While big game hunting season has officially started here in Montana, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Acting Bureau of Land Management Director William Perry Pendley are scheduled to move forward with leasing large swaths of Montana’s public lands to the oil and gas industry — putting the lands, waters and wildlife our communities rely on at risk. If these lease sales move forward, they will threaten more than 6,000 acres of crucial sage-grouse habitat — land that also supports big game populations and more than 170 species of birds and mammals.
Montana’s economic livelihood is tied to our lands, waters and wildlife. In Montana, the greater sage grouse is a BLM-identified special status sensitive species. If these lease sales move forward, they would give the oil and gas industry legal rights to develop the land, which could critically damage the sagebrush landscape where sage grouse populations feed off of sagebrush leaves in the winter, lay their eggs on the ground under sagebrush, and rely upon the cover that sagebrush provides.
Sage grouse numbers are declining, and further oil and gas development will only drive the sage grouse even closer to the brink of extinction by destroying even more of the sagebrush ecosystem that the bird, and hundreds of other species of wildlife, including big game like mule deer and pronghorn, depend on for survival.
Oil and gas development on these critical habitat lands could also severely disrupt big game like pronghorn and mule deer that need this critical winter habitat to survive. Pronghorn and mule deer rely upon intact sagebrush habitats to feed throughout the winter months, and pronghorn specifically need intact corridors of sagebrush habitat for their migrations, which can reach almost 150 miles one way.
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A new report prepared on behalf of the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation and The Wilderness Society found that oil and gas leasing and development in sage grouse habitat has significantly grown on public lands under the Trump administration while critical protections have also been rolled back, putting the species at great risk.
Relative to the prior administration, the acreage leased per month in sage grouse habitat was three times higher under the Trump administration and acres leased in “priority habitat” was 10 times higher. Surely, we need not have oil and gas leasing in areas that are considered critical habitat for Montana wildlife and important for our hunting traditions.
In order to maintain sage grouse and big game habitat and protect Montana’s wildlife, the BLM should eliminate all of the proposed leases in these critical wildlife areas. Big game hunting is essential to the economic stability and lifestyle of eastern Montanans. Oil and gas leasing on these lands will put at risk the livelihoods of hunting outfitters and small businesses that cater to the hunting community and depend on the $448 million in annual economic output from wildlife-related recreation on Montana’s BLM lands. Big game hunting is essential to the economic stability and lifestyle of eastern Montanans, and big game needs big country that is undisturbed and protected.
Kathy Hadley is a board member and former president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. She writes from Deer Lodge.