Federal, state funding streamlined to conserve sage grouse on private land

Montana has taken a unique step toward conserving a bird that has much of the West scrambling to head off an endangered species listing.

On Monday, Gov. Steve Bullock signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Montana, Inc. to streamline funding for private efforts to conserve sagebrush on Montana’s rangelands.

The memorandum of understanding, the first of its kind in the West, seeks to focus conservation efforts on priority habitat and make it easier for Montana landowners to get a portion of the federal money set aside for sage grouse conservation.

NRCS Chief Jason Weller said the NRCS has $200 million in Farm Bill funds to spend on projects across the West over the next two years through the Sage Grouse Initiative, an NRCS program. But the grants are a 50:50 match, so prior to this year, it was more challenging for landowners to find the other half of the funding.

But as of July, when the new state budget kicked in, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has $10 million to pay for sage grouse conservation. So under the agreement, the state would pay a quarter of the funding match on qualifying land, making it somewhat easier for Montana landowners to get federal funding.

"We can start leveraging each other so that $10 million of the state really represents $20 million of the investment," said DNRC Chief John Tubbs. "(NRCS) is going to know that there are non-federal dollars available. This is in place and ready to go."

SGI regional manager Tim Griffiths said the agreement also requires the parties to meet annually to focus conservation efforts in the state for each year.

"They're going to lay out exactly what they're going to do for that year, and the results will be communicated to the public. This is not going to be an accidental success - we're going to plan for it," Griffiths said. "Montana will have this new sage grouse team, and we want to link up with it in its infancy to help make this integrated. Whatever they decide to do with their resources, it's gotta be complementary with what we do."

The agreement is the state’s third step in less than a year to preserve the habitat that is critical to the survival of the West’s dwindling sage grouse population.

Scientists estimate that the 275,000 square miles of remaining sagebrush represent just 44 percent of the bird’s historic habitat. Most of the rest has been lost in just the past 40 years, so the bird is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Biologists and conservationists point out that a listing isn’t just about the sage grouse. It’s about preserving a fragile ecosystem that is home to many other species – antelope, elk, mule deer, etc. – that will suffer if it becomes too fragmented.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must rule by Sept. 30 on whether listing is warranted. So for the past few years, western states and land management agencies have tried to put enough local efforts in place to avoid the regulation that comes with a listing.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has had a broad conservation plan since 2005 but can’t do much to conserve sage grouse on private land.

So last September, Bullock signed an executive order creating the Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program to encourage conservation on private lands and identifying the priority areas where wide swaths of sagebrush still thrive.

Greater sage grouse populations face a myriad of threats, including oil and gas development, mining, suburban development and wildfire. But in Montana, the main threat is landowners ripping out sagebrush to covert areas to farm fields and grazing pastures.

Keeping large extents of sagebrush intact is essential for the ecosystem to function. University of Montana researcher Joe Smith found that almost all active sage grouse leks, or courting areas, are located in landscapes with less than 15 percent cropland. For every 10 percent increase in cropland, scientists predict that lek density drops by more than half.

“Almost two-thirds of Montana’s sage grouse habitat is on private lands, which is why voluntary, targeted conservation efforts are so critical,” Weller said on Monday.

Montana's next step was passing Senate Bill 261, a hard-fought law to create and fund a sage grouse stewardship program, which Bullock signed on May 7. The Legislature approved $10 million over the next two years for on-the-ground conservation work.

As a result, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation just closed the application period for a manager of the new Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program .

“All of the pieces are in place for an effective program to conserve habitat and reduce future threats to sage grouse,” Tubbs said. “It’s time to hire a program manager to lead the implementation of a new era of sage grouse conservation.”

Grazing can have detrimental effects on sagebrush and sage grouse if cattle are left for weeks at a time to trample vegetation. Fences can also be deadly because sage grouse don’t have good forward vision.

In a number of states, ranching collaboratives have begun using different techniques such as moving cattle frequently from pasture to pasture and putting flagging on fences to prevent collisions.

Under Montana’s new program, ranchers can receive reimbursement for putting such tools in place.

The recent efforts of Montana and other states are positive, but it’s not clear whether they are enough to stop the sage grouse’s decline.

In 2014, population counts in Montana were dismal. FWP biologists reported the number of courting males dropped 45 percent or more from the 30-year long-term average.

Montana isn't the only state with declining sage grouse populations. Data collected between 2007 and 2013 show sage grouse populations throughout the West declined 57 percent in five years, according to an April 24 Pew Charitable Trust report.

It’s estimated that 16 million sage grouse once existed across their historic range in 11 western states. Now, around 200,000 remain.

If the USFWS declares the sage grouse to be endangered in September, Monday's agreement will fall apart because Senate Bill 261 revokes the $10 million if the bird is ruled endangered.

If sage grouse are listed as threatened, the state retains management of the bird for five years, so the money might still be available, Tubbs said.