A governor’s council studying how to protect sage grouse in Montana — and avoid federal listing of the bird as an endangered species — on Wednesday recommended restrictions on new development in grouse habitat.

Some of the restrictions may be controversial, said council member Glenn Marx, but the state must show it’s protecting the bird or ultimately risk the heavy hand of federal management.

“It’s essential in Montana that we find a way that we are monitoring and reducing impacts (to grouse habitat),” said Marx, 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 continued. “We’re talking about our economic future.”

Gov. Steve Bullock, who appointed the 12-member advisory council early last year, said if the sage grouse is listed as an endangered species, the state would face even greater restrictions on its economy and land-management policies.

“Really, make no mistake, the issue really does affect every aspect of our government and the economy of our state, from land and species management, to energy development and production to grazing,” he said.

Bullock said his administration will use the report to help prepare a state grouse-protection proposal for submission to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will decide by next year whether the bird needs federal protection.

“The objective is to make sure we can control our (grouse) habitat and our land,” Bullock said.

The council gave Bullock its 73-page report Wednesday morning at the Capitol. Its recommendations include:

  • Creation of a “no surface occupancy” buffer zone within one mile of active sage grouse breeding grounds, or leks, within “core habitat” for the bird. Most core habitat is in eastern Montana, although some is in the southwest corner of the state.
  • In less critical “general habitat,” the no-disturbance buffer zone would be one-fourth of a mile.
  • Any new development in core habitat that requires a permit, such as oil-and-gas exploration or mining, would have to follow additional restrictions. For example, surface disturbance would be limited, roads would have to be at least two miles from the edge of a lek, and oil-and-gas well pads would be limited near leks.
  • The state should fund a Montana Stewardship and Conservation Fund to help finance sage grouse conservation efforts on private land. Montana has more sage grouse habitat on private land than in any other of the 11 western states where the grouse lives.
  • Appoint a new oversight group to ensure that a conservation plan is implemented.

The council said the state conservation plan should not restrict current land use in grouse habitat. While the plan must protect the bird, it also should “concurrently achieve substantive economic and social growth,” the council said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Endangered Species Act, is under federal court order to decide by 2015 whether a variety of species should be listed as endangered or removed from a “candidate list.”

Catherine Wightman, habitat and farm bill coordinator for the state Wildlife Division, said Wednesday that state wildlife officials expect to submit data to the federal agency later this year on Montana’s plans to protect the sage grouse.

“What they look for … is assurance that the conservation measures will be effective and be implemented,” she said.

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