BILLINGS – A chicken-sized bird is ruffling a lot of feathers these days.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a court-ordered Sept. 30 deadline to announce whether it believes sage grouse need federal protection by designating them a threatened or endangered species. It is an issue that strikes close to home for many Montana and Wyoming residents – especially hunters.
Why should you care? Well for one thing, sage grouse are seen as an indicator species. That means as the sage grouse thrive, or fail to thrive, so too do other prairie-dwelling species. For hunters, that includes animals like mule deer, pronghorns and sharp-tailed grouse, which inhabit the same landscapes. For bird watchers it includes species like golden eagles, hawks and falcons.
“A new cliche emerging now is: ‘What’s good for the bird is good for the herd,’ ” said Ed Arnett, of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, at a gathering of outdoor writers in Bozeman.
“We’re trying to protect an entire ecosystem,” said Jim Lyons, deputy assistant secretary of Land and Minerals Management for the Department of Interior. “Forty years after the signing of the Endangered Species Act, we’re on the verge of implementing the act as it was designed – to prevent the listing of a species.”
Apparently the U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees. The agency recently announced an investment of $211 million in Farm Bill funding for sage grouse projects involving private landowners. All of that attention may be paying off, a recent survey found that the number of male sage grouse per breeding ground was the highest it’s been since 1970 – 25.5 males per lek, or courtship grounds.
About one-third of Montana contains important sage grouse habitat, most of it in the eastern part of the state, although there is also a sizable population in the Dillon area.
“We have about 18 percent of the world’s population of sage grouse,” said Tim Baker, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s policy adviser for natural resources. “Many of our populations are at low risk. In Montana we still do benefit from having significant intact habitat” and secure populations of birds.
Although sage grouse are sensitive to development such as power lines, road building and oil and gas drilling, “livestock grazing is not seen as a disturbance,” Lyons said. Oil and gas drilling are a big threat to sage grouse, but “more than half of the areas that are high priority for oil and gas development are not in priority sage grouse habitat,” he added.
Much of Montana’s sage grouse population, about 66 percent, lives on private land. Only 8 percent to 9 percent reside on state land, the rest live on federal lands – mostly the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM has already drawn up its plans to preserve 3.5 million acres of priority sage grouse habitat in Montana and the Dakotas. The BLM’s plans will still allow some gravel pits to be created, bentonite mining to continue and will not restrict motorized use on designated and open routes. But they do require “no surface occupancy” for oil and gas drilling in priority habitat.
“There was a rumor (roads) would be closed. That’s not true,” said Jamie Connell, BLM’s Montana-Dakotas director. “We will try to maintain this Western working landscape.”
The state of Montana also has crafted a sage grouse management plan. The USFWS is reviewing the plans to determine whether adequate protections are in place to preclude listing sage grouse as threatened or endangered.
“I don’t think we’ve reached a perfect solution,” Connell said. “But I feel very good about what we’re handing over to the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Although coordinating a response to protect sage grouse habitat on the state scale is difficult, consider that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is examining plans across 11 states involving an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies.
“This is not a one-size fits all plan,” Lyons said. “Montana, Wyoming and Idaho all have different plans.”
Many landowners and agency personnel have been working on the sage grouse issue for years to ensure the bird is never listed as threatened or endangered.
“This is the most complex issue I’ve ever worked on,” Lyons said.
Even Montana’s conservative Legislature agreed to appropriate $10 million and create five new jobs to oversee sage grouse preservation – a growth in government they would typically oppose, Baker noted. Through leveraging those funds, he hopes to increase that amount to about $40 million.
Despite that legislative decision, not all of those lawmakers are supportive.
“This is turning into more bloated government and spending dollars we don’t have,” said Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek. “We have no idea how much money we’re spending. None!”
The idea of listing sage grouse as threatened or endangered has also resulted in legislation at the federal level. Last year, Congress stepped into the fray by inserting language into a bill that does not allow the USFWS to spend any money to “write or issue” rules protecting sage grouse for 10 years.
“What that doesn’t mean is that we can’t issue a decision,” said Jodi Bush, USFWS field supervisor for Montana.
Delaying the decision “would only make things worse and lead to a situation similar to what happened with the spotted owl, which was not collaborative and was one size fits all,” Lyons said, referring to the 1990 listing of the northern bird.
Bush added that what the USFWS is trying to do is preserve sage grouse, a population that by some estimates has declined by 98 percent. She also said if management of the birds is better undertaken by the states, that’s fine with the USFWS.
Many conservationists are concerned that the plans do not do enough to restrict development in sage grouse habitat.
“The real question is whether we want the plains to be full of wildlife or full of power lines and oil wells,” said Steve Holmer, of the American Bird Conservancy, in a statement. “You can have some of both, but right now we are heading to a horizon filled with a lot of industrial infrastructure that will squeeze out the grouse.”
Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, sees the issue in much more philosophical terms.
“It may well be a billion-dollar effort,” he said. “But what’s the value of a lifeform? What’s the value of god’s creature? Because if you don’t do these things … the creature will go extinct.”
No matter what the USFWS decides, most people involved expect that the ruling will be followed by a lawsuit challenging the decision.
Jim Stone, who ranches in Western Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, said fellow ranchers and farmers will have to make some changes in order for sage grouse populations to rebound. He said that’s not easy for people who are independent and opposed to government involvement in their way of life. Yet he said partnering up with state and federal agencies has benefitted his ranch, which although not containing sage grouse does have visits from grizzly bears and wolves.
As chairman for the group Partners for Conservation, a community-based alliance with the USFWS, Stone said landowners like him have to be “willing to stand up and tell our story. If we didn’t have our federal partners” we’d be out of business.
“I don’t think we can get to landscape conservation without a landscape conversation,” he said. “Let’s move forward and not dwell on the things that are bad.”