Anne Cossitt welcomed the group and reviewed the agenda. Participants introduced themselves.
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.
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.
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 also emailed to anyone who had email addresses on the local working group contact list and who had attended at least one meeting. Copies of the draft letter were passed out at the meeting and Cossitt asked for any comments to be sent to Cossitt by June 18, to allow time for changes and still make the mailing deadline of June 21.
At the last meeting, participants had asked for maps to be developed that showed areas of sagebrush, land ownership, leks, weed infestations, and allotments. John Carlson presented the maps that had been prepared and that were hung on the wall.
In follow-up to a recommendation made at the last meeting, there was a sage grouse station at the Phillips County Conservation District Field Day. Vicki Olson reported that a total of 373 children from grades 1-6 participated in the field day and visited the station.
Charles M. Russell (CMR) National Wildlife Refuge - Current Activities Related to Sage Grouse
Randy Matchett, CMR Wildlife Biologist, gave a presentation on sage grouse related work in the CMR. He discussed the work of three PhD students on sage grouse. Although sage grouse may be in decline in other parts of their habitat, they seem to be doing fairly well on the CMR, so it makes sense to look at the populations there and what might attribute to their success. One of the questions that Brendan Moynihan, one of the PhD students, is attempting to address is, "What are the characteristics of good habitat in this region and what is the relationship between habitat condition and sage grouse vital rates?"
Randy also discussed the effects of West Nile Virus on sage grouse and included statistics on radio-collared sage grouse in Phillips County in 2003. Every mortality that was tested for West Nile Virus last year was confirmed positive for the disease. This disease has serious implications for sage grouse populations.
Questions included the reliability of the map showing historic and current sage grouse range. Randy indicated that in the most recent issue of Condor Magazine, the map had been updated. For Montana, the area around Missoula was deleted as historic range.
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 from the field trip.
One participant indicated that small areas of cropland aren't necessarily a bad thing for sage grouse because it can provide some food in the way of insects (sage grouse don't eat grain). Predators can be an issue for sage grouse, and raptor predation can be enhanced by perching sites along power lines, as was noted on the field trip.
Another participant indicated that it was good to know that people were looking at habitat with an eye toward what exists in this part of Montana, and being realistic about how strictly to apply the habitat condition assessment forms in this area.
Another participant agreed and indicated that sage grouse could do fine in habitat in this area that measures as "marginal" on the field assessment forms. Randy Matchett noted that the work that Brendan Moynihan is doing might help to identify what constitutes good habitat in this region.
Larry Murphy, NRCS, indicated that with the initiation of a new program (CSP) in the lower Yellowstone Region, landowners will self-assess the habitat conditions on their land. There needs to be something simpler than the forms in Appendix B of the state plan in order for landowners to do that.
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 last 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.
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 this local working group meeting is attached to this meeting summary.
Goal 1: Manage sagebrush communities in a manner that results in improved health and no net loss of sagebrush habitats.
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.
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.
Tami Israel, from the Glasgow NRCS office, gave a presentation on conservation incentive programs administered by NRCS. She provided hand-outs and discussed two cost share and financial incentive programs—1) Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and 2) Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP). Both programs are competitive and there are typically more projects proposed than get funded. EQIP projects compete with other projects at the county level, and WHIP projects compete at the state-wide level. Efforts for sage grouse habitat result in higher points for project score on the WHIP program.
Other incentive programs that perhaps could benefit sage grouse include the CSP (Conservation Security Program), which is being initiated in the lower Yellowstone; Wetland Reserve Programs (WRP); and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP program is maxed out in Valley County until 2007, when the program may accommodate some new acreages as old ones are phased out.
For more information visit http://www.usda.gov/programs/farmbill/2002. Anyone interested in a program can contact their local NRCS office. Staff can help with completing project applications.
Dates for the next meetings were set as follows:
September 1, Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.
October 6, Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.
Topic for next meeting will be livestock grazing.
Participants also suggested inviting Al Woodward (sagebrush ecology) and/or M. Stoneburg to attend at upcoming meetings. Maxine Korman can provide more information on Stoneburg.
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).
Daniel A. Gerike