December 4, 2013 | Volume 100 / Number 49

Sage Grouse: The Dilemma

Since February, Montana’s Sage Grouse Advisory Council has been working overtime to create a management plan for the bird whose habitat spans central, northern and eastern Montana.

The urgency? This upland game bird has been declared “warranted” for listing as an endangered species by the federal government, but “precluded” from that designation while the feds deal with other matters. Montana is one of the Western states with significant sage-grouse populations that have not crafted a plan acceptable to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Bottom line: If Montana doesn’t do something to improve sage grouse numbers, it’s a matter of time before the feds do.

A federal endangered listing would do to the booming oil and gas industry, and to traditional economies like grazing and farming, what the “endangered” status of the gray wolf, grizzly bear, and northern spotted owl did to natural-resource industries further West.

The 40-page state plan, released in November, has a lot of actions that it recommends be taken “where possible.” Hopefully, that wiggle room plays to the advantage of productive land use. But there is always the risk at being called onto the carpet by whichever bureaucracy ends up enforcing the plan.

It’s clear that the state plan is not as onerous as what the feds would concoct. At the same time, it’s stricter than the plan adopted in Wyoming, which was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for implementation in 2011.

From the perspective of someone responsible for utility rates, there are aspects of the plan which, I believe, could cost Montana consumers a large amount of money. Those should be reworked.

One key example is the plan’s recommendations that pertain to power lines. Raptors, eagles, ravens, really most types of birds, love to perch on power lines. From there those higher up the food chain have a better vantage point in otherwise treeless areas to identify their quarry, including sage grouse—a bird that is mostly defenseless and not particularly bright. The solution? According to the state management plan, it’s to underground power lines “when possible.” Or require them to have a one mile berth from sage grouse leks, as the bird’s breeding grounds are known.

This is highly unrealistic. Undergrounding lines costs many multiples of constructing overhead lines. It’s a practice that usually occurs only in dense, urban areas where there are many thousands of customers to spread the costs over. That’s not the case in rural Montana.

Re-routing power lines to avoid the minefield of sage grouse leks is similarly costly. A rule of thumb for the cost to construct significant transmission lines is $1 million per mile. When an otherwise straight line on a map begins zigging and zagging, the cost increase is breathtakingly rapid.

Oil and gas exploration would also face substantial new regulations in core habitat areas, which cover millions of acres in about a dozen counties. There, the plan calls for restrictions on the seasons and time-of-day during which operations would be permitted, as well as on surface occupancy and noise. Wind energy would be excluded entirely from core habitats.

In its restrictions on energy development, the state plan is symptomatic of the mixed messages that abound regarding land use in rural America. Nearly every politician lists independence from foreign oil as a national priority, but that priority disappears pretty quickly when wildlife management is involved.

Montana’s utilities have spent a lot of time and energy attaching special structures to power lines that allow raptors to perch without being electrocuted, but now their perching represents a threat to predation of sage grouse so great that those power lines are suggested to be buried. You just can’t win.

I hope Montana can craft a plan that strikes an appropriate balance for land use, and keeps the feds from exercising the nuclear option of listing the sage grouse as an endangered species. At the same time, let’s be vigilant not to unilaterally bargain away economic development opportunities in rural Montana.

Travis Kavulla, R-Great Falls, is a public service commissioner representing 19 counties in northern, eastern and central Montana.

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