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in Southeastern Montana

Energy and sage-grouse in Montana and the Dakotas

Because of Montana’s highly fragmented land ownership patterns, and a relatively small portion of federal ownership in sage-grouse habitat, a collaborative approach is considered essential in protecting and enhancing sage-grouse habitat. (For comparison, the BLM in Wyoming manages more than half of the important breeding habitat for sage-grouse, whereas in Montana, the BLM manages about a quarter; in South Dakota, it is 1.4 percent.) At the same time, Montana and the Dakotas support relatively large and stable populations of sage-grouse on a large portion of its historic range. The BLM has an important opportunity to maintain, protect and enhance vast areas of existing habitat by using the most recent research to guide management.

Since 2008, the BLM has deferred leasing for energy development in priority sage-grouse habitat in Montana until resource management plans are revised. The revisions will take into account new information on sage-grouse habitat needs in order to protect this priority habitat and provide for connectivity between habitats. The approach builds on the “core areas” developed by the State and offers a suite of stipulations and restrictions for all uses, not just energy development. The RMP revisions address the majority of BLM-managed sage-grouse habitat in the three states (Montana and the Dakotas), update the BLM’s approach to sage-grouse conservation and guide on-the-ground decision-making for sage-grouse habitat conservation and restoration.

The effectiveness of the approach will be evaluated by a monitoring program, and through adaptive management, modifications to achieve sage-grouse goals will be undertaken. The approach builds in flexibility and coordination across all field offices and has been coordinated with other agencies responsible for sage-grouse conservation in the region. This will aid in more effective sage-grouse conservation measures in an area with fragmented land ownership patterns. The goal for all the partners is not only to maintain existing habitat but to expand functional habitat to promote greater movement and genetic diversity of greater sage-grouse.

National Guidance

Some of the innovative conservation strategies modeled by Wyoming and Montana have been incorporated into new national policy for managing energy development in sage-grouse habitat on public lands across the West. This 2010 supplemental policy to the BLM’s National Sage-Grouse Habitat Conservation Strategy    instructs field offices to limit proposed oil, oil shale, and gas development as well as wind, solar and geothermal development and transmission rights of way in priority habitat areas until land use planning efforts can further evaluate proposed actions. It is designed to allow BLM State and Field Offices the flexibility they need to design and implement appropriate protective measures, working with their State and other partners, because threats to sage-grouse may vary geographically or from region to region.

In fact, all uses permitted on BLM-managed lands are subject to consideration and evaluation in light of potential impacts to sage-grouse. For example, the BLM is evaluating certain recreational activities, particularly off road vehicle use, and livestock grazing to address potential impacts. Again, as these activities cross jurisdictions, the BLM works with State wildlife agencies and other partners to ensure conservation of priority sage-grouse habitat.

In response to requests from state and local governments to facilitate ways to conserve greater sage-grouse and protect its habitat, BLM scientists and managers met with state wildlife management officials July 16, 2011 to brief them on the agency’s National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy. The meeting took place at the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies summer conference in Big Sky, Montana. The BLM strategy emphasizes a cooperative approach and provides a framework to advance efforts to implement timely conservation measures for sage-grouse and its habitat.

As part of the strategy, the BLM will incorporate science-based conservation measures into Resource Management Plans across regions where the greater sage-grouse are found. It will address principal threats to the sage-grouse identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within different portions of the range and work closely with Western state fish and wildlife agencies.

Sage Grouse and Montana Energy

Otter Creek Coal? Billions Hang in Balance

By Evelyn Pyburn

The development of the Otter Creek Coal tracts, is “One of the biggest development opportunities the state of Montana has ever seen,” Jim Atchison, Director of the Southeastern Montana Development Corporation, told economic development cohorts in Billings, last week.

Atchison was a guest presenter at the monthly meeting of the joint board of the Big Sky Economic Development Authority and the Big Sky Economic Development Corporation in Billings. The Southeastern Montana Development Corporation serves Custer, Rosebud, Powder River and Treasure Counties in the promotion of their economies — and few things could greater serve their economies than the development of Otter Creek Coal.

Part of Atchison’s message was that Billings, too, would stand to greatly benefit from the operations of a coal mine located only 150 miles from the city. Just as “Millions and millions of dollars have leaked away to Billings,” from the production of coal at Colstrip, said Atchison, so it will from the even larger development that would occur near Ashland, which is the nearest community to the tracts.

Given the very small size of Ashland, a community which is not even incorporated, it stands to reason that Billings will be very important in providing services and infrastructure support to the building of a new economic base in the state.

There’s 1.3 billion tons of coal at Otter Creek. “That’s a lot of coal,” said Atchison, “It’s a 100 years supply.” By contrast 13 million tons are being mined at Colstrip.

The impact to the state as a whole will be just as significant. The State of Montana is expected to net almost $132 million annually, and well over $5 billion over the life of the mine. Tax revenues in Powder River County, from the operation of the mine, will be equal to about $15,700 per person, or about $27 million per year – for one of the state’s poorest and least populated counties.

Therein lies a problem for nearby Ashland, since Ashland, while being the nearest community, is located in a different county, and would therefore not be receiving the tax revenues, which could help build its infrastructure. Atchison noted that Rosebud County, in which Ashland is located, is a ‘county of extremes” with the 300 to 400 people in Ashland having one of the lowest average income levels in the state (est. at about $25,000) while Colstrip at the other end of the county has one of the highest, at $55,000.

Development of coal in Powder River County will necessitate the building and operation of a railroad, another economic growth opportunity. The Tongue River Railroad, which has been decades getting permitted, has an approved alignment of 121.1 miles. Its right of way would affect only 14 acres of irrigated farm land.

Otter Creek coal is owned in part by private concerns and in part by the State of Montana. The portion owned by the state comes under the administration of the State Land Board, which in December decided, in a 4-1 vote, to lease the tracts. The lone dissenter was Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. Other members of the board include Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Attorney General Steve Bullock, and state Auditor Monica Lindeen. The coal tracts are considered school trust land, which are lands set aside under the State Constitution, the proceeds from which are meant to fund public education.

The board sought bids based on a bonus, upfront price of 25 cents a ton – an amount the bidder would have to pay the state, whether or not any coal is ever mined.

Receiving no bids at that price, the board, in a highly controversial decision, voted 3-2, to lower the upfront payment to 15 cents a ton – still significantly higher than the 5-7 cents a ton, that professional appraisers reported the coal was worth. The State Superintendent of Schools, Juneau was joined in her opposition by Attorney General Bullock. [Since the publishing of this article, the state received a bid from Arch Coal at the lower price, and it was accepted by the state in a 3-2 vote with Juneau and Bullock remaining opposed.]

Much of the controversy stems from the fact that recent bids on Wyoming coal have been higher. Some opponents do not believe that Montana is demanding a high enough price. 

State officials point out, however, that Wyoming already has the necessary infrastructure in place to mine the coal, which makes it more valuable. Any producer in Montana will have to spend millions of additional dollars building the needed infrastructure. Other opponents – including many others from the education community – object to the development of the coal at any price, citing concerns about harming the environment in the mining process, as well as in burning the coal.

The state will find out this week if it has any takers at the lower price.

The rest of the Otter Creek coal — 730 million tons – is owned by Great Northern Properties. The company leased the rights to mine its coal to Arch Coal, last year, at 10 cents a ton. Arch Coal is, also, the only company to have indicated an interest in the public-owned rights.

Asked how Otter Creek coal compares to the coal being mined at Roundup, Atchison explained that the Otter Creek coal is “fairly high” in BTUs – between 8600 and 8800 BTU/lb. The coal is relatively low in sulfur “which is good,” and relatively high in sodium content, “which is bad.” As compared to the coal at Roundup, Otter Creek coal is a lower quality, but it would fit markets in the upper mid-West – “an area that possess boilers and related equipment that can handle high sodium coal,” said Atchison.





















Otter Creek Coal Strip Mine Challenged

Case Number # 2008

Earthjustice is representing the Montana Environmental Information Center and Sierra Club in challenging a massive new coal strip mine in southeastern Montana. The lawsuit alleges that the state's decision to lease 572 million tons of coal for mining, without first examining the potentially devastating environmental consequences of the mine, violated the state's constitutional and fiduciary obligation to prevent unreasonable environmental degradation.

Montana's Board of Land Commissioners voted on March 18, 2010 to lease the state's Otter Creek coal reserves to St. Louis-based Arch Coal, the nation's second largest coal producer. Including the adjacent private coal tracts, also leased by Arch Coal, the proposed Otter Creek mine will exploit a 1.3 billion ton coal reserve, making it one of the largest coal mines in North America. Almost all of the Otter Creek coal is destined for coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and abroad, where it will result in 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The lawsuit argues that the state was required to conduct environmental review before issuing the lease to allow it to consider measures to avoid or minimize the mine’s contribution to global warming. Among other things, the lawsuit argues that the Land Board should have considered imposing lease conditions restricting the sale of Otter Creek coal only to facilities that capture and store their carbon dioxide and prohibiting export of the coal.

In January 2011, Montana District Court Judge Joe Hegel ruled that the state's decision to lease the coal without first evaluating the environmental impacts of that decision may implicate Montanan’s right to a clean and healthful environment, denying the government and Arch Coal’s motion to dismiss the case.

In February 2012, Judge Hegel issued a mixed ruling that puts off until late in the development of the tracts the Land Board’s examination of the potential impacts from this massive coal mining proposal and consideration of measures that could be imposed on the mining company in order to protect Montana’s water, air, and climate.


Judge Rejects Challenge To Otter Creek Coal

Posted by admin on February 8th, 2012

Associated Press

A judge has rejected a lawsuit challenging the state Land Board’s lease of 587 million tons of publicly owned coal in southeastern Montana, removing a hurdle to a proposed mine with that could drastically expand the state’s coal production.

Conservation groups had argued that further environmental studies were needed and that the lease sale would make mining inevitable if allowed to stand.

But District Judge Joe Hegel says the state did not give up its discretion to halt or modify mining plans at a later date when it leased the coal to St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc. for $86 million in 2010.

Hegel said in his Feb. 3 ruling that the state still must ensure the environment is protected if the coal is mined from the leases near Ashland. Arch has said it intends to ship at least some of the coal overseas, to markets in Asia.

“While it is true that the Land Board has a constitutional duty to prudently manage the property within its control with an eye towards financial return, it cannot do so by turning a blind eye to environmental protection,” Hagel wrote. He added that the state “still retains the discretion to mitigate or halt the development.”

The state-owned tracts are part of a coal reserve in an area known as Otter Creek that holds more fuel than the United States consumes annually.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a strong proponent of the project and chairman of the five-member land board, said Arch’s mining aspirations still must pass muster with the Department of Environmental Quality and other the state agencies.

“If you want to challenge it there’s an avenue for challenging environmental permits,” he said.

He added that the coal industry has successfully reclaimed parts of the state where past mining has occurred and said Arch would have to put up a multi-million dollar reclamation bond before it could move forward.

Plaintiffs in the case included the Northern Plains Resource Council, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and Montana Environmental Information Center.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they wanted studies on mining impacts and the consequences of releasing huge volumes of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when the coal is burned.

State officials and representatives of Arch countered in arguments before Hegel last year that environmental studies will come later, during the mine permitting process.

Northern Plains said in a statement that Hegel’s dismissal of the case was a “mixed ruling” because he said the Land Board has continuing obligations to the environment.

The Southeastern Montana region map covers Golden Valley, Musselshell, Stillwater, Carbon, Yellowstone, Treasure, Big Horn, Rosebud, Custer, Powder River, Fallon and Carter Counties.


We’re looking for someone Southeastern Montana to keep us up to date on these projects and any other major initiatives.  We’d also like to report news about what’s being done to fight Agenda 21 in your area.

Contact us at: montanasovereign@gmail.com or call us at 406-626-3007.


Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Bill

Projects in SE Montana:

 War against coal

 Sage Grouse:


Wild Prairie Dancers

By Deborah Richie Oberbillig

Major land-use initiative protects sage grouse

As dawn breaks on a Montana prairie, dozens of male sage grouse fan their spiky tails and inflate bright yellow throat sacs to make a sound with a definite romantic flair – like uncorking a bottle of champagne. The strutting males vie for the attention of females, who choose their mates after weeks of watching the sunrise dances on traditional breeding grounds called leks.

Today, there’s new hope for this iconic western bird, despite declines so drastic that the greater sage grouse qualifies for listing as an endangered species. The population has slipped from millions in presettlement days to about 200,000 as habitat is degraded, developed for houses, or lost to oil and gas development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the species provides a window of opportunity to avoid a listing altogether through voluntary conservation.

Dave Naugle, a University of Montana wildlife biology professor in the College of Forestry and Conservation, serves as science adviser to the Sage Grouse Initiative, which conserves core breeding grounds for the highest density of sage grouse while simultaneously helping rural private landowners make a living.
“It’s a reimagining of where we want to work and how we want to work together,” Naugle says.

He gives credit for the win-win tactic to a model in UM’s backyard: the Blackfoot Challenge. Since the 1970s rural landowners have come together to conserve natural resources and a rural lifestyle in the Blackfoot River watershed. By focusing on the 80 percent of what residents agree on, the group has kept large ranches and working forests intact, conserved vital wildlife corridors for grizzly bears and elk, and improved the nutrition and health of grasslands for ranching and wildlife alike.

Translating the Blackfoot Challenge model to sage grouse conservation is working even in the initiative’s first year, Naugle says. To enlist ranchers as voluntary participants, the staff of the lead agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), talks to landowners mainly about healthier grass, fewer weeds, fatter cattle and keeping land intact instead of subdivided.
“Ranchers embrace the idea of enhancing their rangelands for cattle production while at the same time improving habitat for wildlife,” Naugle says. “They’re calling us in record numbers to enroll.”

The Sage Grouse Initiative targets 56 million acres across 11 Western states and is marshaling existing farm bill resources: $18.5 million in 2010 and $53 million in 2011, including a $23 million investment in perpetual working-lands conservation easements in prime sage grouse habitat, mostly near Wyoming’s Wind River Range, where ranchlands are under threat of subdivision.
The money isn’t new, Naugle says. Rather, it’s taking existing budgets and strategically applying them to shore up the best private land habitat for sage grouse by helping landowners make improvements so their livelihoods will be healthy, too.

NRCS does not typically take on an endangered species challenge, yet the agency is proving to be  ideal because of its many field offices located in rural areas, Naugle says. The service has the expertise and the trust of farmers and ranchers to hit the ground running.
Where once the farm bill assisted rural landowners in “1,000 random acts of conservation kindness,” as Naugle called them, today NRCS allocates dollars to areas depicted on a colorful map that’s generated from hard data gathered by state fish and wildlife biologists who count and track sage grouse.
The bird’s entire range shows up in blue, covering 186 million acres in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, California, Washington, and North and South Dakota. Within the blue are clusters of bright yellow, orange and red colors, where breeding bird numbers are highest. Naugle generated the map in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society.

“Seventy-five percent of the breeding population is concentrated in just 27 percent of the species’ occupied range,” Naugle points out. “It makes sense to spend your first dollar conserving 500 birds instead of five birds.”
He praised the leadership of Dave White, the NRCS chief who knows the Blackfoot Challenge success story firsthand and champions a smart and efficient vision for the farm bill.

“In an era when all agencies are being asked to do more with less, White is working with producers to increase sustainable agriculture and at the same time tackling conservation issues,” Naugle says.

Leadership is one breakthrough for the Sage Grouse Initiative. Enlisting science is the second, Naugle says. As science adviser, he pinpoints the core breeding areas and then identifies threats and solutions for conserving prime habitats.
“The threats are very different depending on the location,” Naugle adds, from cheatgrass fires that burn up sagebrush in Idaho to energy development in Wyoming. West Nile remains a significant threat, but conserving the biggest and healthiest populations first gives birds the best chance to rebound.

In Montana, NRCS enrolls landowners in grazing systems as an alternative to tilling lands for biofuels production. Once land is plowed up, the sage grouse habitat is gone forever.

North of Billings between Roundup and Ryegate, almost every landowner has volunteered to be part of the initiative across about 100,000 acres of sagebrush-dominated grasslands. Here, NRCS offers technical expertise and financial support to alter grazing patterns to leave more ground vegetation, which provides food and hiding cover for sage grouse nests and their chicks. Naugle will work this spring with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to radio track sage grouse to study if survival is higher.

Marking or moving fences makes a clear difference for sage grouse, too.  Envision a male sage grouse flying in low to a lek in predawn darkness, readying for the sunrise dance. Rather than barreling into a barbed wire fence, he spots flashes of white plastic like playing cards (that dangle from the wires) and avoids a deadly crash.

“The most severe collision risk is right next to a lek,” Naugle explains, “but fences can be a problem even a couple of miles out.”

Marking fences works, according to the 2011 results of a University of Idaho study. A graduate student walked fence lines and counted impact sites near leks.  Before the next spring, he put white tags on the fence wires and then returned after breeding season to find a six-fold decrease in sage grouse accidents.

“We took the estimate from the research and applied it to last year’s success of marking 180 miles of fences and figured we’ve saved about 1,000 birds,” Naugle says, cautioning that fencing is just one part of the conservation strategy.
“We have to get popping on all fronts,” he says. “The message we always return to is that sustainable agriculture benefits both producers and wildlife.”

New grazing systems and other projects should help sage grouse across an area the size of Yosemite and Glacier national parks combined – 1,000 square miles in 2010 and another 2,000 square miles in 2011. Sage grouse are an umbrella species, Naugle says, so by meeting their needs, many other declining prairie species will be helped, too – from pygmy rabbits to Brewer’s sparrows.
Naugle is convinced that landscape-level conservation coupled with landowner partnerships should be taught in universities as part of every wildlife biology curriculum. With UM support in 2008, Naugle launched a yearly landscape conservation course that he co-teaches with Greg Neudecker, a private lands biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As part of the class, students head to the Blackfoot Valley to learn skills that will serve them far beyond basic knowledge of wildlife biology, such as what to wear when meeting ranchers and how to place themselves in the landowners’ shoes.

Naugle believes landscape conservation courses, the Blackfoot Challenge and the Sage Grouse Initiative all chart a new path for conservation that links science with effective solutions. That pathway takes center stage in a new book he edited, “Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America.”

“We’re taking a different approach from spending millions of dollars on declining populations that aren’t going to make it,” Naugle says. “We’re investing in the best landscapes for sage grouse and helping ranchers and farmers make a living. We can apply that strategy for other species, too.” By Deborah Richie Oberbillig


Gas drilling is hurting sage grouse populations in Montana and Wyoming


A boost in methane gas drilling in parts of Montana and Wyoming may be a factor in the shrinking population of sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird slowly being squeezed out of its habitat by development, a study shows.
Lead researcher David Naugle, a wildlife professor at the University of Montana, said preliminary findings show the need to find a new way of thinking when it comes to coal-bed methane development and wildlife conservation in the mineral-rich Powder River Basin.  "There are going to have to be some tough decisions," he said.

While the study also cited loss of habitat, expansion of roads, increased human activity and West Nile virus as other factors that can hurt sage grouse numbers, the decline in the birds' population -- an estimated 84 % in the basin since 1988 -- correlates with the period when methane gas development took off in the 1990s.

More than 24,800 coal-bed methane wells have been drilled in Wyoming and about 580 methane wells in Montana, officials said. The researchers found that areas in which methane wells are being drilled didn't have the same strong population growth recorded elsewhere in the basin in 2004 and 2005.

Given the current pace of drilling in the region, which includes parts of eastern Wyoming and south-eastern Montana, "the full extent of suitable habitat" will be developed within the next 20 years, leaving sage grouse with no place to go, Naugle said. So far, the drilling has pushed the birds toward undeveloped habitat, which can leave them more susceptible to disease and more vulnerable to predators, Naugle said. "Avoidance in some people's minds means, 'Oh, good. We didn't kill them,'" he said. The government so far has rejected listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, said the US Bureau of Land Management protections in place for the sage grouse are inadequate and that current development isn't compatible with maintaining populations. He advocates a wide buffer zone to prevent the habitat from becoming industrialized.

Albright said the study yielded no real surprises. He said the federal bureau and other agencies, as well as energy development firms, are helping fund the research, the results of which he expects will be taken into account in planning and other efforts.
"We're looking for the best information we can get, because we're trying to manage all the resources out there responsibly," he said.

Source:  The Associated Press / www.cbsnews.com