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April 21, 2014

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Report: Montana should add sage grouse protections

Updated Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 | 9:50 a.m.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A governor's council recommends Montana restrict new development in sage grouse habitat to avoid federal protections that would lead to tighter rules.

The Greater Sage Grouse Advisory Council outlined its recommendations in a 73-page report given to the governor on Wednesday.

"It's essential in Montana that we find a way that we are monitoring and reducing impacts," to grouse habitat, said Glenn Marx of Helena, council member and executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts.

"We're not just talking about sage grouse management, we're talking about controlling our future here," he said. "We're talking about our economic future."

The groups' recommendations include a "no surface occupancy" zone within one mile of active sage grouse breeding grounds and a quarter-mile buffer zone in less critical habitat, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported. Areas in eastern Montana and extreme southwestern Montana have what the group described as "core" sage grouse habitat.

The council also recommended the state fund a program to give landowners incentives for habitat conservation and that state firefighting crews make immediate suppression of wildfires a priority in sage grouse habitat. The council's recommendations would not affect existing oil, gas, mining, agriculture or other land uses that were in place prior to the policy.

Gov. Steve Bullock said the group's recommendations will be included in a sage grouse protection proposal the state plans to submit to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency must decide by next year whether the ground-dwelling bird should be listed as endangered.

"It's important that the state of Montana maintain control over the management of the greater sage grouse," Bullock said in a statement. "Our state wildlife managers know how to do this and we can do a better job of ensuring the viability of the species because our people live and work in Montana every day."

The USFWS has determined the greater sage grouse species is warranted for listing as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, but it said other species were a higher priority.

In February 2012, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that the agency must determine by September 2015 whether the greater sage grouse should be listed as endangered or removed from the candidate list.

The Interior Secretary invited Montana and other Western states impacted by the potential listing to develop state-specific regulations to conserve the species and preclude the need for federal protections.

The chicken-sized sage grouse depend on sage brush for food and cover from predators. They are found in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Nevada, eastern California, western Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming and in Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada.

They occupy about 56 percent of their historical range, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but face threats from prairie land being converted for agriculture, residential development and energy extraction.

According to FWS, if habitat destruction that has led to population declines persists, local populations of the birds may disappear over the next several decades. That would leave remaining, fragmented populations vulnerable to extinction.