list of noxious weeds in Prairie County by category type is displayed in Table E.9.
Table E.9 Noxious Weeds in Prairie County

Category 1: (currently established and generally widespread)

Leafy Spurge

Spotted Knapweed

Russian Knapweed

Diffuse Knapweed


Dalmation Toadflax


Canada Thistle

Field Bindweed

Category 2: (recently introduced or rapidly spreading)

Salt Cedar

Category 3: (not detected or found in small infestations)

No known infestations of Category 3 weeds in Prairie County

Major noxious weed infestations in Prairie County include leafy spurge and Salt Cedar. Other priority weeds in Prairie County include all knapweeds, Canadian thistle, Houndstongue, Dalmation Toadflax, Whitetop, and field bindweed.

Issue: Spread of noxious weeds in subdivisions and other places where new owners who are unfamiliar with these weeds let them spread unchecked.
37.) Goal: Educate new and existing residents of Prairie County about noxious weeds and their danger to the environment.

37a.) Work in conjunction with Prairie County Weed Board to educate residents of the area about what noxious weeds are and make sure they know they can hire the County to spray weeds for them if they are unable to do so themselves.

37b.) Educate recreationists, visitors and sportsman about noxious weeds and support efforts to control the spread of noxious weeds.
Issue: Noxious weed control on federal and state land.
38.) Goal: Since the Federal government owns 41% and state owns 5% of the land in Prairie County they should be serious about contributing their share of weed control funds and labor.


38a.) Prairie County supports efforts to control the spread of noxious weeds.

38b.) Prairie County should urge Federal and State governments to contribute a proportionate share of the funds and labor that is necessary to combat noxious weeds.
Issue: Prairie County has a significantly large proportion of its land controlled by federal and state governments. Actions by these agencies can negatively affect the current or future economy of the County.
39.) Goal: Prairie County and its citizens’ economy, quality of life, and future jobs should be a major factor when federal and state agencies make land and mineral use decisions.

39a.) Prairie County should state in its plan to other land use agencies aware that decisions negatively affecting County residents’ local economy or future development, will maintain the healthy environment we now enjoy.
Issue: Prairie County needs to increase its tax base and economic activity.
40.) Goal: Encourage land use that maximizes economic activity and creates new tax base.

40a.) Prairie County should not take actions to hinder change of land use from low economic output and tax base to a higher economic output and tax base.
Issue: The Federal payment in lieu of taxes program pays populous counties with federal holdings very large PILT payments that greatly exceed the property tax revenue these federal lands would bring in if they were private. At the same time, poor sparsely populated counties are penalized with meager PILT payments that are only 1/10 to 1/3 of the tax revenue that their federal lands would bring in if they were private.

41.) Goal: This program needs to be corrected.

41a.) Prairie County should influence every policymaker they can. This gross inequity should be replaced with a flat fee or 80% or 90% of what the county property taxes would net on that land classification. These legislators should be reminded that our county maintains a large land area, regardless of our low population and be compensated for federal land interest in Prairie County.
Issue: Approximately 47% of land in Prairie County is owned by the federal and state governments. The county’s economy is dependent on business activities utilizing federal and state lands, and these activities are inseparably tied to private lands. It is important for Prairie County to be involved with decisions significantly affecting the public lands within its boundaries. Multiple use is especially important when considering grazing, timber, oil and gas, coal, minerals, hunting and fishing, and other recreational uses. Restrictions on any of the above can affect the economic stability, growth, and development of a county.
42.) Goal: It is imperative for Prairie County to protect the multiple use concepts on public lands, as it significantly impacts the county’s economy.

42a.) Prairie County supports multiple use management of federal and state lands that are compatible with agriculture.
42b.) Prairie County supports adoption of policies and laws that require state and federal agencies to conform with local land use regulations.
43c.) Prairie County opposes unfunded mandates passed by federal or state legislatures.
43d.) Prairie County opposes any federal or state regulations that usurp the powers of county government in land use planning.
44e.) Prairie County opposes any federal or state attempt to lock any privately owned land use in any long-range comprehensive plan.
44f.) Prairie County supports local determination on land use matters.
44g.) Prairie County supports the policy that no private property should be designated open space, trail right of ways, special place, without prior written consent of the property owner.
Issue: The availability of land area for ownership is limited because of large land holdings by the federal and state governmental agencies.
45.) Goal: The nature and intent of the PCLPB is to protect the customs and culture of county citizens through protection of private property rights, the facilitation of a free market economy, and the establishment of a process to ensure self-determination by local communities and individuals.
Issue: Agriculture is very important to the livelihood and well-being of the county as well as part of our customs and culture.
46.) Goal: Prairie County wants to protect the agricultural land and promote the continuation of farming and ranching pursuits within the county. The protection of private property rights, including the historical use of the land by individuals to produce food is important.
Issue: Private property rights.
47.) Goal: Maintain private property ownership rights.


47a.) Support the preservation of private property rights in Prairie County.

47b.) Prairie County supports effective right to farm ordinances.
Issue: Land for grazing livestock is very important to the ranchers in Prairie County.
48.) Goal: Maintain grazing rights.
For the residents of Prairie County and for the people just passing through the area, the natural resources are one of the most striking aspects of Prairie County. The Prairie Badlands are visible from the major transportation route through the County and provide a beautiful scenic landscape. Natural resources are an integral part of a community and can often be taken for granted. While the federal and state governments are the single largest legal manager of natural resources in Prairie County, the majority of the natural resource managers are farmers and ranchers in the area.
Water is a vital to Prairie County’s economic survival. Groundwater resources in the County provide drinking water for families, stock water for livestock, and irrigation for crops. The residents of Prairie County depend on clean, safe water from the Yellowstone and Powder Rivers.
The Prairie County Conservation District has one of the largest held water reservations in the area. This water is reserved for irrigation in Prairie County and cannot be purchased or transferred out of the county. There is 68,678 acre feet of water reserved from the Yellowstone River and 483 acre feet of water reserved from the Powder River for future irrigation projects. There are currently eight irrigators that have reserved water authorized for their use in Prairie County.
Buffalo Rapids Irrigation District manages irrigation water for Prairie, Dawson and Custer Counties encompassing a total of 45,800 acres. The Buffalo Rapids Project area lies along the floodplain, stream terraces, and alluvial fans associated within the Yellowstone River valley. There were approximately 9,195 acres of irrigated land managed by the Buffalo Rapids Irrigation District in Prairie County in 2005, supplying irrigation water to approximately 80 irrigators. Buffalo Rapids may apply for reserves of water from the Prairie County Conservation District for future development.

The Yellowstone River in Prairie County is known for its high class agates and fishing opportunities. Yellowstone agates are found along the Yellowstone River between Miles City, Terry, and Glendive and are considered a treasure by locals and tourists alike.

There are currently no known toxic waste (superfund) sites in Prairie County. In 1999, Prairie County ranked among the cleanest and best 20 percent of all counties in the U.S. in terms of air quality.

Natural resources that need to be considered when planning for growth range from water resources to scenic views to rare plant habitat to coal resources. All are invaluable in different ways and careful consideration is needed to find a balance between economic growth, land development, and natural resource preservation. The following information on natural resources in Prairie County provides an overview of existing resources and rights.

Water Resources
Montana’s water supply is primarily the result of snowpack and inflows. Residents of Prairie County primarily depend on water available from the Yellowstone River. Montana is facing its sixth and in some areas seventh year of drought.
Prairie County contains a portion of six watersheds:

Little Dry

Lower Powder

Lower Yellowstone

Lower Yellowstone-Sunday


Groundwater Resources
A Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology study (2000, Smith et al.) characterizes the groundwater resources in Prairie County into three major hydrologic units. A Shallow Hydrologic Unit, which consists of units within 200 feet of the land surface, is the most utilized hydrologic unit in the County, providing water for domestic, stock, and irrigation purposes. A Deep Hydrologic Unit, consisting of units at depths greater than 200 feet below land surface but above the Upper Hell Creek Formation, is the least utilized hydrologic unit in the County, providing water for domestic and stock-water purposes. The Fox Hills-Lower Hell Creek aquifer, a nearly-continuous sandstone unit, is used for domestic and stock-water purposes and is mostly used along and south of the Yellowstone River because north of the river the unit is more than 1,000 feet below land surface, making well installation and pumping costs relatively high.
Drinking Water
Good water quality is important for safe drinking water and for maintaining healthy ecosystems in Prairie County. Aquifer drinking water quality varies from location to location because of difference in chemical compositions of aquifer sediment material and time for water to dissolve surrounding material. Generally, deeper aquifers have better drinking water quality, with some areas of notably high fluoride levels. The shallower aquifers are generally more prone to surface contaminants and have more dissolved solids. Iron concentrations in the shallow aquifers are noted by the iron staining on houses where lawn irrigation water has repeatedly touched the area.

Surface Water
Surface water quality is important to consider, too, even though it is currently not a source for public water supply in the Prairie County. Surface water quality is important for fisheries and other wildlife habitat, for stock watering purposes, and for irrigation water.
Water Rights
Montana law establishes that the state’s water resources are the property of the State of Montana and are to be used for the benefit of the people. The district court (including the water court) and the Water Resources Division of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) share authority for water rights decisions.
A water right in Montana can be held by an individual, a group of individuals, organization, corporation, government agency, etc. In Montana, water rights are usually attached to the piece of land on which they are used. If a piece of land is transferred, any water right attached to the piece of land passes along with it unless specifically stated otherwise.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) provides information online about water rights in each county in Montana. Water rights in Prairie County are quantified as follows in Table F.1.

Table F.1. Prairie County Water Rights

Water Right Type

Number of Claims


Statements of Claim


Pre-1973 Water Law claim of existing water right

Stock Water






Ground Water


Surface Water


Powder River Declarations


Pre-1973 Water Law Powder River Basin declaration of existing water

Groundwater Certificates


Post-1973 certificate for groundwater use

Provisional Permits


Post-1973 provisional permit for water (surface water or large amount of ground water)

Stockwater Permits


Approved provisional permit for stock water

Exempt Rights


Pre-1973 right for stock or domestic use, exempt from filing, filed voluntarily

Conservation District Records


Completed portion of water

Irrigation Districts


Irrigation district filed claim

1962-1973 Groundwater Record


Acknowledgements for groundwater use filed 1962-1973 (over 100 gpm)

Total Water Rights

There are 2,807 water rights listed with points of diversion in Prairie County. There are 2080 statements of claim (with 1146 of those being for surface water and 934 of those for ground water), 159 are Powder River Declarations, 403 are groundwater certificates, 118 are provisional permits, 13 are stock water permits, 22 are exempt rights, 8 are conservation district records, 3 are irrigation districts, and there is one 1962-1973 groundwater record. Of the statements of claim, 1186 of those are for stock water, 256 are for irrigation, and 95 are for domestic uses.

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