ALDER — Major economic and environmental implications hang in the balance this week when an advisory council will meet to finalize Montana’s plan for protecting the sage grouse.

The chicken-size bird is a candidate for the federal Endangered Species List. States across the West have been drafting their own management plans in hopes of preventing a listing that would force them to adopt federal mandates.

A governor-appointed council begins three days of meetings Tuesday in Helena with hopes of balancing the concerns of the ranchers, oil and gas companies, and conservationists grappling over the bird.

There’s plenty at stake: Listing the species would have sweeping impacts across the West. Energy exploration, mining and development in sage grouse habitat would halt. Ranchers would be forced to remove their livestock from grazing on public lands. And private land-owners could face restrictions if the birds were found on their property.

The potential fallout from the sage grouse issue has been likened to the decimation of the West Coast timber industry when the northern spotted owl was listed in the early 1990s.

“This is probably one of the most important issues that’s going on in the state,” said Ray Shaw, a member of the advisory council helping to craft Montana’s plan. “This issue concerns every person in the state of Montana. We’re under the gun.”

DWINDLING POPULATIONS

In the past 100 years, the sage grouse population has dwindled from millions to fewer than 500,000 across the West. Canada has already listed the species.

Of the 11 states where sage grouse live, Wyoming has the most. Montana has the second largest population — best estimates are between 68,000 and 90,000 birds.

But unlike Wyoming, where most of the birds live on public land, 64 percent of Montana’s habitat is on private land. An Endangered Species Act listing would threaten landowners’ freedom to manage their land as they see fit.

Western governors worried about losing local control to the federal government have formed councils to prepare management plans that must gain federal approval. If the states can show they’re up to protecting the bird, the species is unlikely to be listed. A court has set a September 2015 deadline for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to decide.

In November, Montana’s sage grouse habitat advisory council traveled around the state to nine public meetings and received more than 400 comments.

Almost everyone agrees something has to be done to prevent the species from being listed, but opinions about how and why vary. Conservationists want tighter restrictions; ranchers and the oil and gas industry are lobbying for more lenient rules. Gov. Steve Bullock may accept all, some or none of the recommended policies his advisory council hopes to finalize this week.

“We have to come up with a plan that Fish and Wildlife Services will approve, whether we like the plan or not,” Shaw said.

A Republican state representative from Sheridan, Shaw is one of the most outspoken members of the council. He suspects lawsuits brought by environmental groups that triggered the listing debate are not about the wellbeing of the sage grouse but an attempt to keep livestock off public lands.

“This whole deal was never about the bird,” he said. “This is not about Montana people and who we are and what we do. This is about turning us into one great big national park, and it’s really sad.”

SPECIES THREATS

In its draft strategy, the council laid out the threats the species faces: habitat fragmentation and the ripping up of sagebrush country — sod busting — to make way for houses or cropland, livestock grazing, collisions with fences and power lines, wildfire, conifer and weed expansion, disease, predation and hunting.

Identifying the cause of the population decline is politically charged, and so are the potential solutions for protecting the birds, even among members of the advisory council.

Janet Ellis, an advisory council member and program director of Montana Audubon, doesn’t totally agree with Shaw’s assessment.

“Sage grouse are part of the fabric of Montana,” Ellis said. “And the fact that they’ve been declining means that there are problems on the landscape. … Sage grouse aren’t on the brink of extinction, but the fact that they are in decline means the sagebrush habitat is in trouble.”

The birds are what scientists call an indicator species: As go the sage grouse, so go dozens of other species.

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“Sage grouse, like it or not, they’re a prey species and that’s their role in the ecosystem. It’s true that predators eat them,” Ellis said. “If you eliminated all predators, you would get more sage grouse, but the challenge is you put everything out of balance.”

Carl Wambolt, an advisory council member who was a professor of range science at Montana State University, specialized in studying wildlife habitat connected to sagebrush and sage brush-dependent animals. He, too, says habitat loss is the biggest issue for the sage grouse — not necessarily predators, as many of the people who submitted public comments claimed.

“The bottom line here is we always need to think about the habitat first,” he said. “We always get sidetracked into other issues that aren’t nearly as relevant as other people think there are, like hunting and predation. Predation may decimate a local population for a period of time, but it’s not permanent. My point is if you have a suitable arrangement in this habitat, you’ll have that species.”

Sagebrush habitat is vital to other animals besides the sage grouse, and that the loss of nearly half of the sagebrush in the western U.S. is good reason to protect sage grouse habitat, Wambolt said.

“The 50 percent that’s left is in various stages of deterioration,” he said. “It does not support populations as well as it could. Sagebrush is left is in fragmented patches, not a continuous sea of sagebrush for the bird to live in.”

A HARD PLACE

No matter what actions the advisory council takes this week, it’s bound to find itself between a rock and a hard place.

“The public has told us the conservation plan is far too strict, and the (Fish and Wildlife) Service has told us it’s not strict enough,” said Glenn Marx, an advisory council member who works with the Montana Association of Land Trusts. “The council is going to have to have some serious discussions in how we incorporate these diverse comments into final strategy.”

Said Wambolt: “It would be good for everybody if the bird doesn’t have to be listed, but everybody is going to suffer a little bit here.”

— Reach Christensen at kelley.christensen@mtstandard.com or 406-496-5572.

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