Governor Steve Bullock Monday signed on to a joint state and federal plan to provide incentives for farmers and ranchers to preserve sage grouse habitat on their land. The chicken-sized wild bird is in decline and could be listed as an endangered species this fall.
The initiative that Montana signed on to today provides federal grant money to help farmers and ranchers improve their land to make it more friendly to the grouse, as well as controlling predators.
Jason Weller, chief of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, says the initiative encourages growers to take charge of the effort to keep the bird off the list.
"This has to be a private land solution. It’s got to be driven from the local level. It’s got to meaningfully engage private landowners, ranchers, business proprietors, and giving them positive solutions," Weller says.
Oregon cattle rancher John O’Keefe has made improvements to his land to make it more grouse-friendly, such as removing juniper trees that encroach on grouse habitat, or putting markers on fences so the birds won’t get entangled in them. He hopes other ranchers will join the effort.
"You know, I think when they look across the fence at some of the stuff that’s being done they’ll come to the conclusion that it’s compatible with what they’re doing and they’ll jump in," O'Keefe says. "I’ve seen it before."
Across the West, sage grouse numbers have dropped by about 30 percent since 1985. The national Sage Grouse Initiative is a $200 million effort to stop the bird from moving any closer to extinction.
Chelcie Cremer with the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, says her organization supports the voluntary effort to keep the sage grouse from being added to the endangered species list.
"We do promote keeping any more regulatory rules and federal government involvement out of the state as much as possible, and we do think at this point in time an ESA listing for sage grouse is a little bit unnecessary given the fact that we have a healthy population here in Montana."
Eleven western states and Canada are home to as many as half a million of the grouse, but their numbers are dropping steadily.