A state plan to prevent the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act is being met favorably by politicians and environmentalists in southwest Montana.
Gov. Steve Bullock unveiled Tuesday that state's proposal for managing the bird, a species that's pitted environmentalists, landowners and energy companies against each other across the West.
Western states are forming plans to sustain the bird in hopes of heading off sweeping federal protections that would come if the species is listed.
The Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program and the Montana Sage Grouse Stewardship and Conservation Fund will go before the Legislature for appropriations in 2015. The governor has hinted at some private funding sources to provide seed capital for the conservation fund, but it too may be built into the budget.
“I think it’s something we can all live with,” said Ray Shaw, the representative for House District 71 in Sheridan and a member of the state advisory council that helped form Montana's plan. “As far as the management, we’ve been doing that. The guys in my country, in Madison and Beaverhead counties, they’re doing things to improve habitat. We still have to protect private property and landowners. This is one of those things, we can have our cake and eat it too.”
Madison and Beaverhead counties boast some of the best habitat in the state for the chicken-size bird.
The state's plan would restrict oil and gas exploration and road development in areas near certain sage grouse breeding grounds.
The Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program and Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team will work to keep science-based management of the bird in state hands. It will also create six jobs in a program likely to cost millions of dollars.
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“The program’s intent is what Montana needs and that is to demonstrate strong state conservation of sage grouse to maintain viable populations of sage grouse so we can continue to have state authority over our wildlife, our economy, our way of life, our quality of life and our future,” said Glenn Marx, who worked on the advisory council and is the executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts.
Not everyone is pleased with the plan, which included smaller habitat buffer zones than those recommended by the state's advisory committee. A spokesman for the environmental group Western Watersheds said the governor's plan ensures the species' population will continue to decline.
Bullock said the state's plan is a compromise that balances conservation with landowners' rights.
The Stewardship and Conservation Fund will promote and fund voluntary incentive-based non-regulatory programs and practices on private land to conserve sage grouse habitat. Montana is unique in that 64 percent of sage grouse habitat in the state is on private lands. The fund is the state’s way of working with landowners to make voluntary improvements to their land to protect the bird, which requires large areas of land to perform its mating dance – the lek – and produce its young.
The funding aims to help farmers and ranchers improve grazing practices, remove perches for raptors, create the right amount of sage brush cover for mating and nesting, assist fire management and make fencing safer for the birds.
“This bird needs millions of acres in the state of Montana to maintain a healthy population. It makes sense for us to get out ahead and get this program going,” said Janet Ellis, program director for Montana Audubon and also served on the advisory council. “Whatever this will cost is a drop in the bucket in the total budget of the state of Montana. (Sage grouse is a species) that affects so many acres, oil and gas, grazing, our economic engine, and we want to make sure we can manage it on our terms as much as we can."
Ellis said the state's strategies for protecting sage grouse could prevent other species from declining as well.