Gov. Bullock amends Montana's sage grouse conservation plan

Montana is following Wyoming’s lead when it comes to sage grouse conservation, as evidenced by a new executive order from Gov. Steve Bullock.

At Wednesday’s Environmental Quality Council meeting, legislative research analyst Hope Stockwell explained to legislators the various amendments that the governor signed Tuesday night to bolster Montana’s sage grouse conservation strategy.

The amendments update the original executive order Bullock released a year ago to reflect changes enacted by the Legislature, the Bureau of Land Management and to respond to requests from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Montana Sage Grouse Advisory Council.

“They’ve tweaked some language to make it look more like Wyoming’s plan,” Stockwell said. “(Bullock) said the program must operate in a manner generally consistent with the Wyoming’s plan, except where law or science might differ.”

While the main threats to sage grouse in Wyoming are related to energy development, including wind, oil and gas, the main threat in Montana has been sod busting, ripping out the sagebrush to make room for crops.

Sage grouse are dependent on sagebrush for cover and nesting habitat in the spring and summer and for food during winter. If sagebrush ecosystems are lost or damaged, sage grouse struggle and disappear, but so do other species, including antelope, elk and mule deer.

So this year, the Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 261, which created the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team and appropriated $10 million to encourage private landowners to institute conservation measures. About two-thirds of Montana’s core area lies on private property, so conservation measures would include easements, fencing modifications and rotational grazing.

Under Bullock’s order, the core area of good sage grouse habitat will increase slightly. The oversight team will review Montana’s core sage grouse area to ensure that it encloses 80 percent of sage grouse leks as requested by the USFWS, instead of the current 76 percent.

Male sage grouse strut to attract mates on the same piece of ground or lek every year, so if a lek is destroyed, the males are usually lost, too. Also, leks exist in areas of good habitat where the females can establish nearby nests, so saving a lek preserves nesting habitat.

To preserve the best habitat, the order puts more limitations on development in the core area, however existing uses or uses that are permitted but not yet begun are grandfathered in. Many limitations resemble Wyoming’s plan.

The original order banned activity within 2 miles of breeding areas, but now, it’s a matter of timing: Exploration or development are banned near breeding areas during the breeding period between March 15 and July 15. Existing production or maintenance can continue.

Sage grouse tend to avoid tall structures such as towers and wind turbines. Biologists believe part of the reason is that predators such as crows, ravens or hawks perch on them to hunt sage grouse. So the plan now follows the new BLM guidelines that exclude wind turbines from core areas. Also, companies are to avoid building communication towers and power lines in core areas, but the plan allows some wiggle room to build if they can find no other routes.

“This doesn’t go as far as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might want, but it does meet them partway,” Stockwell said.

Sage grouse need quiet areas to mate. Part of the male’s display involves filling his air sacks and then releasing the air to make a quiet popping noise. Scientists hypothesize that when noisy industries or roads move in, females can no longer hear the popping sound, so they don’t come to the leks and they don’t breed.

Under Bullock's order, no development near a lek can increase the existing noise level by more than 10 decibels during the night hours – 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. – of the breeding season. Males display primarily in the early morning hours.

That requirement got a rise out of Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, who didn’t know how much noise that represented. He searched the Internet and found a recording representing 10 decibels.

“It’s called 'breathing',” Brenden said. “This is how ridiculous 10 decibels is. It’s absolute stupidity.”

Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, said Wyoming set the same noise limits five years ago and is currently studying the effects of noise on sage grouse.
“It’s not trying to set a ridiculous standard,” Ellis said. “It’s trying to be restrictive of new noise near a lek.”

During his Internet search, Brenden did not discover that the decibel measurement is based on a logarithmic scale. So 20 decibels is 10 times louder than 10 decibels, 30 decibels is 10 times louder than 20 decibels, and so on.

The sound of a whisper is 30 decibels, and that’s probably equivalent to a sage grouse mating sound. It would be drowned out by normal human conversation at 60 decibels, let alone if a noise became 10 times louder at 70 decibels.

The issue of funding got a lot of attention after Stockwell mentioned that the Farm Bill contributed $300 million and would contribute another $211 million across 11 western states over the next four years.

Ann McCauley of the Natural Resources and Conservation Service said farmers and ranchers could also get money through the Sage Grouse Initiative.

BLM state director Jamie Connell said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was developing an initiative to make funds available over the next five years to help train rural and municipal fire departments that suppress wildfires in core areas.

Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Point, wanted to know the total amount of federal money, in addition to Montana’s $10 million, being spent on sage grouse conservation.

“When I supported this bill, I didn’t support growing government,” Ripley said. “This is turning into more bloated government. There are many reasons to support the program, but we have no idea of how much money we’re spending.”

Stockwell said she’d put that information together for the committee’s January meeting.

The USFWS must decide by the end of the month whether or not to list the bird as threatened or endangered. The USFWS requested a deadline for implementation of the state plan, so Bullock's order requires all agencies to adhere to the plan starting in 2016.