GREAT FALLS — A federal land inventory along the Hi-Line has identified 386,000 acres with wilderness characteristics and 1.6 million acres of sage grouse habitat that will be up for debate when a draft management plan is released in January.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management analysis of 2.4 million acres in Hill, Blaine, Phillips, Valley and part of Liberty County is the first such inventory of the area since the early 1980s. Some of land identified is part of that earlier inventory, while other areas are new, said BLM planning and environmental coordinator Brian Hockett.
The Great Falls Tribune reports (http://gftrib.com/W9iv0j0) the BLM is not recommending any wilderness study areas or protected wilderness designations.
The agency is nearing completion of new management plan for the 2.4-million-acre Hi-Line district. The plan, which will include management options for the inventoried land, is expected to be out for a 90-day public comment period in January.
"It will look at the trade-offs and the opportunities of managing for these characteristics as opposed to managing for other multiple uses out there," Hockett said.
The agency could choose to protect the wilderness characteristics above all other uses, oil and gas development for example, he said. Or, if an area is already leased for development, oil and gas might be promoted at the expense of wilderness, he said.
The BLM has released a general map of the 26 areas identified and plans to post more specific maps this week on its website, said Kristen Lenhardt, a spokeswoman in Billings. Much of the inventoried wilderness lands are rolling prairie, shrub steppe, breaks and badlands.
The management plan also will address sage grouse, as BLM officials look to preserve the birds' habitat now to prevent them from being protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Various levels of protections will be proposed for the areas of emphasis ranging from "some pretty strong protections to limited protections," Hockett said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the bird as endangered or threatened. About 52 percent of sage grouse habitat falls on BLM managed land nationally.