Summary prepared by Cossitt Consulting
Lou Hanebury, US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) biologist from Billings, gave a brief update on the FWS decision not to list sage grouse. Copies of the news release announcing the listing decision and a question and answer publication produced by FWS on the 12-month finding were available at the meeting.
Hanebury noted that the FWS decision had not yet been released on the federal register. Once released, it will provide more details on the decision-making. Hanebury indicated that based on what is currently known sage grouse are not likely to become endangered or extinct in the foreseeable future. There is still concern for the species, but it just did not meet the high bar required for listing.
Hanebury said that he was part of the team that reviewed the Montana plan and that he would like to come to another meeting of the group and present what in that plan met the two basic FWS review criteria—1) that the conservation action(s) will be implemented, and 2) that the action(s) will be effective. Hanebury stated that the two most outstanding elements of the Montana state plan were the Sagebrush Initiative program and the harvest management program that would provide for regional hunting closures as needed. These programs were determined effective because the legal authority to implement the programs was in place, funding was secured, and they would be effective in addressing sage grouse viability.
Questions included the following:
Q: How did the rest of the states' plans compare with what Montana is doing?
A: The review was range-wide, not state-specific.
Q: What about the specific issues related to the sage grouse populations in eastern Washington?
A: The decision was for the greater sage grouse range-wide. The eastern Washington population has been determined to be a specific sub-species, already reviewed by FWS, with a separate, previous determination about that specific population.
Q: How long before this gets appealed?
A: It could get appealed. One petitioner has indicated they would not file an appeal right away, instead they will wait to see what happens with implementation of local and state plans and differences those actions can make for the birds. But there were other petitioners, and they have not made similar commitments.
Comment: The news release says that greater sage grouse are found at elevations of 4,000 to 9,000 feet. That should be corrected—much of the habitat in Montana is below 4,000 feet.
Anne Cossitt also read comments sent by Lori Nordstrom, FWS biologist from Helena, which echoed those made by Hanebury, and which also included the point that it is crucial to continue efforts to address sage grouse populations and habitat in order to ensure that FWS does not need to revisit a listing in the future.
Cossitt distributed a hand-out with short project descriptions for consideration by the working group.
GIS-Based Baseline Information . Cossitt introduced Mickey Steward, of the Wyoming coalbed methane coordination coalition, to present on the project "Development of GIS-based, Baseline Information by Watershed." This project had been suggested previously by Watty Taylor (who ranches near Decker), since he had seen the presentation earlier and the project is being considered by the Rosebud Watershed group. Some maps have already been compiled and are available on the Rosebud Conservation District website.
Steward briefly discussed the need to compile information in one place and the benefits of having that information mapped so that trends/key items can be identified quickly by geographic area. There is already a wide variety of information available from a variety of sources. It can be augmented with new research or with information on specific infrastructure on individual ranches (when the landowner voluntary wants to have that information mapped). It can be helpful to the landowner for a variety of purposes.
Mapped information can be helpful for sage grouse populations and habitat by mapping leks, key habitat and other relevant information in relation to other factors such as roads, energy development, water sources, power-lines etc.
Steward presented examples from the Dead Horse watershed in Wyoming. She said that using existing data available from public sources, it can cost about $5,000 to do the baseline GIS for a 95,000 acre watershed.
Kent Undlin, BLM biologist, reviewed need for getting better data and understanding of how sage grouse use winter habitat. There are pretty good data on leks, but there is a gap in what is known about sage grouse winter habitat use. Identifying how the birds use winter habitat would be key to know to how to target efforts at winter habitat protection. The local working group could be involved in helping to secure funding for a study, which would need to include radio-collaring the birds (and that can be very expensive). It would be good if sample populations in a variety of areas (e.g., Jordan, Broadus, other locations) could be studied to compare winter habitat use.
John Ensign talked the concept of focusing on a particular area with sage grouse and testing various methods to improve habitat and sage grouse population while maintaining livestock or other production. It could use computer tools, such as the GIS technology, to focus efforts, and monitor and evaluate progress.
Cossitt distributed a hand-out with suggested roles for co-chairs. Two persons had volunteered to serve as co-chairs—Ron Devlin and Doug Campbell. Cossitt asked if there were any other nominations for co-chairs. There were none and the group elected Ron Devlin and Doug Campbell as co-chairs.
The national sage grouse local working group meeting will be held on November 11-12 in Sparks, NV. The Western Governors' Association is sponsoring four scholarships for local working group members for each state. The proposal for Montana's scholarships is for one co-chair from each group (Miles City, Dillon, Glasgow) and one designate nominated by the Stockman's Association. Doug Campbell will attend as co-chair from the Miles City local working group. Anyone else who is interested is encouraged to attend the meeting, details of which are available at the Western Governors' Association website.
The next meeting date of the Miles City local working group in Miles City was set for Monday, March 21. Topics will include finalizing approach of the working group for the next year (including projects), and fire management conservation strategies.
Randy Nordsven, BLM Assistant Field Manager for Minerals, gave a quick overview of energy development in southeastern Montana. There are three major energy development areas covered by the Miles City BLM Field Office—the Bakken formation (oil and gas) near Sidney, the Cedar Creek anticline (oil and gas) that extends roughly from Glendive to Baker, and Decker area coal and coalbed methane gas development. There is not much sage grouse habitat in the area around the Bakken formation. Nordsven indicated that Fidelity is the major developer of coalbed methane in the Decker area in Montana.
Kent Undlin, BLM biologist, added that there is a Wildlife Monitoring and Protection Plan for the Decker area that developers are required to follow when developing federal minerals. The BLM also has a national sage grouse conservation strategy and the guidelines from the state plan that it uses in reviewing and approving stipulations and conditions of approval for energy development.
Bruce Waage, Montana DEQ Reclamation Specialist-Coal Program, presented slides of coal mining reclamation and generally discussed coal mining surface impacts and re-vegetation programs. He touched on:
Joe Icenogle, Fidelity Exploration and Production Company, reviewed the overall process of operations for coalbed methane development. He reviewed requirements that the company is already addressing regarding sage grouse, using a map that showed a seasonal restrictions around leks (and deer winter habitat). He also pointed out the restrictions pose challenges for development companies because they end up with a restricted construction season (June through December). Points brought up by Icenogle included:
Participants had a number of questions regarding water production from the wells and how that would be managed, spacing of the wells. It was pointed out that multiple companies working the same field don't always coordinate and it can result in duplicative infrastructure (such as roads).
BLM requests Local Working Group Involvement in RMP Update
David McIlnay, Miles City BLM Field Office Manager, notified the group that the BLM is about to start updating the Resource Management Area Plan for eastern Montana. As part of that effort, the plan will be updated to include actions for sage grouse, both as identified in the Montana state conservation plan and in the BLM national sage grouse strategy. The Miles City Field Office wants local working group involvement in the update.
Jon David, BLM
John Ensign, FWP
Clark Fritz, Kiewett Mining
Bob Green, Kenecott Energy
Lou Hanebury, FWS
Joe Icenogle, Fidelity
Peter Martin, Western Energy Company
David McIlnay, BLM
Larry Murphy, NRCS
Randy Nordsven, BLM
Sharla Sackman, Prairie County Extension Office
Brad Sauer, BLM
Mickey Steward, Coalbed Methane Coordination Coalition
Dale Tribby, BLM
Carol Watts, Custer County Conservation District