August 28, 2013 | Volume 100 / Number 351

BLM Finds Reasonable Balance In Plans For Montana Land

A director of the United Property Owners organization described proposed Resource Management plans of the Bureau of Land Management in a very incorrect and misleading way in a recent Montana newspaper opinion piece.

He got it dangerously wrong and typically misleading in several ways.

These plans deal entirely with public lands administered by the BLM – not private property. The BLM has no say over what private landowners do with their own property.

The BLM this spring released three draft Resource Management Plans for some 5.8 million acres in its Hi-Line, Miles City and Billings/Pompeys Pillar districts.

These public lands make up much of the wide, open spaces that define our state and contribute to our economy and quality of life.

The BLM’s proposed management cannot reasonably be described as overly protective or restrictive. Far from it. Indeed, within the plans you’ll find accommodation of extensive oil, gas and renewable energy development across millions of acres. You’ll also see livestock grazing maintained as a land-use priority over nearly the entire landscape managed by BLM.

And the plans include conservation measures for sage grouse. That seems to be the basis of United Property Owners’ overblown complaints. BLM proposes to manage the best of its sage grouse habitat in ways that provide protection for the birds, whose numbers have slipped to worrisome levels in much of the West.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 ruled that sage grouse warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The birds have not been added to the list of threatened and endangered species only because other species currently have higher priority.

Averting Grouse Listing

The Fish and Wildlife Service is required to revisit that decision by 2015.

Without meaningful steps to conserve sage grouse in their Eastern Montana strongholds, the birds are more likely to rise to endangered species status. Listing sage grouse under the ESA could mean significant new land-use restrictions.

BLM’s plans aim to avert a listing by protecting sage grouse.

Proposed conservation measures include limiting development on lands identified as the best sage grouse habitat.

For example, the BLM proposes “no-surface-occupancy” stipulations for oil and gas development in the fraction of public lands identified as primary sage grouse conservation areas. That limitation doesn’t preclude drilling. Rather, it means energy companies must use the horizontal drilling technology, commonly used in Eastern Montana to tap oil and gas reserves, to reach under key sage grouse habitat.

Also, BLM proposes to encourage routing new power lines, pipelines and roads around such areas.

And contrary to what United Property Owners said, BLM is not proposing to eliminate cattle grazing in sage grouse conservation areas. Rather, the agency has included a provision in its preferred alternatives to allow grazing-allotment retirements and reductions on a voluntary basis.

Grazing retirements are an option – not a requirement – under BLM’s proposed plans.

Conserving wildlife and balanced use of public lands are Montana traditions that have served us well for generations.

Each of us might wish to nudge the balance point one way or the other, but few Montanans would be happy if the BLM followed extreme suggestions and eliminated the balance altogether.

Mike Penfold is program director for Our Montana, which works to conserve and protect the scenic, historic, archaeologic and natural resources of Montana’s public lands, rivers, cultural sites, trails and wildlife habitats to enhance the state’s quality of life. The Montana Wilderness Associaiton submitted this piece to The Courier.

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