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Dillon Meeting VII

Next meeting will be march 23, 2005

Meeting Summary

Dillon Sage Grouse Local Working Group

January 26, 2005

Summary prepared by Cossitt Consulting

Welcome/Introduction

Anne Cossitt, Local Working Group Facilitator, welcomed the group and reviewed the agenda. Topics to be covered for the day included an update from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on the listing decision, a presentation on going over next steps for the group (including co-chairs and projects), and a presentation and discussion of livestock grazing issues in relation to sage grouse habitat.

FWS Update

Sierra Harris, of the FWS office in Helena, gave a brief overview of the decision by the FWS not to list sage grouse. Copies of the news release and a question and answer sheet were available for participants. Information is also available on the FWS website.

Harris indicated that the decision was based on what is currently known about sage grouse and that the decision does "mark the end of the chapter for this round," indicating that the decision is final. It is however possible that the situation could change if the decision is successfully appealed or successfully litigated, if the information changes, or if a new petition is filed. Harris also indicated a number of federal grant programs were available to help address sage grouse habitat on private lands, among them the private Stewardship Grant program of the FWS.

Questions included the following:

Q: Could someone turn around tomorrow and file another petition and start the whole thing all over again?

A: Yes.

Q: How long did it take to make the decision on this round?

A: Roughly one year.

Q: What criteria were used to make the decision?

A: More detailed information on the criteria is available on the FWS website.

MT FWP- Presentation by Rick Northrup

Rick Northrup indicated that the Montana Sage Grouse Conservation Plan was final, but that no hard copies had been distributed because they are waiting to get all the signatures to the document. They have all but two signatures now, so it shouldn't be long.

It was pointed out that the website has a version of the document entitled "Draft Final." Rick said the actual final document does not include the word "Draft." (Note: The Cossitt Consulting team checked on this and found that the website has several versions of the draft on the site, but also includes the finalized document as well. The older drafts will be removed from the website to avoid confusion.)

Northrup then presented slides on developments for FWP to enter into an umbrella agreement with the US FWS for Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs). The CCAAs would provide assurances to non-federal property owners who are already taking actions for sage grouse that their conservation efforts will not result in future requirements in excess of those specified in the CCAA if the birds are ever listed. In some cases the CCAA efforts might also provide for "take authorization" in the event the birds are listed. CCAAs can only be entered into before the specie is listed, not after.

Developing a CCAA program in Montana is a work in progress. FWP is working with NRCS and other organizations (including the Stockgrowers and National Wildlife Federation) to develop the CCAA approach. FWP would hold an "umbrella agreement" with the US FWS. Then, under the umbrella, individual landowners could become part of the CCAA with individual certificates of inclusion. The underlying premise is that the CCAA would work for the landowners' needs and also meet the needs of sage grouse and sage grouse habitat. Under the draft proposed program, landowners would incorporate grazing management and efforts to maintain native vegetation to qualify for the CCAA. Northrup specifically referenced a "3-Treatment" grazing system that provides for varied levels and timing of grazing use on a 3 year cycle (and including periods of one-year rest once every 3 years for pastures in the system). Maintaining the native vegetation would include protection of sagebrush from fire, herbicide, tillage, or conversion (recognizing that in some cases some disturbance might be within the context of what constitutes good sage grouse habitat and therefore might be allowed).

Northrup also mentioned a variety of programs that could help provide funding for improvement projects including the EQIP, WHIP, CSP programs of NRCS, and the FWP programs (such as the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program) which can be used as part of the required match for federal programs.

Participants raised a number of questions regarding details of the program, including concerns about the limitations to landowners of a 3-treatment system, and ability of CCAAs to cover other concerns such as weeds and hunting. Participants were encouraged to submit their comments and questions to Rick Northrup (FWP, Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701, 444-5633) or Pete Husby (NRCS, Federal Building, Room 443, 10 E. Babcock Street, Bozeman, MT 59715, 587-6902, pete.husby@mt.usda.gov)

Local Working Group- Next Steps

Cossitt reminded the group that the initial effort for getting the local working groups underway would end in March and after that the groups would begin the next phase. Cossitt Consulting, was contracted by the state to provide assistance on the first phase only. So after the next meeting, Cossitt Consulting would no longer be providing facilitation.

Cossitt reminded the group that at the last meeting they had decided to keep the group informal but with leadership provided by two co-chairs, at least one of whom was a private individual (non-government). Agencies said that they would provide logistical support (such as sending out meeting notices, etc.).

Cossitt then reviewed a draft updated charter for the group's next phase. Some participants indicated that they felt the group would work better with the assistance of a facilitator (in addition to the two co-chairs). Cossitt encouraged persons to be sure and submit other comments after the meeting (in writing or by phone) if they thought of any.

The group at also agreed at the last meeting to begin looking at projects. Based on information from the last meeting, Cossitt prepared project descriptions and these were reviewed and discussed by the group. These included:

  • Coordination of sage-grouse related information
  • Habitat Location and Characterization of Seasonal Sage Grouse Use Areas
  • Weed Control in Breeding/Brooding habitat
  • Promotion of Adopt-a-Lek

The group prioritized the projects, with "Habitat Location and Characterization" as the number 1 priority, and "Weed Control" as the second priority (but excluding public outreach efforts such as a brochure, and instead focusing specific weed infestations). Cossitt said she would follow up to get these projects further along by the next meeting.

The group next discussed co-chairs. Bill Garrison, George Trischman, and Craig Fager indicated they would be willing to serve as co-chairs. Bill Garrison raised a question, asking the group if it wouldn't be a good idea to have an agency person as a co-chair, since the agencies would provide logistical support. The group agreed to have Craig Fager as one of the co-chairs. After a ballot vote, George Trischman was elected as the other co-chair.

Livestock Grazing

Jeff Mosley, Professor of Range Science and Extension Range Management Specialist at Montana State University-Bozeman, gave a presentation on livestock grazing and sage grouse habitat.

Mosley began by presenting information on guidelines for sage brush canopy cover (breeding habitat: 15-25%, brood-rearing habitat: 10-25%, and winter habitat: 10-30%). He noted that these are ranges and the high end of each range is not necessarily the goal.

Livestock grazing can have negative, neutral, or positive effects depending upon how the grazing is managed. Livestock grazing likely has a negligible effect whenever grazing sustains native plant communities and ecosystem processes. Light to moderate stocking rates and low stock densities can help create/maintain landscape-scale mosaics of plant successional stages and vegetation that favor sage grouse. Livestock distribution must be controlled to limit grazing impacts to leks, brooding areas, and wet meadows. Grazing regimes that achieve uniform livestock distribution at >60% utilization are generally less compatible with sage grouse. Fences and water developments can be designed and constructed in ways compatible with sage grouse.

Timing of Grazing

  • Heavy livestock grazing in sagebrush steppe uplands in the late spring-early summer removes herbaceous perennials and once affected, they may not change for decades, even with complete livestock exclusion
  • Livestock grazing can potentially disturb nesting. Sheep should be excluded for nesting areas from egg-laying through incubation, and other livestock should be herded as loosely as possible, and avoiding prime nesting areas.
  • Changing from season-long grazing to spring-only grazing has improved riparian vegetation.
  • If grazing in meadows and riparian areas occurs in late summer, it should be limited to no more often than once every 3-4 years

Intensity of Grazing

  • Sagebrush cover generally increases as utilization of the herbaceous understory increases.

Fences and Water Development

  • Where possible, locate fences away from swales and ridgelines
  • White-topped steel fence posts and cloth strips tied to the top wire make fences more visible and avoid sage grouse collisions
  • Sage grouse benefit from water developments. It is preferable to provide water at ground level, such as from a water trough overflow or by constructing small pools with concrete bottoms, but ramps up troughs may also work. Fence springs and have livestock drink from nearby troughs.

Questions and comments from the group included:

  • The presentation focused quite a bit on brooding habitat, but winter habit (and focus on uplands) is also important
  • There are questions about canopy cover of forbs and grasses in relation to the bio-mass. NRCS and BLM have habitat guidelines based on plant production (yield)—but that doesn't relate directly to canopy cover. There is no "bridge" between these systems as of yet.

Participants

Kelly Bockting
Tim Bozorth
Ben Deeble
Nate Finch
Pat Fosse
Barbara Garcia
Robert Garcia
Bill Garrison
Dick Gosman
Craig Fager
Jim Hagenbarth
Ross Hansen
Sierra Harris
Garth Haugland
Pete Husby
Thomas Komberec
Chuck Maddox
Sue Marxer
Dick Moore
Bruce Nelson
Frank Nelson
Rick Northrup
Michael Parker
Reyer Rens
Jim Roscoe
Brian Thrift
George Trischman
Rich Wheeler
Jeff Warren