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Sage Grouse situation problematic for Montana

By Pat Connell, State Representative HD87, Member, Sage Grouse Council

Driven by a federal court ordered effort forced by Jon Marble’s Western Watershed Project (WWP) lawsuit, Montana is currently attempting to push back against a pending ESA listing of the Sage Grouse.

This entire mess is effectively a poisoned dagger pointed at Montanans and the heart of our energy industry. Although Western Montana may not enjoy any Sage Grouse in our neck of the woods, through the economic impact of jobs, and tax revenues caused by coal, gas or oil development – not to mention agriculture or bentonite mining – every Montanan will indeed be impacted. Can you say “The Spotted Owl” of the prairie? However, the grouse and owl issues aren’t comparable, as the grouse impact to Montana will be magnitudes worse.

Name your own target that this poison dagger threatens: a) America’s national energy independence, b) The prime mover in Montana’s economic recovery, or c) The collapse of local and state tax revenues that significantly fund part of every important government function from  education, public safety and our highways, just to name a few.

The irony of it all is that Montana alone has somewhere between 60 and 90 thousand birds, whether you believe numbers from Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) or the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). These numbers raise a couple questions: 1) How many birds are enough? and 2) Why a listing? If this is all about a population deficit, maybe that then explains why the Grizzly hasn’t been delisted, even when we’re seeing bears now ranging far out into the prairie! God help Montana if we need similar numbers of bears to protect them and see management authority returned to the state! I’ll never get to renew my Montana 1979 Grizzly tag!

The past Schweitzer administration sat on its thumbs for months ignoring this developing Sage Grouse listing risk to Montana while Wyoming plowed ahead developing – and getting accepted by the feds – their made-for-Wyoming plan to deal with the bird and protect their economic base.

As a result, last January, representing bipartisan legislative concern, Senator Brad Hamlett (D-Cascade) and I initiated a conference call with research biologists and federal land managers to ascertain the severity of the issue, and the magnitude of the problem became readily apparent. Concurrently, a ground swell of Montana agricultural, co-ops, energy, recreation, and mining interests joined with us in an ad hoc effort to confront this threat. To finance an effort to attempt to stop the grouse’s listing, I sponsored HB580, a one-time-only targeted funding bill that sailed through the legislature and supported the Governor’s proclamation to formalize the ad hoc group into an Advisory Council of four legislators and eight citizens of diverse backgrounds to develop Montana’s own plan for negotiating with the fed over the grouse. It has been an ongoing slog since last May. The Council will submit its recommendations to the Governor by month’s end, for his revisions and ultimate submittal to the federal agency.

Yes, I did say negotiate! Early on, as an appointee to the Council, I saw that the fed’s expectation for a “state based” management plan was a charade, and little more than an extortion effort to get Montana to take the political heat as well as pay for a federally conceived management plan that would collapse gas and oil exploration, and fully monkey wrench the development of Otter Creek as a coal mine. Example: the fed seemed to discount the hard work that the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has accomplished working together with individual Montana ag operations with their “Sage Grouse Initiative.” Second, the USFWS has always wanted to target habitat acres, not bird populations, as the “ultimate” goal, and opposed the consideration of Montanans reducing raven and magpie numbers where grouse populations were in particular stress by predation. Regardless, the Council has agreed that grouse population will be the measure of Montana’s management success, which now opens the way for us to target the impacts of predation, wildfire and hunting as a means to stabilize the grouse numbers while protecting our fundamental economic drivers of Montana.

Regardless of our efforts, I fear that the entire issue will be overwritten by some federal court judge responding to Western Watershed’s litigation, forcing a listing that ultimately, hopefully, as with the wolf, will be resolved by an act of Congress. Unfortunately, this will probably only happen after Montanans and our neighbors in other western states take the brunt of a huge economic hit from another neo-luddite group.

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