On July 12, 2000, federal land and wildlife management agencies entered into a memorandum of understanding with the states that are members of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The goal was to work together to develop collaborative sage grouse conservation plans. Sage grouse populations and sage brush habitat had been declining throughout the west since the 1950s and there was broad-based concern for the long-time survival of the species.
Under the terms of the MOU, each state was to form a working group. Membership was to represent all of the groups concerned with sage grouse and sage brush habitats. In Montana that included over 80 people representing ranchers, agricultural lobbying groups, oil and gas developers, energy companies, tribes, conservation groups, county commissions, members of the Montana Legislature, universities, and state and federal land and wildlife management agencies.
Over the next five years, the Montana Sage Grouse Working Group met in good faith and developed the management plan and conservation strategy for sage grouse in Montana. The plan represented extensive discussion, developed understanding, collaboration and compromise and in the end represented a truly win-win program to address conditions on-the-ground in Montana. Critically, the plan was “not intended to exclude any uses or activities or infringe on any legally defined private property rights.” An additional safeguard was the requirement for local or regional, diverse working groups to guide local efforts.
Montana has been successfully implementing this Montana Sage-grouse Habitat Conservation Program since 2014.
Unfortunately, national politics now threaten to undermine the good faith efforts of these community-minded volunteers. In 2017, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed Secretarial Order 3353 to review these management plans. The driving force was to maximize oil and gas production and mining on federal lands without regard for the hard work of the Montana Working Group or the ongoing Montana Sage-grouse Habitat Conservation Program.
This move was widely hailed as unnecessary and counterproductive. There is no national driving need to maximize oil and gas production from public lands. The United States is considered the top energy producer in the world. In fact, in 2016, Congress lifted the 40-year prohibition, enacted after the Arab Oil Embargo, on exporting oil. By lifting those restrictions, Congress was saying that we now have a surplus of energy. In 2017, the latest year when data is available, 26 million acres of public lands were leased for oil and gas development. Of that, 12.8 million acres were producing and the remaining 13 million acres are awaiting development.
Clearly, there is no shortage of public lands leased for oil and gas.
The U.S. Department of Interior is now being run by acting Director David Bernhardt, who was nominated by the president earlier this year to head the agency. Like Zinke before him, Bernhardt oversees nearly 20 percent of U.S. land surface and his decisions to protect or to develop will be felt throughout the West.
While energy development is important, we need to ensure it does not override other multiple uses, including the need to protect sage grouse habitat. With new leadership at the U.S. Department of Interior, Montanans will need to demand the agency honors the hard work of the Montanans who devoted time and effort working together to develop the Montana Sage-grouse Habitat Conservation Program.