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Opponents fear Montana sage grouse bill tips scales for development

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Montana passed a management plan in 2015 that helped keep sage grouse off the federal endangered species list. PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

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HELENA – Conservation groups in Montana are hoping state lawmakers can work out the details on a bill introduced to modify sage grouse protections.

Senate Bill 299 would exempt certain types of development in sage grouse habitat. In particular, the telecommunications industry has raised concerns about performing maintenance and other operations on remote cell towers. 

But the bill raises red flags for Tom Puchlerz, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee who’s now on the Montana Wildlife Federation board. 

He says a diverse group of stakeholders reached the historic agreement to manage sage grouse habitat in 2015, and this bill could erode that.

“It tips the scales in favor of development, and that really handicaps Montana’s effort and our track record of managing that species,” Puchlerz says. “We’ve done a good job of managing sage grouse, and it certainly could lead to a future endangered species listing.”

Puchlerz says implementation of the Montana Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program four years ago kept the bird from being listed as endangered. 

SB 299 has passed the Senate and is now in the House. Its sponsor, Sen. Mike Lang, a Republican from Malta, has been working with conservation groups to amend the bill.

Amy Seaman, conservation program manager for Montana Audubon, says the telecom industry wants to bypass an assessment known as the Habitat Quantification Tool to work on projects already in place. 

She maintains the industry can already do that, making this legislation unnecessary. And she adds if the bill is passed, stronger conservation language should be included as well.

“Why don’t we then add just a little more language to strengthen the fact that this plan does need to get us to a net gain in sagebrush habitat for sage grouse?” Seaman stresses.

Steve Platt, a volunteer board member with the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, says sage grouse habitat protections safeguard other species, such as antelope and mule deer. 

And he says he’s worried management changes could trigger an endangered species listing for the bird.

“An endangered species list decision would be bad for hunters, and agriculture and industry – everybody,” he states. “It would tie our hands and that’s the opposite of what we want to see in Montana.”

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