This Budget is for the Birds


Guest Blog by Ron Stoneberg, Hinsdale, MT

As the 65th MT Legislative Session opened for business last week the usual calls for budget cuts were exceedingly shrill.  What made matters worse this year was the loss of revenue due to the demise of the coal and oil and gas industries in Montana.  We knew this day of reckoning was coming, so now the budget knives are being sharpened and the fun has begun.  I have a suggestion.

In the last legislative session the Governor proposed (and the legislature dutifully passed) $10 million to assist sage grouse populations.  This was in addition to the $400 million being spent for the same purpose by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  All this money was being spent on a species that WAS NOT listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).  The response from the proponents of these programs was that their actions addressed the FWS concerns and that led to the species not being listed.  So what were those concerns?  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stated in the 2013 HiLine Draft Resource Management Plan, “[i]nadequacy of regulatory mechanisms was identified as a major threat in the USFWS findings on the petition to list the Greater Sage-Grouse.”  In other words, the road to salvation for the sage grouse was more regulation.  That seemed to be the Obama administration’s answer to all problems!  Unfortunately, regulations don’t solve problems and often just add to them.

The federal land management agencies and the state wildlife management agency burned the midnight oil to formulate rules and regulations to appease the FWS.  Their stated purpose was to protect and enhance the vegetation aspect of the sage grouse’s habitat.  A problem arises if abundant sagebrush landscapes are available but there are few or no birds to occupy it.  At this point the causes of mortality should be investigated.  Numerous research papers have identified nest predation, chick predation, and adult predation as the main mortality factors for sage grouse.  Additionally, adverse weather and disease have been reported to frequently cause heavy losses.  Unfortunately, the proposed rules and regulations have little or no impact on these causes of mortality and, therefore, will have little or no impact on sage grouse populations.

Another major concern is that this action increased the scope of the ESA to cover species that MAY be considered for listing at some future date.  This opens the door to further regulatory restrictions imposed by the FWS.  The non government organizations (NGOs) are continually petitioning the FWS to list species.  I recently heard there was talk of petitioning to list the striped skunk!  Grassland birds are also frequently mentioned and don’t forget the black-tailed prairie dog was ruled ‘warranted but precluded’.  Is the legislature prepared to allocate $10 M for each of these species?

In conclusion, the millions spent on sage grouse have produced few positive results.  For example, when MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) reinstated a very restrictive hunting season in 2016, their justification was that sage grouse populations had increased to the point they could withstand a limited harvest.  The reason for the increase was that sage grouse populations were cyclical and were in an upswing.  It was also noted the weather had been favorable for the last couple of years.  There was no mention that the vast sums of money that had been spent on this species had any impact on the populations.  Nor were additional regulations credited with improving the weather!

Therefore, my suggestion is to cut your losses and put the $10 M either into predator management or back into the General Fund!

Thank you

Ron Stoneberg

Box 37, Hinsdale, MT 59241


(406) 367-9314


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