Montana legislators are asking for a three-year ban on transplants of sage grouse outside the state.
On Wednesday, after another fractious discussion of sage grouse conservation efforts in Montana, Sen. John Brendan, R-Scobey, proposed that the legislative Environmental Quality Council send a letter to Gov. Steve Bullock and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks asking for a three-year moratorium on sending sage grouse out of state. The letter passed on a 10-5 vote.
The letter was prompted by the news that FWP planned on sending sage grouse to Alberta to try to bolster Canadian populations near Montana. Canada considers its sage grouse to be endangered.
FWP Director Jeff Hagener reassured the EQC that an environmental assessment of the proposal had been carried out, and that the sage grouse intended for Alberta would be collected from healthy populations in and around south Phillips County that had more than 10,000 birds, two-thirds of which are hens.
The five-year plan would send 40 birds in 2016, 2018 and 2020, with Alberta picking up all the cost, and an annual review could halt the transplants early if deemed necessary. The transplanted birds would be females that are young enough that they wouldn’t already be connected to any particular lek, Hagener said. A lek is a sage grouse mating area where males strut and display to attract mates, and birds tend to return to the same lek every year. That's caused problems for other transplant attempts that used older birds.
"We consider 40 hens to be a very insignificant impact to the overall population," Hagener said.
Some legislators asked why the birds couldn’t be put in northern Montana and allowed to fly over the border. Sage grouse populations in far northern Montana aren’t as viable as those farther south.
“We could make this very simple. Why don’t we put them on our side of the border? That way we’re not hurting our own population and the populous, the people up there that are being affected. It’s the idea that we’re tying to spread the wealth around in our state rather than helping some other country,” Brendan said. “I guarantee you there will be a bill next year in the legislature that will do some of these things that don’t allow some of these sage grouse or other endangered species to be sent out of the country.”
Committee member Bert Lindler clarified Hagener’s explanation that the birds probably wouldn’t find the leks in Canada where they need to mate if they were released in Montana.
FWP already donated birds to Alberta in 2011 and 2012, and the influx appears to have helped the Canadian population grow from about 40 birds to 120, Hagener said. The transplant program was put on hold in 2013 and 2014 while Montana and other states were working to stave off an endangered species listing, Hagener said.
In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the sage grouse didn’t warrant listing as long as all the plans proposed by the states and federal land agencies were followed.
So FWP has cooperated with Canada and other states in transplanting a number of species, including sage grouse and big horn sheep. Montana often gets other species in return such as swift fox, Haganer said. When asked if FWP was being paid for the sage grouse, Hagener said selling wildlife would be a breach of the public trust.
“It’s kind of a quid pro quo,” Hagener said.
Rep. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, said she didn’t support Brendan’s letter because the project could help Montana and she requested that the letter reflect the EQC vote.
“If we have healthy populations around our state, it will benefit our sage grouse,” Ellis said.
The FWP Commission is scheduled to vote on the Alberta proposal on Thursday. FWP spokesmen Ron Aasheim said the commissioners would see the letter prior to their vote.
“At that point, it’s up to them. We’ll find out tomorrow, “ Aasheim said.