The sage grouse, a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act, has garnered a lot of attention in Helena and across the state as Governor Steve Bullock appointed an advisory council to lead the effort to develop and carry out management options to ensure sage grouse are maintained as an important part of Montana’s wildlife tradition while allowing other managed uses of the land.
“To date, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has spent millions implementing a wide variety of conservation actions on private lands for that purpose,” Pat Deibert, National Sage-grouse Conservation Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said.
Members of the board were appointed in February. Board members hail from cities big and small across the state and include State Representative Ray Shaw from Sheridan, who said the board’s work is very important and affects all Montanans. The Governor made sure to appoint not only state officials, but also representatives from industry including livestock and environmental organizations. Shaw said groups including farming, power companies, sportsmen, and the members of the general public have all been involved as well. All the meetings are open to the public.
This advisory council’s work on a Montana-specific plan coincides with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Sage Grouse Initiative. The initiative is focused on conserving sage grouse and maintaining healthy, viable working ranches. The deadline for the Montana plan is January 2014 for approval from the Governor, but it must also be approved by the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service.
“Every other state around us has a plan, which they had in some cases six years to complete,” Shaw said. “Our time frame is six months. At the start of this task it seemed impossible, and at times it still does.”
Testimony from the meetings held May through last week will be put together in the draft plan and reviewed many times before it goes out for public comment. Public hearings will be held around the state, with Dillon being one of the sites sometime in November.
Topics of discussion have varied and include a number of actions and items – infrastructure, oil, mining, fire, and agricultural conversion – that help or hinder the sage grouse population. Sage grouse, North America’s largest grouse, depend almost entirely on sagebrush environments to meet their habitat needs. Changes to those environments have led to the concern for the bird. According to Deibert, sage grouse currently have a range covering 11 western states and two Canadian provinces. She said the birds are dependent on sagebrush, but will also use grasslands and occasionally irrigated croplands, depending on the location and type. Sagebrush is commonly used for grazing and recreation and is often home to wildlife valuable for hunting and other species.
“The condition of sage grouse is indicative of the ecosystem on which they depend,” Deibert said. “The sagebrush ecosystem is actually incredibly diverse and complex and loss of a key component such as sage grouse will increase the instability of the system itself.”
The next meeting is set for Sept. 24-25 to discuss review draft recommendations. The meeting will be held in Helena at the Capitol Building, Room 152.
“This issue affects the whole state so we must come up with a plan that will work,” Shaw said. “And we will.”