Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed an agreement Monday with the U.S. Department of Agriculture pledging cooperation on efforts to protect declining populations of greater sage grouse.
The agreement signed at the Capitol in Helena calls for state, federal and local officials to meet annually to discuss sage grouse conservation. It includes no new spending or regulations.
The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller said the agreement should help streamline and coordinate sage grouse conservation efforts on private land in the state. Seventy percent of sage grouse habitat in Montana is on private or state lands.
"It sets up the structure for really accelerating action on the ground," Weller said of measures to help farmers and ranchers in the state voluntarily protect sage grouse habitat while maintaining grazing lands.
Sage grouse numbers fell dramatically across the western U.S. during the past several decades because of oil and gas drilling, residential and agricultural development and disease.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a Sept. 30 deadline to decide if the chicken-sized grouse needs federal protections, although Congress has blocked additional spending by the agency to put those protections in place.
Montana and other states want to demonstrate that sweeping federal protections aren't needed.
Montana is the first state to sign such an agreement with the USDA regarding sage grouse. In addition to Bullock, the agreement was signed by representatives of the Agriculture Department and Montana's Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
"Our economy, and our Montana way of life depends on all of us working together to ensure a bright future for the grouse and a continued thriving economy," Bullock said. "The best possible outcome: the management of the bird is to stay within the state of Montana."
Since 2010, the Natural Resources Conservation Service through a sage grouse program has invested nearly $300 million to conserve more than 4.4 million acres of sage grouse habitat in 11 western states in which sage grouse are found.
Weller said Monday that the conservation service plans to spend another $200 million throughout the 11 states, which was announced earlier this year. He did not say how much would go toward efforts in Montana, but he said officials are currently finalizing an investment strategy.
Bullock last year ordered restrictions on future oil drilling and other activities blamed for driving down sage grouse numbers, aligning Montana with other states rushing to head off federal intervention for the ground-dwelling bird. He also created a sage grouse oversight team in addition to the Montana Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program.
The legislature earlier this year passed the governor's bill to establish a fund that in part will be used by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to hire at least five new employees to manage the program.
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