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Miles City Meeting IV

Meeting Summary

Miles City Sage Grouse Local Working Group

June 14, 2004

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 her 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, and Cossitt asked for any comments to be sent to her by June 18, to allow time for changes and still make the mailing deadline of June 21. Bob Green indicated he had sent in some suggested changes and indicated that any studies that are being done should be referenced. Kent Undlin indicated that the BLM did an extensive review of their work and that is being sent in as well. There was no one present who knew if any other federal or state agencies were submitting similar information. Some of the new studies include the research being done by Brendan Moynihan and others in Montana. Another study that was suggested was the 1980 work of George Grewell. It was also suggested that FWS be informed of the proposed Sagebrush Initiative effort of FWP.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Conservation Incentive Programs

John Ensign 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
  • One-time payment of $12/acre ($7,680/square mile)
  • 30-year term recorded agreement
  • No grazing restrictions

Funding projects are 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 develop rest-rotation grazing systems by providing cost share, and the Habitat Montana Program, which helps purchase conservation easements.

Questions included the following:

  • What if there is a natural fire (not prescribed)? Answer: It would still meet the terms of the easement, which prohibits prescribed fire.
  • What's the minimum size that would be needed to qualify? The area within 2 miles of a lek may not all be owned by one person. Answer: FWP may consider units as small as 40 acres.
  • How much sage brush land is being cut, treated with herbicides, plowed, or burned now? Answer: Don't know for sure.

Persons interested in these programs should contact John Ensign 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. There were a number of comments about the complexity of the form(s) and need to make it simpler if it is going to be used by landowners. Some suggestions included:

Develop a booklet with photos to display various habitat types and conditions
Use photos (from various angles) to provide a general indication of percent of canopy cover
Use a graduated scale from 0-10 to indicate quality of habitat.
Larry Murphy of the NRCS indicated that the new CSP program being initiated in the lower Yellowstone River region would use a landowner self-assessment of conditions, being developed now. Larry will present the CSP program and other NRCS programs at the next meeting.

Other comments were:

  • When assessing the habitat, look at the full landscape, not just the particular pasture or area at hand.
  • Assess the age of sagebrush.

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.

The group suggested that the county weed districts are likely leads for work on weeds and they should be added to the matrix.

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.

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: The group agreed that conifer encroachment can be a problem in some locations in southeastern Montana. BLM and USFS are doing some work related to conifer encroachment.
  • Conservation Actions:
    BLM and USFS are doing some mapping of conifer encroachment and are also doing some treatments. All agencies are doing some reclaiming and reseeding for disturbed areas, but generally there does not seem to be any specific focus on sage grouse habitat at this time.
  • 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.
  • Conservation Actions:
    Although generally BLM does not get involved in conservation easements, the BLM and the state are working on a few in southeastern Montana.
  • 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.
  • Conservation Actions:
    Soils maps could be used to refine the sagebrush cover mapping. Areas of sagebrush should be compared against topography, since sage grouse prefer flat expanses. Mapping at the state level (mid- to broad-scale) has been done as part of the FWP Sagebrush Initiative program.

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: People may be aware of areas in poor condition, but these have not been mapped.
  • Conservation Action 2: Evaluate the site potential and desired condition and develop specific objectives accordingly within specific landscapes.
  • Discussion: BLM, grazing districts, and private landowners are doing this to varying degrees. The emphasis, however, has been on livestock management rather than specifically for sage grouse. It was noted that improving the site potential for livestock and for sage grouse could result in the same management objectives and techniques.
  • Conservation Action 3: (Various methods to address if sagebrush is lacking)
  • Discussion: This has not been an emphasis in the past for any agency, entity, or individual. Mining companies, as part of their reclamation, are (may be?) including some sagebrush in their reseedings and plantings of disturbed areas.
  • Conservation Action 4: (Various methods to address if mature sagebrush dominates with suppressed undercover).

Discussion: It was noted that livestock can eliminate some of the mature cover---they will eat it. Currently, the most frequently used treatment in SE MT is fire.

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 (participants recommended two new categories be added to the matrix-- private sector landowners and mining industry):

  • Kent Undlin for BLM (general), Brenda Witkowski, BLM contact for weeds
  • Scott Cassel for DNRC
  • Larry Murphy for NRCS
  • John Ensign for FWP
  • Jay Bodner for private landowners (stockgrowers)
  • Bob Green, Kennicott Mining, for the mining industry

Wrap Up

Dates for the next meetings were set:

August 30, Monday at 3:00 p.m.

October 4, Monday at 3:00 p.m.

Topic for next meeting will be livestock grazing.

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). One participant asked if the meetings were helpful to the agencies and/or affecting the way they would go about doing things. Agency representatives indicated it was very helpful to have landowners at the meetings.

Participants

Scott Cassel
Tom Courtney
Dawn Doran
Ron Devlin
John Ensign
Bob Green
Ward Jackson
George Luther
Tom Mackey
Peter Martin
Scott McAvoy
Larry Murphy
Bill Pruitt
Brad Sauer
Dean Seifert
Watty Taylor
Kent Undlin
Lance Vermeire
Carol Watts
Phoebe Williams