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Miles City Meeting VIII

Meeting Summary

Miles City Sage Grouse Local Working Group

March 21, 2005

Summary prepared by Cossitt Consulting

Welcome/Introduction

Anne Cossitt, Local Working Group Facilitator, welcomed the group, reviewed the agenda, and the overall goals of the conservation plan and local working group effort. Purpose of the meeting was to:

  • Chart the course of the local working group over the next year
  • Review and discuss effects of prescribed fire and wildfire and on sage grouse and related conservation actions in the state plan

Fire Management

Brad Sauer, BLM, introduced Dr. Lance Vermeire of the Fort Keogh Experiment Station and Randy Sanders of DNRC. Brad Sauer provided copies of an April 17, 2000 memo that included a review by seven BLM fire ecologists of the "Draft Interim Management Guidelines for Sage Grouse and Sagebrush-Steppe Ecosystems."

Dr. Vermiere presented a power point presentation on sage brush ecology and fire. He told the group there are many varieties of sagebrush, but four basic types in the Miles City area—Black Sage, Wyoming Big Sage, Fringed Sage, and Silver Sage. He noted that the Black Sage was pretty uncommon in the area, and the other species were more common.

Although there is not an extensive body of research on the long-term history of sage brush (in part because it does not have the same sort of "rings" used in identifying the history of trees), he did make some statements about sagebrush and fire history.

Sagebrush Type

Fire History

Black Sage

rarely burns, in part because it is usually in rocky areas where there is little other fire fuel

Wyoming Big Sage

burns in 10-70 year interval

Fringed Sage

burns probably at intervals of less than 35 years in broken landscapes, but more frequently on open plains

Silver Sage

burns in 5-20 year interval

 

Sagebrush Type

Response to Fire

Black Sage

Non-sprouter, easily killed

Wyoming Big Sage

Non-sprouter, easily killed, 25+ year recovery, seeds out to about 30 feet (so the larger the area burned, the longer the total recovery time)

Fringed Sage

Sprouter, results mixed

Silver Sage

Sprouter—meets or exceeds pre-fire cover

Fire also affects the sage grouse habitat in other ways—it can kill insects (a major food source, especially for young birds). How forbs respond to fire depends in large parts on weather, moisture, and seasonal conditions.

Dr. Vermeire raised a question about the spatial requirements for determining adequacy of sage brush canopy. For example, a small area may have quite a dense canopy cover, but over a larger area, canopy may be dense in some areas and sparse in others. What is the correct spatial scale to use to determine the sage brush canopy? Chad Cyrus pointed out the recent study by Brendan Moynihan that indicated the need to consider large landscape areas. (Note that Brendan Moynihan's paper is available on the Montana Sage Grouse Local Working Group website.)

Dr. Vermeire advised that any prescribed burning is best done when there is snow on the ground (especially if the snow is a foot or more deep) as it provides some protection for seedlings.

Brad Sauer discussed BLM and Forest Service actions related to the goals, issues, and conservation actions for fire management in the state plan. The state plan focuses on two key aspects of fire management—prescribed fire and wildfire. Prescribed fires are planned fires with specific objectives, such as the reduction of sagebrush cover to promote herbaceous plants. Sauer told the group that the federal agencies (BLM and U.S. Forest Service) in the Miles City area are not prescribing any fire on lands they manage. Any prescribed fire would have to meet NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) criteria and process, which address most of the conservation actions for prescribed fire in the state plan.

For wildfire, the highest priorities are human life and safety, and community and structure protection. On large wildfires, agencies work together with resource teams to consider protection of other resources, such as sage grouse habitat. Sauer noted that heavy equipment used to build fire lines can have an impact on sage grouse habitat and should be considered in recovery programs. After a fire, agencies put together a burned area recovery plan (required to be completed two weeks after the fire) that addresses rehabilitation of burned or disturbed areas.

Currently agencies are focusing proactive treatments to reduce the risk of wildfire around wildland urban interface areas—the areas with the greatest potential to cause damage to human safety and structures.

Cossitt asked the group if local private landowners wanted some assistance in making decisions about prescribed burns, where would they likely turn to for information. Participants responded that many landowners, perhaps most, may not know enough about the sage grouse issue to be even asking the question. Cossitt also asked what sort of assistance might be available to local fire departments or private landowners to identify key habitat and set up mechanisms to protect that habitat during and after wildfires. Randy Sanders of DNRC said that they do what they can, put they are pretty stretched.

Updates

  • National Sage Grouse Local Working Group meeting . Doug Campbell, Joe Icenogle, and Larry Murphy, who attended the meeting February 11-12 in Reno, shared some of their observations with the group. They indicated that participation at the meeting was very good—several hundred people. A written meeting summary and other more detailed information are available at the Western Governors' Association (WGA) website. WGA was a sponsor of the national meeting. (Cossitt provided hard copies to participants.)
  • Montana Sage Grouse Group—statewide meeting in Lewistown, Februrary 22-23 . Doug Campbell, John Ensign, Chad Cyrus, and Kent Undlin attended a meeting in Lewistown of persons who had worked on the state plan. Key items at that meeting were updates from the various agencies, and how to move forward with next steps for local working groups. Recommendations from the meeting will go to a small committee of funding agencies who will meet in the next month or so. Cossitt indicated that this group would also be making a decision on allocation of funds saved from savings on the Cossitt Consulting team contract, some funds of which may be available for the three local working groups (Glasgow, Dillon, and Miles City.
  • Summary of Conservation Action Status . Cossitt had handouts of this document available for participants and described it as a brief review of actions toward implementing the Montana state plan. This work started as the "matrices" that were reviewed at each meeting. Cossitt indicated that it focuses primarily on what agencies are doing because of the difficulty in compiling what is being done at the private level. Participants can submit any suggested changes to Cossitt by April 11.
  • CCAA . Cossitt summarized the current status of the work FWP is doing to set up a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) program for sage grouse that would protect landowners in the event that sage grouse might be listed under the Endangered Species Act. In the current draft, participation by a landowner would require a 3-treatment grazing system. For more information, contact Rick Northrup at the FWP offices in Helena.

Action Plan

Cossitt reviewed the Draft Action Plan for the Miles City Local Working Group. The group agreed that it generally worked as a starting document, recognizing that they could change it later if warranted.

Participants had some general questions about the scope of the local working group. What was the geographic area covered by this group? Someone suggested it was pretty similar to the FWP Region 7 area and perhaps that could work. . If the purpose is to maintain or improve habitat and population, shouldn't we know what the baseline is for a specific geographic area? Participants also wondered if an annual meeting would be enough—perhaps there should be quarterly meetings.

Doug Campbell took over the meeting and asked several questions of the group. Should this group have formal membership with voting rights? Should the group have bylaws? What about identifying a secretary to take meeting notes and a treasurer to approve and track funding and expenses?

No decisions were made at the meeting on these questions. As indicated in the draft Action Plan, the agencies would take on the administrative functions that might otherwise be filled by a board secretary (sending out notices, taking meeting notes, etc.) until a decision is made by the group. John Ensign (FWP) agreed to be responsible for the administrative functions in the interim. Persons who attended the statewide meeting on February 22-23 also indicated that some logistical support for the local working groups will be discussed by the funding agencies (and hopefully provided for the future).

The following changes will be made to the document based on discussion at the meeting:

  • Charter
    • Membership/Organization
      • Clarify that "stakeholders" includes sportsmen; landowners; oil and gas companies; agricultural interests; and local, state and federal agencies
  • Key Issues
    • Clarify that the FWS priority items are included in the Action Plan as background information. The priority issues for the Miles City area local working group are separate and different.
    • Add predation and hunting to the list of key issues.
    • Eliminate reference to club moss
  • Executive Committee and Co-Chairs
    • An executive committee will be established to provide support to the co-chairs between meetings and will include agency representation. The first executive committee will consist of the co-chairs, Chad Cyrus (as a vice co-chair), Larry Murphy (NRCS), Kent Undlin (BLM), and John Ensign (FWP).
  • Meetings
    • The Executive Committee will meet as necessary between meetings of the full group.
    • There should be annual field tour for the local working group.

The Executive Committee will meet to discuss group business and will be setting a date and agenda for the next full group meeting.

Projects

At the last meeting several projects were discussed briefly with the group:

  • GIS-Based Baseline Information. (mapping project)
  • Baseline studies of Sage Grouse Winter Habitat
  • Sage Grouse Habitat Stabilization and Improvement

Other ideas that came up at this meeting were:

  • The local working group could provide some mentoring to other groups as they get started in nearby areas in southern and eastern Montana
  • The local working group could have an information booth on sage grouse at local fairs and other events

Since the last meeting, several participants worked to develop a grant proposal for a specific sage grouse habitat stabilization program. The grant application was submitted to the FWS Private Stewardship program in mid-March. Chad Cyrus, Doug Campbell, John Ensign, Kent Undlin, and Larry Murphy worked on the proposal with involves private land owned by Doug Campbell. Chad Cyrus reviewed key components of the project—which include some fencing and water development projects—w ith the group.

Ward Jackson presented a new project idea. He would like to fence off about a ½ section that includes sage grouse habitat. He wants to fence cattle out, but allow some grazing by horses. He'd like to test the observation made by some old timers that sage grouse prospered with wild horses. The ½ section is adjacent to BLM land and adjacent to a county road, which would make it fairly easy to monitor. Kent Undlin said that he would get back to Ward on this project.

The local working group could be a participant in projects or could simply support projects.

Wrap-Up

Cossitt presented the co-chairs with co-chair handbooks (Ward Jackson will hand off Ron Devlin's handbook to him).

Cossitt commended the participants for their hard work and dedication over the past 15 months and wished them luck in the next year. As a thank you, she gave participants caps with the Montana Sage Grouse Local Working Group logo (extra hats given to Carol Watts of the Custer County Conservation District, John Ensign, and Doug Campbell to give to persons who've consistently attended meetings in the past but who were not at the March 21 meeting).

Participants

Doug Campbell
Jason Crowder
Chad Cyrus
John Ensign
Terry Haughian
Joe Icenogle
Ward Jackson
Larry Murphy
Randy Sanders
Brad Sauer
Dean Seifert
Kent Undlin
Lance Vermeire
Bruce Waage
Carol Watts