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Sage grouse

Sage grouse are at the center of a debate in the Montana Legislature as lawmakers try to find a compromise between protecting the bird and encouraging economic development in eastern Montana.

A controversial bill that would revamp how Montana deals with development in designated sage grouse habitat will go to a conference committee to try and work out differences between the Senate and House.

Senate Bill 299 is sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, who is a member of the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team. The team was created to implement Montana’s sage grouse rules to ensure the bird is not listed as an endangered species.

Since its inception, the group has processed about 1,800 projects. However, the inability of one company to find a solution to its request prompted the legislation.

One project

Lang sponsored the bill to help one of his constituents, Triangle Mobile, a company frustrated in trying to get a mobile tower built in southern Phillips County for the past three years. Although the company has tried to work with the Sage Grouse Oversight Team, other sites were too expensive and the compensation it would be required to pay for development, although reduced from the initial figure, was too high, according to Tim Nixdorf, director of wireless operations for Triangle.

Although initially supporting the legislation, following amendments he spoke in opposition to the bill in late March.

“This bill with all of its amendments won’t do us any good,” he told the House Natural Resources Committee.

John Tubbs, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, sits on the oversight team. He has been working with Gov. Steve Bullock’s office to find a compromise with Lang on the legislation but also has said the program has been a model for other states and can be modified internally.

“We built this on adaptive management,” Tubbs said. “We can see where the policy needs to be adjusted.”

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Flipped

Nixdorf was just one of several group representatives to flip on the bill as it has been amended. In the beginning the Montana Petroleum Association, Montana Electrical Cooperative Association and Montana Stockgrowers Association were a few of the groups to speak in opposition to the bill unless it was modified.

Once more amendments were added to appease those interests, they supported the bill but then others spoke in opposition, highlighting how difficult it is to balance the need for sage grouse conservation with economic development.

The intent of the legislation is to be more lenient to developers in the eastern half of the state where economic development is seen as sorely lacking.

“Do not place any more economic burden on company development in our state,” said Shelby DeMars, executive director of the Montana Association of Oil, Gas, and Coal Counties.

In pushing for the House to pass the bill and send it to a conference committee, Rep. Kerry White, R-Gallatin Gateway, said amending the legislation was important to sage grouse as well as industry.

“This bill has had … a lot of careful thought,” he said. “It brings common sense, I believe, to the sage grouse committee.”

For the bird

Some conservation groups that have been working with Lang to amend the bill said they are willing to find a compromise. The concern is that too much of a change in favor of industry will open the program to a court challenge on grounds that threats to sage grouse would be great enough to risk it being listed as an endangered species.

“It’s absolutely playing with fire,” said Tom Puchlerz, Montana Wildlife Federation’s vice-president of issues, in a press release. “SB 299 could tip the scales in favor of development, handicap Montana’s successful track record of managing the species, and lead us toward a future endangered species listing.”

Glenn Marx, of the Montana Association of Land Trusts, said the state’s current policy priority is reducing threats to sage grouse, but the tone and direction of the legislation would be a step backward.

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GOP view

Some Republican lawmakers see the bill as a chance to amend a negotiated measure that they didn’t like in the first place.

Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, said on the House floor that when the ground rules for the Sage Grouse Oversight Team were written the state “had a gun to its head” to come up with a solution. He sees SB 299 as a way to fix the rules.

“These are wildlife. They adapt,” Glimm said. “It’s time to put a Montana twist to it.”

Rep. Ray Shaw, R-Sheridan, went even further, claiming that the entire process of writing rules to protect sage grouse was a backhanded way to stop the oil, gas and mining industries.

“We need to get this controversy behind us,” he said.

John Tubbs

Tubbs

Seeking center

DNRC director Tubbs said his agency working in concert with the governor’s office was close to finding a compromise, but that the measure needs to build a wider coalition.

“We’re not quite there with SB 299,” he said.

Marx said nothing about working with sage grouse is easy, “But it is vital.” Although he praised Lang for working hard to find a compromise he said, “We’re not quite there.”

Sponsor

“This bill, there’s probably been so many amendments that went around that it was hard to keep track,” Lang said. “I thought these amendments were approved by the governor and everybody else.”

But apparently something got changed in the time between when the governor’s office worked on the measure and the House Natural Resources Committee hearing that fouled up what was believed to be a compromise.

“We all want to protect the sage grouse, keep them off the endangered species list,” Lang said. “We have great populations, we have great habitat in Montana.

“The big thing is adaptive management, and adaptive management is through this bill.”

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