As Montana tries to preserve sage grouse habitat, agency leaders must decide which conservation projects would best help the bird in the future.
On Tuesday, the Sage Grouse Oversight Team met to review the first nine applicants for the new Sage Grouse Stewardship Fund Grant Program. The Stewardship Fund provides competitive funding for voluntary, incentive-based conservation on private lands in important sage grouse habitat.
The biggest threat to sage grouse remaining in Montana is loss of habitat due to sod busting. The hope is the grant program will preserve large swaths of land not only for sage grouse but also the prairie species that use similar habitat.
The purpose of this first application round is to identify projects with high-quality habitat in core sage grouse areas that could pad the state’s bank of mitigation credits for the future.
Then, once a project was proposed that would degrade sage grouse habitat, the entity proposing the project could buy mitigation credit from the bank.
Jim Halvorson, Montana Board of Oil and Gas administrator, said it was highly likely that the first project needing mitigation credits would be developing oil and gas.
However, the first hitch in the plan is that the oversight team needs to put some conservation credit in the bank to begin with. So it’s offering $5 million in state funding for conservation projects that will create that credit.
“I tell everyone it’s a kick-starter,” said Sage Grouse program manager Carolyn SIme.
But the second hitch is determining how much credit each project is worth. Normally, the oversight team would have a “habitat quantification tool’ that could assign points to each project in various conservation categories so the team members could rank each project. The purpose of a mitigation bank is to allow a certain level of development to continue. So the habitat tool would also help determine how much mitigation credit a development project would need.
However, the habitat quantification tool has yet to be developed. Even so, the team decided in February to move ahead with the funding process so landowners could take advantage of federal matching funds that would be available in May.
So on Tuesday, the team was making some judgment calls as it listened to presentations on various conservation easements from representatives of The Nature Conservancy and The Montana Land Reliance and one fence-flagging project from the National Wildlife Federation. The total amount needed to pay for all nine projects exceeded the $5 million available. The priority is to preserve land in the core sage grouse area, which lies mostly in eastern Montana: Phillips, Valley, Fergus, Petroleum and Rosebud counties.
Conservation easements allow landowners to keep their land with certain limitations. Land trust agencies oversee the easements, but in the case of sage grouse conservation, the state retains some enforcement authority.
If Montana cannot preserve a significant portion of its sage grouse habitat and allow sage grouse populations to recover, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could re-evaluate in five years and make the decision to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act.
Brian Martin of The Nature Conservancy asked the oversight team to consider two easements on ranches owned by members of the Burke family south of Saco. One with about 2,600 acres completely within core sage grouse habitat would cost $422,000, while the other, with almost 3,800 acres only partially within the core area, would require almost $294,000 with additional restoration.
“The South Phillips core is a priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Martin said. “It has high quality winter habitat. Birds that breed in Saskatchewan fly over as they head south of the Milk River.”
Sime told the team that she and others had listed the projects as “fund,” “fund later,” and “do not fund” based upon the value of the land and the completeness of an easement. She advised the team to use a cautious approach but said any approved easements may provide the “lab situation” to fine-tune the habitat quantification tool that would probable set policy in the futre.
Kendall Van Dyke of the Montana Land Reliance presented five easement projects, most of which were not originally in the “fund” category, because the MLR had still been working out the easement specifics when the applications were due in April. So Van Dyke presented new information that he begged the team to consider.
Van Dyke said many of his ranchers could remember when sage grouse populations were much bigger. They wanted to do something to help preserve the species but not everyone feels the same.
“The Weaver Ranch project was a ’do not fund.’ But you need to consider how many landowners are willing to participate in this program,” Van Dyke said. “I know there are some hang-ups with this project, but I’d ask for your consideration in giving this some more time.”
Most of Van Dykes’ ranches sat within the sage grouse core area, but staff hadn’t given them a “fund” ranking, possibly because the easements allowed future division of the property or parts of the ranch weren’t contiguous.
Van Dyke urged the team to reconsider the 11,230-acre Rath Ranch property southeast of the Snowy Mountains and the 18,000-acre 44 Ranch north of Grass Range in particular. Since habitat fragmentation is the biggest threat in the area, Van Dyke said it would be a benefit for the families to keep the ranches whole, even though the request for the Rath easement was $1.5 million.
“(The Rath Ranch) is a classic case of an estate planning tool that has to happen. They’re trying not to sell to folks who want to try to buy a lot of land in the area,” Van Dyke said.
As the team began voting on the projects, Sen. Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive, said he was opposed to all the projects for several reasons. First, he has called for development of the habitat tool before any projects were approved so the team wouldn’t make a mistake. Touting the free-market system, he also wanted private entities to manage the flow of mitigation credits so the state would act only as an archive. Finally, he didn’t think the state should be paying families to offset estate taxes.
“Is it the state’s job to collect revenue from taxpayers and redistribute that to landowners so they can deal with estate taxes? I have a big problem with that,” Rosendale said.
However, the rest of the team went on to tentatively approve several of the projects, including the Rath and 44 ranches, while deferring others until later. They will give final approval after they see the final easement agreements in August.
"Personally, I don't agree with conservation easements but it needs to be an option," said Diane Ahlgren of the Montana Rangeland Resources Committee. "I'm confident that these will generate credits so I think we need to fund a few."