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Montanans React To Sage Grouse Listing Decision

Greater sage-grouse.
Greater sage grouse. The Department of Interior announced it's decision today not to recommend endangered species protections for the bird.

Governor Steve Bullock says Tuesday’s decision to not recommend endangered species protection for the greater sage grouse is good for both industry and conservationists.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made that announcement in Colorado. She was joined by Bullock and the Governors of Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada.

A federal listing could have led to sweeping restrictions on resource development, grazing and other human activities that encroach on the bird's shrinking habitat.

Governor Bullock describes the decision as a positive development for the entire western United States.

"And in Montana in particular, where the vast majority of sage grouse habitat is on private property, this announcement is good news for the property rights of farmers, ranchers and other landowners."

State representative Mike Lang agrees. The Malta Republican sits on Montana's Sage Grouse Advisory team.

"I think it's a great decision. I think it's time the federal government gives states the opportunity to take care of themselves and I think that's what they're saying."

But Interior Secretary Jewel says there will be new regulations. The government will provide some habitat protections on over 67 million acres of federal lands, including 12 million acres where strict limits on oil and gas production will be enforced.

Representative Lang says the decision will likely end up affecting some small oil and natural gas producers.

"Well sure, it's bottom line impact. Anytime you have to comply with something that takes more time, more personnel to figure out, it's going to cost you money. I hope that's the whole cost. I hope it's just a money cost and we actually get good performance and stewardship of natural resources under this program."

While many state officials are relieved federal protections won't be extended to the sage grouse, there are still plenty of details to hash out. Governor Bullock criticizes the Bureau of Land Management's conservation plan. He says they're more restrictive than Montana's home grown sage grouse conservation plan.

Bullock spokesman Mike Wessler told the Associated Press state officials will pressure the BLM to adjust its plans to make them more consistent with Montana's.

The reaction from the environmental community is mixed. Some groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and National Audubon Society support the decision. But Wild Earth Guardians' wildlife biologist Erik Molvar calls it an "epic conservation failure."

"There are provisions for exceptions and waivers in almost all of the conservation measures in these plans."

Molvar says that means these plans may look good on their face, but can too easily evaporate with a stroke of a pen whenever some industrial activity is proposed for sensitive sage grouse habitat.

"And so it's not the level of protection that gives us any kind of security that the plans will be there for the grouse when the grouse need them most." 

O'Brien: But this (announcement) is the product of compromise, and in compromise, not everybody gets what everybody wants...

"This decision comes at the end of an epic battle between those who want to minimize the impacts of human activities on sage grouse and those who want to minimize government regulations," Molvar says. "Now at the end of the day we have more regulations, but we don't have adequate protection measures to keep the sage grouse on the landscape. So that's a problem for everyone." 

Molvar says Wild Earth Guardians will work to improve these plans, but did not rule out potential legal recourse.

Montana's Senior Senator, Democrat Jon Tester, praises Interior's sage grouse decision. So does Republican Senator Steve Daines, who calls the ruling good news, but urges Montana to take the lead on sage grouse conservation. Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke also praises the ruling but says the federal government is unnecessarily restricting development of millions of acres of land in the process.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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