Balancing Conservation and Rural Development
MFBF has been committed to the goal of Montana’s Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program since its inception. The program seeks to protect sage-grouse habitat through compensatory mitigation, in which private landowners are compensated for restoration, enhancement, and preservation projects to sage-grouse habitat. Such projects create credits that developers can then purchase to offset the damages their permitted-projects cause to sage-grouse habitat. It’s important to note that only projects that require a permit from a state agency have to adhere to the stipulations of the Program.
MFBF has been actively working with the Program to perfect the two documents that direct how the program is administered – the Habitat Quantification Tool (HQT) and the Montana Mitigation System Policy Guidance Document. The HQT determines how many functional acres a project would either create, disrupt, or destroy, while the policy document defines the processes, standards, and information necessary to create, buy, or sell mitigation credits. Both of these documents are incredibly complex, which consequently stalled their passage and the Program’s ability to administer the mitigation system.
After countless comment periods, multiple stakeholder workshops, and a period of peer review, the Montana Sage-Grouse Oversight Team (MSGOT) finalized program details by voting to place both documents into rule at their meeting on December 20th. MFBF is encouraged by the content included in both documents. We were concerned that the compensatory burden of mitigation may hinder development of telecommunications in our rural communities. The Program specifically responded to our comments by instituting alternative mitigation options (matching funds and a waiver) for such critical projects. While we are encouraged, MFBF is also watching closely to ensure such alternatives are actually employed. Developers cannot be so financially burdened by this Program that they will not invest in our rural communities. The Program must equitably balance conservation and development together.
Nevertheless, with the bird’s status on the line in 2020, we need a Sage-Grouse Program in Montana. The Program’s success is essential to Montana’s ability to manage our own lands were the greater sage-grouse to become listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). We hope establishment of Montana’s Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program will provide evidence to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that the greater sage-grouse should remain unlisted under the ESA in 2020.
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