Each fall sportsmen and women across Montana get ready for hunting on our sagebrush covered prairies in Eastern Montana. Majestic and beautiful, the sagebrush is home to some of the best mule deer hunting in Montana, but in addition to mule deer, the sagebrush steppe is also home to one of the West’s most important and iconic species, the greater sage grouse.
Sept. 22 marked two years since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the greater sage grouse would not warrant a listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
How did that happen?
It wasn’t an accident.
Eleven western states came together and worked for years to develop sage-grouse conservation plans that would protect the birds, keep it off the Endangered Species List and allow development to happen in places that made sense. These plans were the culmination of years of cooperation, collaboration and hard work by the people who live in the West, including all 11 Western states and their governors.
The sage grouse plans are the gold standard when it comes to conservation. They protect the bird and its habitat, allow development to happen in areas with the most potential, and keep our public lands open to be enjoyed by hunters, anglers, hikers, and other outdoor recreationists. Ranchers, sportsmen and women, scientists, local elected officials, and others rolled up their sleeves and put their differences aside and came to the table to find a solution that worked for the many, not the few.
The hard work and compromises made by all of these people resulted in the greater sage grouse not being listed under the ESA. This accomplishment was a critical win for sportsmen and women across the west. This decision ensured that our sagebrush covered public BLM lands in Montana would be managed to restore and conserve habitats that sage-grouse need while still providing hunting and other outdoor recreation opportunities.
Unfortunately, all of that hard work and collaboration has now been put in jeopardy. In June, the Trump administration ordered a review of the sage grouse plans. After taking just a few months to review the sage-grouse plans that took years to create, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced new proposals to change some of the most important parts of the plans. On the table are things like opening more sage-grouse habitats on public lands to oil and gas drilling and other developments and raising sage-grouse in captivity to help boost numbers on public lands.
As hunters across Montana get ready for our fall hunting season, the importance of well managed habitats on public lands, which are necessary to sustain healthy wildlife populations, is what we all care about. The sagebrush lands in Eastern Montana that sustain sage-grouse are the same ones that mule deer, elk and pronghorn need to survive the winter and travel through as they make their seasonal migrations. If we save the bird, we save the herd.
We need Zinke to support the sage-grouse conservation plans developed by the people who live in the West and know the land. We also need the secretary to commit to working with all the governors from the west to implement science-based conservation plans and practices on our public lands that will protect sage-grouse habitats. After all, if we can save the bird, we’ll save the herd.
Kathy Hadley is a lifelong bird hunter, landowner, founding member of Artemis, board member of MWF, and board chair of the National Wildlife Federation. She lives in Deer Lodge, Montana.