How best to protect Montana’s sage grouse population has been a top priority for agriculture and industry groups alike. Finding a solution that sufficiently protects these birds, while not posing an undue burden on those trying to make a living is no easy task.
To make the issue even more difficult is the looming threat of Endangered Species Act listing that could result if a sage grouse management plan is not put into place that satisfies the federal government. In short, it is in the best interest of all Montanans to be proactive in preventing the sage grouse from being listed under the ESA.
If the sage grouse is listed as threatened or endangered, both public and private land access and surface activity would be restricted to such a degree that it would pose a serious handicap to job creation in our state. In fact, the harsh and restrictive consequences of the sage grouse being listed would, in many instances, completely shut down resources development operations in Montana, causing a negative ripple effect for the hundreds of businesses that support them and potentially killing thousands of jobs.
It’s a worst-case scenario for the parts of Montana with sage grouse habitat — but it’s a scenario that we’ve seen play out before with ESA listings.
We all remember the tragedy that followed the listing of the spotted owl, which brought about the downfall of the timber industry in the Northwest and left timber resources and the economic opportunities from those resources to stand largely untouched and unmanaged. Closer to home, it wasn’t too long ago that wolves were listed as a protected species under the ESA in Montana. After their reintroduction, the economy was injured significantly as wolves wreaked havoc on livestock and wildlife populations across the state.
The lessons learned from ESA listing of spotted owls and wolves need to be in the foreground for state officials now grappling with sage grouse.
It’s clear that no good can come from the federal government meddling in the affairs of Montanans. We need our elected officials to act responsibly to prevent more federal government overreach on Montanans and our economy.
Gov. Steve Bullock has taken a good first step toward protecting Montana’s sage grouse population by appointing an advisory council tasked with developing with a management plan that satisfies the federal government and prevents listing. The governor saw this problem coming and has been working to spare Montanans the economic disaster that would result if the sage grouse were listed under the ESA. But we must be careful that the “cure” isn’t worse than the bite of an ESA listing. A “Montana plan” that is too restrictive could be as bad, or worse, than the effects of listing.
The council would be well advised to alter their plan to more closely match that of Wyoming, which has already had its management plan approved. Montana’s draft plan treats resource development much more stringently than does Wyoming’s approved plan.
For instance, Wyoming’s plan restricts surface activity in core sage grouse areas by limiting surface disturbance to 5 percent. In other words, 95 percent of the surface in core sage grouse areas is off limits. Montana is following that lead, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants more. They want up to 97 percent of the surface restricted — public and private. Placing such a severe handicap on our ability to create jobs would have far reaching economic impacts in our state.
While it is important to protect the sage grouse, over regulation does not lead to better protection. It only serves to further restrict the development of natural resources and land use, and handicap Montana’s energy industry in the process.
A state-driven protection and management process has already seen tremendous success in neighboring states like Wyoming that have been able to strike a balance between effective management and providing protection for the sage grouse — and Montana would be well served to keep the federal government out of our state and follow the example set by Wyoming.
I applaud Gov. Bullock and his Sage Grouse Advisory Council for all the work that they have done, but we still have a long way to go before a balance is struck that allows for the continued growth and development of Montana’s energy industry.
Mack Cole is the president of Montanans for Responsible Energy Development, a nonprofit organized to promote the responsible development of Montana’s energy resources.