State Seeks Private Landowner Cooperation On Sage Grouse Recovery

Dec 16, 2015

State officials are working out the details of the landmark agreement to save the greater sage grouse without having to put the bird on the Endangered Species List.

This September the U.S. Department of Interior announced it wouldn’t put the bird on the list, because individual states had come up with their own plans to protect the bird and its habitat.

That decision brought mixed reactions from environmental groups. Some said the lack of a listing would lead to further decline of the bird.

Now, it’s up to state land managers to put their plan into motion to try to balance sage grouse protection and private property rights. John Tubbs is Director of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Greater sage grouse
Credit U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services (CC-BY-2)

"We have a challenge that the other states don’t have. Most of the sage grouse habitat in the western states is on publicly owned federal land. And in Montana we have 60 percent of the land that is core (habitat) is privately owned. So we really need cooperation via private landowners to help us. And I think there is real opportunities."

Tubbs is a member of the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team that met Tuesday in Helena. In September, Governor Bullock charged them with completing the state’s Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program by the first of the year.

Program Manager Carolyn Sime says the state’s goal is to cooperate with private landowners on development permits.

"The permit applicant then would work with the program to review their proposal and their project with an eye to first avoiding impacts to these key sage grouse habitats, and minimizing the impacts to the habitat in such a way that we're really trying to guide development away from those key areas. We’ve tried to come up with strategies that guide development in a way that would have the least amount of impact on sage grouse, at the same time recognizing that we need to do something to provide incentives for private landowners.”

Those incentives include $10 million in state money for a mitigation program approved by the 2015 legislature to help landowners offset development impacts in places where it can’t be guided away from sage grouse habitat.

DNRC’s John Tubbs says the idea is to allow developments like housing, oil wells and mines, but still protect the birds.

"The mitigation program is there to allow you to proceed with the development. And in order to proceed you'll be purchasing mitigation credits to essentially offset the disturbance you are causing."

When developers want to build in the sage grouse habitat, they will have to apply to the sage grouse conservation program and tell officials what they plan to do. The extent of of work in the habitat will determine the size of the mitigation credits.

"Applicants will be able to go in and draw polygon of where they’re project is, describe that project, and then the tool that we will put out in January calculates the percentage of disturbance that that project will cause. And under the executive order a maximum of 5 percent is allowable. Anything beyond that will need to mitigate the impact of any additional disturbance."

Areas of core sage grouse habitat are located in central Montana near the Charles M Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Other habitat zones are in southwest Montana near Dillon. You can view a map of core sage grouse habitat in Montana here.

Public comment about the Stewardship Grant Program is open until January 22. In early January, public hearings will be held in cities near the core habitat, in Malta, Roundup and Dillon.