Easement protects sage grouse habitat

2013-01-08T00:00:00Z 2013-01-08T00:22:52Z Easement protects sage grouse habitatBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Sage grouse gained a guarantee in 2012 that a portion of their brushy prairie habitat in northeastern Montana won’t be developed.

Late last year, Sterling Carroll, owner of more than 16,000 acres in northern Valley County, signed a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy on 7,000 acres of his property. The land abuts a portion of the western border of the Bureau of Land Management’s 59,600-acre Bitter Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern, which is also a wilderness study area.

“This area is the best of the best for a number of those grassland birds that aren’t doing so well,” said Brian Martin, director of science for The Nature Conservancy’s Montana office. “The fact that it’s embedded in a big grassland landscape ensures that when we acquire a parcel like that, the ripple effect is way greater.”

Remaining popular

The easement was one of three deals that The Nature Conservancy signed in 2012 in Montana for a total of more than 23,600 acres. The second was a 2,000-acre conservation easement on the Steel Creek Ranch in the Big Hole Valley near Wisdom that will help pronghorns migrate. The ranch is for sale for $3.5 million.

The Nature Conservancy also completed the sale of 14,600 acres within the Swan River State Forest in northwestern Montana to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The deal consolidates more than 18 disconnected sections of private land within the state forest. The conservation easement is held by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Conservation easements, which typically limit certain development on a property in perpetuity in exchange for a cash payment and a tax break, continue to be a popular way to preserve wildlife habitat in Montana.

In the most recent figures available, from June, the state had more than 2.11 million acres in conservation easements. That compares to 1.57 million acres about six years ago.

In 2007, the state conducted an audit of conservation easements at the request of the Legislature, prompting more thorough record keeping on the agreements.

Those 2.11 million acres are tied up in 2,081 easement agreements; there were 1,250 agreements in 2006.

Biggest holders

The Montana Land Reliance remains the largest holder of conservation easements, with more than 895,000 acres. Next on the list is Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks at 417,000 acres, a large portion of which is dedicated to elk winter range. The Nature Conservancy ranks third in the state with almost 317,000 acres.

In remote Valley County, there are more than 37,000 acres in conservation easements. Madison County has the most in the state, with more than 259,000 acres.

There are no national figures on conservation easements, but the Land Trust Alliance keeps track of its members. According to the alliance’s data, more than 8.83 million acres across the United States are preserved from development with conservation easements. Maine leads all states in the trust’s figures, with 1.57 million acres under easement.

Good for wildlife

Martin said the Carroll easement northwest of Glasgow contains silver sagebrush that is important habitat for sage grouse, mainly in the spring and summer. When winter comes, the sage grouse have been tracked flying as far as 100 miles south to land that contains big sagebrush, which they seem to prefer for winter habitat, he said.

Another less notable bird that will benefit from the easement is the Sprague’s pipit, which in the northern Great Plains has seen much of its grassland habitat plowed under. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved the Sprague’s pipit, along with the greater sage grouse, for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but has not listed the birds because of other priorities.

The land is also close to a migration corridor used by pronghorns to migrate from southern Saskatchewan south into Montana in the winter, Martin said. The area is also home to swift foxes, a state species of concern, and ferruginous hawks.

Cattle grazing will continue under the easement, since the bird species evolved to co-exist with other grazers.

“Overall, that entire area is a large, intact functioning grassland system where wildlife and livestock grazing is a great fit,” he said.

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