State considers easement funding for sage grouse lands

ARTICLE

Great Falls, Mont. (July 12, 2016) –

An oversight panel in charge of overseeing implementation of the state’s sage grouse habitat conservation plan is soliciting public comment on contributing $2.9 million in state funds toward the purchase of four conservation easements on almost 35,000 acres of private land in northeastern Montana.

The land is important habitat for sage grouse, the prairie bird considered for federal protections until last year.

The Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team is expected to discuss the proposals Aug. 29 and could make a decision at that time to release the funds.

It’s the first set of grant proposals the oversight team has considered since it was created by executive order in 2014, with its mission later defined by the 2015 Legislature. Nine proposals were submitted.

Carolyn Sime, director of the Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program, said the first batch of proposed easements represent a significant step forward in implementing the state’s conservation strategy for the bird.

“All of these easements are located in core habitat,” Sime said. “That’s where we are going to get the biggest bang for the buck.”

The greater sage grouse was once a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act across its range in 11 western states because of population declines.

Montana and 10 other western states developed conservation strategies to conserve sage grouse and address threats caused by habitat fragmentation, development and loss of sagebrush.

In September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a decision not to use the Endangered Species Act to protect the sage grouse based on those commitments.

The 2015 Legislature also set aside $10 million for conservation of sage grouse primarily on private land.

The Nature Conservancy has applied for $422,000 to put toward the purchase of a permanent conservation easement with Julie Burke to conserve 2,596 acres of core sage grouse habitat in the south Phillips County about 35 miles south of Saco.

The Montana Land Reliance has applied for $812,500 for a permanent conservation easement with Raths Livestock to conserve 11,230 acres of core sage grouse habitat in Golden Valley County, northeast of Ryegate.

The Montana Land Reliance also is seeking $162,500 for a permanent conservation easement with Thomas Watson to conserve 2,833 acres of core sage grouse habitat in the south Phillips County northeast of Sun Prairie.

And the Montana Land Reliance also is proposing a permanent conservation easement with the 44 Ranch to conserve 18,033 acres of core sage grouse habitat in Petroleum and Fergus counties north of Grass Range, with the funding request $1.5 million.

Land organizations submitted proposals to the oversight team for the funds.

The landowners, in effect, are paid to give up the right to develop the land, Sime said.

It’s important to note that some of the easements involve matching funds from other organizations, Sime said.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is kicking in $2.4 million toward The Raths Livestock easement, and the landowner is contributing $58,794 to that proposal.

Montana’s conservation strategy focuses on conserving core habitat, where about 75 percent of Montana’s breeding males live, Sime said.

That habitat is located in northeastern, central and southwestern Montana.

Nearly 70 percent of sage grouse habitat in Montana is on private lands and state school trust lands.

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For more information

A copy of each scoping notice, along with a map and more information about the proposed project, is available at sage grouse. Public comments may be submitted through July 21 by mailing written comments to Carolyn Sime, Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program, 1625 11th Ave., Helena, MT 59620. Comments may also be submitted at sage grouse comments.

About sage grouse

Very sensitive to loss of sage brush and to disturbances during the breeding season near leks, open areas where males puff out air sacks in their necks and dance in a mating ritual to attract females

Sage grouse require large, intact interconnected expanses of sagebrush habitat. Sage grouse are slow to respond to changing habitat conditions.

Once lost, sage brush is not easily restored. It takes a very long time.

Nearly 70 percent of sage grouse habitat in Montana is on private lands and state school trust lands.

About 30 percent is on federal land (mostly BLM).

About 28 percent of Montana’s landscape supports about 76 percent of Montana’s sage grouse population.

Montana’s core area strategy centers around avoiding and minimizing disturbance and habitat loss in core areas where 76 percent of Montana’s sage grouse live.

Montana populations can be migratory or non-migratory. Home ranges vary from 1.5 to 237 square miles.

 

Source: Karl Puckett, Great Falls Tribune