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Dillon Meeting IV

Meeting Summary
Dillon Sage Grouse Local Working Group
June 23, 2004

Deseret Land and Livestock Presentation

In response to interest expressed at a previous local working group meeting, the BLM hosted a presentation by the Deseret Land and Livestock Company out of Utah. The presentation preceded the regular working group meeting.

Rick Danvir, biologist with the Deseret Land and Livestock Company, presented a power point slide show of what the ranch, located in northeastern Utah close to the Idaho and Wyoming borders, has been doing to improve livestock production in coordination with wildlife goals. He indicated that the ranch's mission statement focuses on making a profit. By managing grazing to more closely mimic grazing from native grazing animals, the ranch has been able to increase herd size and wildlife (including big game) populations between 1983 and 2000. They try to make sure that 90% of the cattle are on 10% of the ground at one time during periods of rapid grass growth, and they limit the grazing in any one location to 10 days or less during periods of rapid grass growth.

Danvir also provided basic information on sage grouse on the property and various sagebrush treatment methods that have been used on the ranch to promote forage and understory in areas of dense sagebrush. They try to obtain a mosaic when treating to avoid large contiguous areas without sagebrush.

When asked what had made the biggest difference over time-grazing management or sagebrush treatment, Rick Danvir responded that if you could do only one thing, that managing the grazing is most cost effective.

Welcome/Introductions/Updates/Follow-Up

Anne Cossitt welcomed the group and reviewed the agenda. Participants introduced themselves.

State Plan Status

Cossitt told the group that a revised (second) Environmental Assessment (EA) was being issued by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the state sage grouse conservation plan. Anyone who received the Final Draft Plan and EA in March/April of this year will also be sent the new EA, she believes. Copies of the new EA were available at the meeting.

WAFWA Conservation Assessment

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) has completed its detailed assessment of sage grouse. The 610 page document is available on the internet at http://sagegrouse.wafwa.org/. This document will be reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as part of the status review they are now conducting.

Letter from local sage grouse working groups to FWS

Cossitt indicated that at the last round of local working group meetings, participants had directed Cossitt to draft a letter from the local working groups to FWS to inform them of the work that is being done by the groups. That letter is on the local working group website. It was sent to anyone who has attended a local working group meeting in Dillon as well as to the other local working group attendees in Miles City and Glasgow. Referring to the internal deadline of June 18 for local working group members to comment, Cossitt indicated most responses were positive and a few persons responded with some changes. The letter will be revised and sent by the FWS deadline of July 1 (revised from the earlier deadline of June 21).

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Conservation Incentive Programs

Craig Fager presented a slide show about Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MT FWP) programs that could benefit sage brush habitat for sage grouse. He gave some background on current sage grouse habitat conditions in Montana, indicating that most of the remaining habitat in Montana is primarily rangeland, and that nearly 50% of the remaining habitat in Montana is in private ownership.

The Sagebrush Initiative, developed by MT FWP, is based on the following key components:

  • Voluntary sagebrush lease agreement program (private land).
  • Protect sagebrush-grasslands from:
  • Herbicides
  • Prescribed fire
  • Plowing
  • Sagebrush manipulation activities (Rick Northrup, FWP Biologist in Helena, added that FWP may be revising the strict restriction on any sagebrush manipulation topotentially allow for it in specific cases where it would work to the benefit of sage grouse)
  • One-time payment of $12/acre ($7680/square mile)
  • 30-year term recorded agreement
  • No grazing restrictions

Funding projects is based on priority, which is primarily factored by considering importance of the area to sage grouse and type and use of land. Highest priority areas are based on:

  • Core and Peripheral habitats
  • High sage grouse densities
  • Less than 61% federal land
  • Less than 35% cropped

Other FWP habitat programs include the Upland Game Bird Habitat Enhancement Program (UGBHEP), which helps develops rest rotation grazing systems by providing cost share, and the Habitat Montana Program, which helps purchase conservation easements.

Persons interested in these programs should contact Craig Fager or other local FWP staff.

Vegetation Field Trip Wrap-Up

Cossitt briefly described the location and purpose of the morning field trip, which was to examine seasonal habitats in the field and use the habitat assessment forms in the plan to assess condition. She asked field trip participants to share what they thought was important to remember.

Comments included:

  • Analysis should focus on the specifics of the site-the forms don't always lend themselves to that (however, one participant noted the forms are likely more suited to the habitat around the Dillon area than they may be to use in the other local working group areas in Glasgow and Miles City)
  • The three rating categories in the assessment form-suitable, marginal, and not suitable-are too rigid, there should be something else
  • The analysis should focus on the site potential-the soils, moisture, etc.-may all affect the site's capacity for good sage grouse habitat
  • Analysis should take into consideration other factors that affect sage grouse, such as predators

Follow-up from Noxious Weeds Discussion at Previous Meeting

Cossitt referred to a hand-out for the noxious weeds conservation actions that were discussed at the previous meeting. The hand-out included each of the goals, issues, and conservation actions in a matrix format with columns for comments made at each of the three local working groups in Miles City, Dillon, and Glasgow, as well as columns for various agencies.

Cossitt noted that the matrix was still a work in progress that builds on the work from each local working group and that adds more specific information on what each agency or group is currently doing related to a specific conservation action. The intent is to highlight the gaps and to focus on how those might be addressed. Cossitt noted that much work was accomplished at the local working group meetings, and good suggestions for some actions came from those meetings, but the work needs to progress to the next level. If there was a suggestion for "coordination among the agencies," for example, then the action plan should indicate who would initiate that coordination and how it would be done.

Cossitt asked for participants to consider volunteering to help develop the detail for the matrix. She also noted that a similar approach would be taken with the work done for power lines at the last meeting and for future conservation issue topics as well.

Vegetation Conservation Actions

As a full group, participants reviewed goals, issues, and conservation actions for vegetation as laid out in the state plan. Cossitt handed out a matrix similar to the one for noxious weeds. The revised matrix, which includes comments made at the meeting is attached to this meeting summary.

General topics that came up during the discussion of vegetation included the following:

Effects of Hunting on Sage Grouse: Ray Marxer noted that it didn't make sense to take all of these actions and still allow sage grouse to be hunted. Rick Northrup, FWP biologist, responded that there is a provision in the state plan that would prohibit or limit hunting in specific areas if the bird populations were determined to be imperiled in those specific locations. Jim Hagenbarth added that the biggest population loss occurs with the juvenile population. Hunting affects mature birds, as do other factors, such as mortalities by birds crashing into fence lines or power lines. Jim Hagenbarth urged a consistent approach to applying conservation actions-if there are actions to be taken for mature bird mortalities-they should be equally rigorous for power lines, fences, hunting, and other factors that affect mature bird mortality. Rick Northrup added that a study of the effects of hunting on bird populations is currently being conducted in central Montana. Sam Milodragovich also mentioned that Northwest Energy had funded a study of eagle electrocutions on power lines and was doing other research as well.

Goal 1: Manage sagebrush communities in a manner that results in improved health and no net loss of sagebrush habitats.

Issue: 1a: Conifer encroachment reduces sagebrush habitat.

Discussion: A participant noted the work of George Gruell may be useful on this topic. (Note also that George Gruell came up in discussion at the Miles City meeting and his work was cited in the letter sent to FWS.) Pat Fosse noted that burned areas, especially smaller areas within patchworks of conifers, can create great grazing for elk, which in turn can create such an impact that they destroy the very sage grouse habitat that was trying to be protected or re-established. It was also noted that satellite imagery really needs to be ground-truthed in many places.

Issue 1b: Key privately owned sagebrush grassland habitats may be at risk of manipulation.

Discussion: NRCS and FWP are the agencies that provide and/or administer incentive programs. BLM does not generally get involved in conservation easements.

Issue 1c: Information regarding sagebrush distribution is incomplete.

Discussion: BLM, USFS, and FWP are working cooperatively on the effort to obtain and map better information on sagebrush related to sage grouse needs. FWP spent $250,000 last year on mapping sage grouse habitat as part of a multi-year effort. It was noted that there are still places in the Dillon area where information is incomplete.

Goal 2: Provide for a density, composition, and diversity of sagebrush in Montana that meet seasonal needs of sage grouse while contributing to overall community health.

Issue 2a: The age distribution of sagebrush may have been altered by management, e.g., a young stand recovering from disturbance or a mature stand with poor regeneration

  • Conservation Action 1: Map and inventory areas believed to be deficient in quality of habitat or exhibiting poor health.
    Discussion: Some work is being done as part of BLM and USFS watershed assessments (also note the study being done by the Big Hole Watershed regarding vegetative diversity).
  • Conservation Action 2: Evaluate the site potential and desired condition and develop specific objectives accordingly within specific landscapes.
    Discussion: Participants generally concurred that the site potential may be different according to conditions (soil, precipitation, etc.) at specific sites. Specific objectives should take those factors into consideration.
  • Conservation Action 3: (Various methods to address if sagebrush is lacking)
    Discussion: Many participants commented that sagebrush doesn't seem to be lacking, but noted that there may need to more diversity (age, height, etc) within the sagebrush stands. It was also noted that much original habitat was converted in past decades (not just in Dillon but statewide). Greytack Corporation was cited as a major force (in the 1970s?) in converting large areas throughout the state from sagebrush to cropland. The group generally concurred that the focus should be to retain and maintain the existing functional good sage grouse habitat (rather than re-establishing in areas that have been converted or depleted of sagebrush).
  • Conservation Action 4: (Various methods to address if mature sagebrush dominates with suppressed undercover).
    Discussion: Some one indicated that Long Creek is a good example of where sagebrush dominates-stands are tall as the tables in the room and very dense. Bob Brannon indicated that generally throughout the area there has been a lot of fire treatment over the past 30 years that has reduced total area of sagebrush. Gary Hammond noted that an occasional fire (once every 30 years) may not destroy sagebrush but repetitive fire can certainly do so. Another participant indicated that determining where burns should take place should be done on a macro scale.

Time did not allow for further review of conservation actions. Participants volunteered to work with the Cossitt Consulting Team on completing the remaining portions and with other conservation action topics as follows.

George Trishman, Grazing Districts
Chuck Maddox, DNRC
Barbara Garcia, USFS
Craig Fager, FWP

Wrap Up

Dates for the next meetings were set at:

September 15, Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.
October 13, Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.

Topic for next meeting will be roads and recreation.

Cossitt asked the group if the meetings were useful to folks and to serve the purpose of adopting a local action plan. Participants indicated that they preferred working as a single group on the conservation actions rather than in smaller groups (as long as the single group wasn't too large).

Participants

Tim Bozorth
Bob Brannon
Ben Deeble
Craig Fager
Pat Fosse
Barbara Garcia
Mark J. Goedon
Jim Hagenbrth
Art Hall
Gary Hammond
Ross Hansen
Garth Haugland
Jamie Jackman
Kim Krueger
Ray Marxer
Sue Marxer
Poncho McCoy
Sam Milodragovich
Bruce Nelson
Rick Northrup
Dan Pence
Reyer Rens
Patti Rowland
Steve Sherman
George Trischman
Rich Wheeler
Brad Weatherd
Ron B. Wiseman
Colleen Wisinski