Gov. Steve Bullock has taken on a tough task: developing a greater sage grouse habitat policy that won’t harm Montana’s economy. His plan must be in place before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides in 2015 if the bird should be listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. All parties agree that an ESA listing would be a disaster for Montana.
The impacted land area is huge, mostly in central and Eastern Montana where ranching, farming, oil, gas, hunting and mining activities are prevalent. A task force of stakeholders, led by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has worked throughout 2013 to reach consensus. While some agreements have been made, several differences remain. Public comments have been emotional on all sides, but concern over devastating negative impacts to our rural areas and the state’s natural resource economy is widespread.
The task force meets later this month to finalize recommendations to Bullock after reviewing public comment and remaining areas of disagreement. The governor will announce a final policy thereafter.
Several key changes should be made to strike a balance that protects the grouse while not harming important contributors to the Montana economy. Two very critical changes include:
Eliminate the three-year cessation of development activities if grouse populations fall, regardless of the cause and through no fault of human or development activity. Drought, disease, wildfire and other natural disasters are beyond human control.
Reduce the recommended buffer area around leks (mating areas) from 1 mile to 0.6 mile. The 0.6-mile buffer is already accepted by USFWS in Wyoming and there is no scientific data that justifies greater distance. The recommendation to restrict overall surface disturbance to 5 percent per 640 acres is also existing USFWS policy and works today.
Bullock recognizes that the real battle for Montana landowners and the natural resource economy will be waged in Washington, D.C., in 2015. USFWS precedent should be followed here. Going beyond already federally-approved standards without scientific rationale is not in Montana’s best interests.