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Threats to wildlife drive TRCP objection to Montana state leases

11/6/2008

WASHINGTON — Concerns about important wildlife habitat and valuable hunting opportunities compelled the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to formally object to components of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation's December 9 lease sale, the sportsmen's group announced today. The TRCP "request for withdrawal" totals more than 9,500 acres of state public lands in two counties and encompasses important seasonal habitat, winter range and migration corridors for big game, as well as critical habitat for sage grouse, in areas specified by sportsmen as providing traditional hunting grounds. The entire lease sale comprises 182,631 acres in 19 Montana counties.

The TRCP action in Montana marks only the second time the sportsmen's group has engaged in state lease sales and was pursued in part due to sensitive areas proposed for lease in Teton County on Montana's Rocky Mountain Front. Overlapping state and federal interests across a broad and common pool of natural gas could create a mineral rights drainage situation, which, spurred by the state lease sale, could cause resumption of federal leasing on the Rocky Mountain Front. Sale of federal leases on the Front has been prohibited since 2006 by a congressional ban.

Energy projects, vehicle traffic and road networks can dramatically affect big-game habitat and migration corridors and their use by pronghorn, mule deer and elk. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has identified areas proposed for lease as important seasonal habitat for resident big-game herds in Beaverhead County. Leasing without considering the consequences to big game could affect sustainable and huntable numbers of elk and mule deer.

"Migrations between summer and winter ranges generally follow the same routes that are learned and passed on from adult animals to young," said William Geer, a TRCP policy initiative manager. "Irresponsible management of these routes, or 'corridors,' could render vast swaths of seasonal range inaccessible to these animals, and current populations likely would decrease."

Sage grouse habitat also is at the center of the TRCP action, including critical nesting habitat and winter concentration areas, as well as lands adjacent to sage grouse mating areas ("leks"). Of special concern to sportsmen is a region identified by biologists as providing some of the best sage grouse brood-rearing habitat remaining in southwestern Montana's Centennial Valley.

Sage grouse currently are being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act, an action that would have substantial repercussions for hunters. Montana FWP is in the process of identifying core sage grouse habitat statewide, which would aid in the future conservation of these iconic birds. This effort and accompanying new management guidelines for the core areas should be completed by the end of 2008.

"Considering the precarious status of sage grouse right now — and in anticipation of the state of Montana's new guidelines for sage grouse management — it makes sense to hold off on leasing this known grouse habitat, at least until we know if the state will be designating these areas as core habitat," said TRCP Energy Initiative Manager Steve Belinda.

"Recent research indicates that the impacts of energy development on sage grouse are even more serious than previously believed," continued Belinda, a former BLM biologist. "The BLM in Buffalo, Wyoming, recently expanded protections around leks for precisely this reason. And other states are reviewing their guidelines to see if they are adequate to manage and sustain grouse populations."

New information collected from Montana hunters and anglers also guided the TRCP action. Via the TRCP Sportsmen's Values Mapping project, sportsmen in organized rod and gun clubs identified areas of high importance to hunting and angling whose special values should be retained during development. This information has been incorporated into a geographical information system database, with maps distributed to resources agencies for use in plotting future land use.

"Sportsmen from across Montana have told us that these areas are cherished sites for hunting and fishing," concluded Geer. "The BLM standard model and approach for energy development would be incompatible with sporting activities in these areas, and their usage by sportsmen and other recreationists would most certainly decline."

The TRCP believes that to better balance the concerns of fish and wildlife in the face of accelerating energy development, federal land management agencies must follow the conservation tenets outlined in the FACTS for Fish and Wildlife.

Inspired by the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, the TRCP is a coalition of organizations and grassroots partners working together to preserve the traditions
of hunting and fishing.