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Sage grouse funds allocated to 4 conservation easements at reduced rate

Sage grouse funds allocated to 4 conservation easements at reduced rate

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Sage grouse

Four landowners accepted reduced payments from the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team for conservation easements after funding fell short.

Four landowners have agreed to accept smaller payments from the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team for conservation easements.

The reduced expenditures were authorized by the group at its November meeting after its funding fell short of the amount to pay full price for all of the seven projects proposed. So instead, the committee recommended the three top-scoring projects get full funding. Then in a narrow 5-4 vote the group agreed to reduce by an equal percentage the remaining four easements as opposed to dropping the lowest scoring one.

The land trusts representing landowners said they would have to discuss the change. In a Monday meeting MSGOT was told that all four had agreed to the reductions.

The easements help preserve habitat for sage grouse, which has seen its environment shrink due to mining, development and oil and gas drilling in western states.

The four properties are spread across the state and include:

• The Bequette property on 2,567 acres in Carbon County east of Edgar. The landowners have been recognized by the Sage Grouse Initiative for conservation work that included planting sagebrush to reclaim land burned in a wildland fire. Brad Hanson, of the Montana Land Reliance, said the property was a “poster child” for great conservation work being undertaken near an urban area. The original request to MSGOT was for $220,547. The reduced compensation approved was $175,766.

• The Fauth property, located north of Lavina, sought $1.82 million for 8,086 acres in the middle of core sage grouse habitat. Landowner K.J. Fauth said the easement was important to the family. “We’re more grass managers than ranchers,” he said. The reduced payout was $1.49 million.

• The Jackson Ranch, located 40 miles west of Dillon in the upper Big Hole Valley, requested $485,000 for a 4,760 acre conservation easement. The property is contiguous to three other easements in the valley. “This easement would be a tool to keep the ranch whole,” said Jim Berkey, of The Nature Conservancy. Landowner Yvonne Jackson said her family is trying to hold on to what their great grandfather had put together after homesteading in the 1800s. “We don’t want to see subdivision,” she said. The approved payout was $373,666.

• The original Alexander Ranch conservation easement request was for $497,000 applied to 670 acres. The land is located about 30 miles south of Dillon in the Medicine Lodge Valley. The high-elevation sagebrush grassland is viewed by The Nature Conservancy as highly productive for sage grouse, Berkey said. The reduced payout was $415,569.

Taken together the four easements totaled $2.64 million. Purchasing the easements provides MSGOT with “credits” that are used to offset or compensate for development in other sage grouse habitat. Money for the purchases comes from an account funded by the state Legislature and payments by developers as mitigation for damage in sage grouse habitat.

The group approved three other conservation easements at its November meeting at the full amount requested. Those three cost the program $1.57 million.

The amounts paid by MSGOT are often combined with payments to the landowners from other funding sources, including federal programs and land trusts, as well as donations from the landowners. In addition to protecting wildlife habitat, the easements also help keep traditional landowners on their property without selling or subdividing.

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