Saving Montana’s sage grouse
March 18, 2015
No, it may not be the best use of his time right now.
"Of course, sometimes, when I'm out there snapping on reflectors to the top two wires, I'm thinking, 'There are way better things I could be doing,'" Gary Heibertshausen said.
His family's sheep in southeastern Montana lamb in prime sage grouse habitat, and the low-flying birds don't mix well with fencing projects.
"It costs a little bit, but if we all do a little bit, hopefully it adds up," he said. "It takes time, too, but you have to take the time to do it. If it's what helps keep us in business, keeps us feeding the food chain, it's well worth it."
That's just one of the management practices the Little Creek Partnership LLP has implemented in recent years to try to boost sage grouse habitat and populations in hopes of avoiding a federal endangered species listing. They also added perch restrictors to the top of wood posts to deter aerial predators at their Alzada, Montana, ranch, and added wire mesh ramps to stock tanks.
As legislation that would enable Montana's state sage grouse management plan makes its way through legislation, Heibertshausen, who also serves on the American Farm Bureau Federation's farm policy issue advisory committee, said the plan is one that farmers and ranchers in the state should be able to easily deal with, especially when held up against the potential alternative.
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"The governor's action plan – that will be very livable for most ranchers in the core areas," Heibertshausen said. "We'll have to adjust a few things, but we can get along with that a lot better than if it goes to the endangered species."
The sage grouse is currently being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and Montana is the last of 11 western states to produce a plan to argue management of the bird should stay in state hands.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will make a proposed decision on the bird's federal Endangered Species Act listing in September 2015, and a final decision will come a year later.
"So we have an opportunity between now and September 2016 to get [the state plan] up and running and show that we're providing the type of management that should allow sage grouse to be in state hands," said Tim Baker, who serves as Governor Steve Bullock's policy advisor for natural resources.
In order for the state's plan to pass muster, the plan must past two tests, according to the conservation strategy: "(1) The service must have certainty the Montana Strategy will be implemented and (2) once the Montana Strategy is implemented, the Service must have certainty the plan will be effective in protecting sage grouse habitat and conserving sage grouse populations."
While the basic core of the management plan is in a 2013 Executive Order, the legislation in Senate Bill 261 – The Greater Sage Grouse Stewardship Act – provides the necessary support to implement the plan. It also establishes the oversight and management of the $10 million Sage Grouse Stewardship Fund, Baker said.
"The Governor and the legislators recognize that Montana's private landowners have done a great job at protecting sage grouse habitat," Baker said. "That's why you find 64 percent of that habitat on private land. The goal of the fund is to recognize and incentivize that good work."
The $10 million Sage Grouse Stewardship account is funded in the Executive Budget with general fund money. The bill provides grant criteria to award from the fund and allows for compensatory mitigation among other funding uses. Voluntary incentives for landowners who want to implement management practices to further enhance sage grouse habitat, like the Heibertshausens, recognize the value of specific range management and grazing programs targeted toward sage grouse habitat, increasing wildfire response, combating invasive species, predators and disease.
"These are the types of good practices we see out there right now that are showing to be really, really positive to sage grouse," Baker said. "They also include a lot of good management practices that are already accepted today as pretty commonplace good practices for grazing operation and the ranching business."
Sen. Brad Hamlett (D-Cascade) introduced the bill, which received solid bi-partisan support in the Senate votes, passing its third reading 41-9. It currently sits in the House Federal Relations, Energy & Telecommunications committee and still must pass through the House votes.
SB261 also comes with a fiscal note with a more than $2 million request to fund six full time employees in 2016 and 5.5 FTEs in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
"The key strategy is to keep management of sage grouse in state hands," Baker said. "To do that, we need a presence that is on the ground and is as local as possible, and it takes people to do that."
One of the key components of the management plan, which was released in January 2014 by the governor-appointed advisory committee, is the designation of "core areas" in addition to general habitat and connectivity areas to delegate different management needs.
Overall, nearly two-thirds of Montana is considered sage grouse habitat, Baker said, primarily concentrated in eastern Montana, plus a portion of the southwest corner of the state. The core management areas make up about 10 percent of the total habitat.
In 2013, FWP estimated those core areas included approximately 76 percent of the displaying males in the Montana.
Rod McClure's cattle ranch and farm in central Montana fall in another one of those core habitat areas. He said they've found what's good land management practice for ranch economics is also good for grouse habitat.
"We have to use the best management practices that are out there, and really take care of this land – not just for the birds, but for your ranch," McClure said. "We need farming and ranching in this country. I also believe in oil and gas exploration and logging, and any of these things just come down to management. We have to manage it well."
Moving to no-till farming leaves a cover for birds to find shelter, as do buffer strips in the hay fields. Strategic range monitoring through their grazing district ensures grass left for grouse.
"If it hits the endangered species, it's going to impact a lot more than agriculture," McClure said. "Yes, $12 million is a big number, but on the other side of this, anything we can do now to prevent it from going on that list is going to save us big in the long run."
Farmer and state senator John Brenden (R-Scobey) said he doesn't believe the state should be forced to create and adhere to a management plan based on the potential listing.
"I believe the sage grouse is blackmail by the federal government, just like anything else they try to regulate us on under the Endangered Species Act," Brenden said. "We don't have a shortage of sage grouse in Montana, and we don't have a shortage of sage grouse in Wyoming. There may be a shortage in other states, but we shouldn't be forced into being lumped in with them."
He voted against SB261 – the Greater Sage Grouse Stewardship Act – but did introduce his own piece of legislation targeted towards dealing with the bird. Senate Bill 247 would prohibit sage grouse hunting in the state for the next six years. It, too, made it out of the Senate with strong support and currently sits in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee.
The state's management plan leaves the determination of hunting seasons up to Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which has been a point of contention on the bill. FWP did close the sage grouse hunting season last fall in most of Montana due to declining bird populations, but the plan leaves it to their discretion in the future.
"If this thing gets listed on the Endangered Species List, there's no way they'll hunt it, so why are we messing around with this now, if it's so important?" Brenden said. "Too much of this stuff is politically motivated and driven, and there's no common sense in it."
Baker noted that in the Advisory Committee's determination to leave hunting season to the FWP, it was argued that in the larger picture, hunting didn't impact overall population number enough to make it a battle.
But to the farmers and ranchers working to conserve the habitat, it's more a matter of principle, McClure said.
"They say that's not really an issue, but to me, when we're working to keep these things around, every bird that falls is one less in the count," McClure said.
"We're the people that own most of this ground, we're out here all year working and caring for this land and trying to make a living and keep these birds alive," Heibersthausen said. "So they're telling us, you live here, this is your livelihood, but these hunters can come out here and shoot what you work the other 50 weeks of the year to protect?"
"I'm sure the state plan is going to pass, but I don't like it," Brenden said. "Talk about putting $12 million into it? The people and landowners of Montana better wake up and start getting politically active and fighting these situations coming down on us from DC."
Still, in the face of a potential endangered species listing where federal regulations would likely rein over all habitats, the restrictions placed in the state plan, which dictate only management requirements on state land, seem livable.
"We're very lucky in Montana – we have a lot of good land that is managed well," Baker said. "What will change is, for a lot of the activities Montana is looking at, is just going through another layer of review that hold those activities up against, 'What are the good management practices for sage grouse?'"
Stipulations for development in the plan break down requirements for surface occupancy, surface disturbance, seasonal use, noise levels, vegetation removal, reclamation and existing activities for core areas, general habitat and connectivity areas concerning state-held land uses.
However, after 16 pages of stipulations of limitations of use in state-owned NSO zones, the plan outlines exempt activities, which includes existing animal husbandry practices, existing farming practices, existing grazing operations that meet rangeland health standards, construction of specific agricultural reservoirs and aquatic habitat outside the NSO and more.
"There are some restrictions in there – we can't put up wind power, we can't put in towers so tall, we can't do so many things…but if it goes endangered, we won't be able to do anything. That would cripple the state of Montana and our economy," Heibersthausen said. "If it goes federally endangered, we'd likely lose our federal and state grazing permits all together."
After a frustrating battle with the State Lands office last summer over the placement of a water line that crossed over state ground checker-boarded in his deeded land because of a sage grouse lek, McClure said he'd rather see the management brought to an even more local level.
"From the state side of their plan, I'm not going to say it's going to be perfect," McClure said. "It's so hard to have a boilerplate and say, these are the rules. It's so different even from county to county."
But, he said, he believes the governor's plan still beats the alternative.
"The plan by the governor and the state of Montana is a good plan – this needs to stay at the state level," Heibertshausen said. "We can't make a living with a federal judge who's never stepped foot in our state telling us what we can and can't do on our land."
"I'm not saying we won't come to a battle over the bird yet," McClure said. "Even with our best management practices, they may still say it's not enough. Then what do we do? I don't know. But in the meantime, we have to keep working at it.
"I like to see the wildlife around – the birds, the antelope – all of it. I like to have that habitat all around us, and having us care for the land for multi-purpose use," McClure said. "I truly believe there is enough room for all of us out there to co-mingle and use it like we all want to and get along. It just takes work."