Citizens air concerns at sage grouse meeting

The Lewis-Clark Room at UMW held a full house for Oct. 14 public meeting on the state’s sage grouse plan. The meeting was the first of seven to be held across the state. The plan is being developed to attempt to keep the sage grouse off the Endangered Species List. J.P. Plutt photo

Area rancher Jim Hagenbarth has been through the sage grouse situation in Idaho and feels both sides need to work together to produce a workable plan. J.P. Plutt photo

Over 100 area citizens attended the public meeting Oct. 14 on the draft sage grouse habitat conservation strategy proposed by the advisory council appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock in January of 2013. The meeting, on the campus of Montana Western in Dillon, was the first of seven scheduled across Montana.

The governor’s Greater Sage-grouse Habitat Conservation Advisory Council includes Gary Forrester, Billings; Carl Wambolt, Bozeman; Sen. Brad Hamlett, Cascade; Curtis Monteau, Jr., Elder; Robert Lee, Forsyth; Rep. Pat Connell, Hamilton; Janet Ellis, Helena; Glenn Marx, Helena; Rep. Bill McChesney, Miles City; Paul Callahan, Missoula; Jay Gore, Missoula; Rep. Ray Shaw, Sheridan.

Kevin McDonald of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks served as moderator for the public meeting. He stressed that the ultimate objective for the plan for state public lands was to avoid the listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species.

In addition to the effort by the state of Montana, there is currently a federal plan under development for BLM and Forest Service lands in Idaho and Montana. These are two separate plans.

McDonald explained that Fish and Wildlife Services, a federal agency, will ultimately make the decision on whether or not to list the sage grouse. He said three reasons have been set forward to warrent listing of the species – loss of habitat to energy development, loss of habitat to agricultural development and inadequate regulatory mechanisms.

McDonald explained that the Montana plan closely follows one produced by Wyoming and already approved by FWS. Once approved, all state permitted activities in Montana will be required to follow the plan.

The public comment period will continue through Dec. 14. The council will provide its final recommendations to Gov. Bullock in Jan.

During a brief question-and-answer session to open the meeting, Kerry White of Bozeman, a state legislator, asked by what authority would the governor issue an executive order to approve the plan. Neither McDonald nor any of the council members present had an answer for the question.

In a brief discussion on the BLM plan, McDonald said, “We’re hoping our plan can influence their final Record of Decision. We’re hoping by working together their plan will be more moderate.

“I think all of our objectives is to keep the bird off the list.”

Dan Happel, a Madison County Commissioner from Harrison offered that the focus of the plan was on habitat and not the real culprit – predators. Happel’s concern would be echoed throughout the public comment session that took up the bulk of the two-hour public meeting.

Mitch Staley, a recent college graduate and Dillon native, described the sage grouse population numbers in Montana as healthy and feels the focus should be directed towards becoming exempt from such plans as offered forth by both the state and federal agencies.

Beaverhead County Commissioner Tom Rice said in prepared comments that his constituents belief the county has a stable sage grouse population but that the commission supports the process of a conservation strategy.  

“The potential of listing sage grouse on the Endangered Species List in 2015 would negatively affect all of southwestern Montana,” he said.

Rollie Miller, General Manager of Vigilante Electric Cooperative (VEC) in Dillon, said his member-owners support the concept of a state management plan as opposed to the listing of the sage grouse, but had specific concerns about the draft proposal.

Miller explained the VEC has 2,734 miles of powerlines serving nine counties in Montana.

“Needless to say we have a large amount of powerlines in core and general sage grouse habitat areas,” he said, adding that the plan was more restrictive than VEC had hoped.  

Miller pointed out the Wyoming plan, developed in 2008, has a six-tenths of a mile agriculture and residential buffer from sage grouse areas, but the Montana extends that buffer to a full mile.

“As the draft plan is written, with the one mile buffer for agricultural and residential limitations, we will not be able to economically meet some of the member’s requests and there will be additional costs on those that can,” said Miller.

Jim Hagenbarth, a rancher in southwest Montana and Idaho, has long been active in agricultural issues. Hagenbarth become introduced to the sage grouse issue with the 1998 Upper Snake Sage Grouse Plan in Idaho.

“This is a very tough issue,” said Hagenbarth. “This started with a goal to remove all grazing off public land.”

Hagenbarth mentioned the lawyer behind the suit that brought the discussion into the legal forum and says the man is good at what he does and may very well attain his goal of removing grazing from publc land. Hagenbarth is concerned about being able to manage the resource, fuel loads and the dynamic predator numbers. He added that both sides need to work together and come up with a workable plan.

Kerry White, during his comments, expressed concern of the economic impacts, both direct and indirect of the plan, and on the unintended consequences that evolve through the passage of such plans.

“We need more science-based information on setbacks and buffers,” said White.

Copies of the draft strategy and comment forms will be available online at  http://fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/publicComments/sageGrouseAC. Public comment on the draft strategy will be accepted through 5 p.m. Dec. 4.

For more information, call 406-444-2612, or visit the FWP website at http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting.