By Shelby Stier - March 19, 2019 - Originally published in the Missoulian.
The beautiful and vast landscapes of Montana are hard to describe with words. Although, if you look out your window in this beautiful state you are likely to see the noble mountains, the big sky or the dark grey twisting branches of sagebrush.
There is no greater feeling than walking to a mountain trail, feeling the wind on your face and smelling the scent of sagebrush. A deeply bitter spice, sharp like a winter wind and reminiscent of a tannin-soaked leather left too long in a forgotten corner. These smells and exquisite views are only possible in North America. Sagebrush grows nowhere else on earth.
Within sagebrush country you’ll find evidence of those who thrive in this sometimes called “barren wasteland,” though it’s anything but that. A vast amount of big game, birds, insects, reptiles and people are intrinsically intertwined in the fate of sagebrush. This plant is the underlying soundtrack of a long ecosystem-wide fight, with the greater sage-grouse starring as the mascot. So much history, identity and greed is caught up in this fight, with the latter rearing its ugly head again in the form of Montana’s Senate Bill 299.
By undermining the inclusivity that established Montana’s sage-grouse management program and putting the future management of the bird in jeopardy, this bill would put sage grouse on a crash course to an endangered species listing. Requiring little to no accountability for industrial development could destroy sagebrush habitat along with the wildlife that dependents on the ecosystem.
While SB 299 seems to be crafted by and for the telecom industry in response to frustrations over a single cellular tower, the bill would exempt energy projects, mining and other development from Montana’s sage-grouse management plan. Doing so would imperil the plan that scientist developed to protect the animals that rely on such landscape. The fact that this bird is near threatened, it is discouraging to know that humans take little to no concern with jeopardizing their future.
Legislators would be wise to remember that if sage grouse are listed under the Endangered Species Act, Montana would lose management authority, as it would then be a federal responsibility to protect the species. Hunters, ranchers, energy developers and the same telecom industry pushing for the bill would suffer.
SB 299 is not only irresponsible and short-sighted, it is also unnecessary. The Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team has the authority to address issues and concerns with projects through adaptive management. Tying the state’s hands in statute eliminates their ability to address issues as they arise, effectively removing a good resource for the state of Montana.
In order for sage-grouse conservation to work, landowners, ranchers and developers need more certainty of what they can responsibly do on public and private lands. We had that, but now SB 299 also proposes to eliminate the fair market value of conserving private lands, further reducing the incentives for people to participate in the program, and undoubtedly decreasing the number of conserved acres in Montana.
Mule deer, pronghorn, elk, jack rabbits, cattle, hunters, developers, ranchers and — yes, sage grouse — all benefit when the sagebrush ecosystem is healthy and intact. Montana’s existing sage-grouse strategy already provides a game plan that is working for this multiple-use landscape that we all know and love. It would be a shame to allow greedy, single interests to dictate what happens to one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, our backyards. Please protect sagebrush country and all its inhabitants by opposing SB 299.
Shelby Stier is a member of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. She lives in Dillon.