Group urges BLM director to act quickly, be transparent on sage grouse plan | Nov. 18, 2014 | Billings Gazette

When she heard her photo had shown up on a flier in Billings mailboxes and on an interstate billboard this weekend, Jamie Connell was perplexed.

“To be honest, I was a little confused by it other than they want us to make a decision more quickly,” said Connell, director of the Bureau of Land Management’s Montana/Dakotas office.

A campaign by the Western Values Project is calling on Connell to be more transparent and to act quickly on a plan for the greater sage grouse — a species being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The flier urges people call Connell to “tell her hard-working Montana ranchers, sportsmen, and business owners can’t wait any longer on a plan for the greater sage-grouse!”

“We need to get this out and talked about,” said Mike Bowman, advisory council member for Western Values Project, who met with Connell and presented a letter to her on Tuesday in Billings.

Connell said she understands the frustration among Montanans that the process is taking so long, but said: “We have taken on a Herculean effort. It’s a very big lift.”

Across the West, the BLM is trying to coordinate 15 different environmental impact statements in 11 states broken into many district offices. The work involves amending or changing 90-plus area decisions.

In addition, the agency must coordinate with the Forest Service and state governors to be consistent with what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency that will make a ruling by September 2015 about whether to list the prairie bird.

In Connell’s office alone, she has to coordinate four reviews and three amendments to plans for district offices in Montana and western North Dakota. She said the office hopes to have its work done early next year.

“It’s the top priority for us right now in the Montana/Dakotas,” she said. “It has to be completed in time for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So we have to walk this very difficult balance.”

That’s meant less involvement with local constituents than under normal circumstances, Connell said, because the timeframe for the process has been compressed.

“The plan will be written in a way that we hope provides for a working landscape,” Connell said, referring to continued grazing and oil and gas exploration on BLM land.

After meeting with Connell, Bowman said he appreciated the agency’s situation but still thinks the BLM needs to be clearer with the public about what is going on. That’s crucial to get locals to support a proposal, he said.

As to why Western Values Project, a nonprofit with offices in Bozeman and Denver, chose to target Connell and Montana for its media push on the sage grouse issue, Bowman said it was “Montana’s turn.”

Western Values Project is backed by the New Venture Fund and touts on its website that it promotes a balance between “oil and gas development with protecting our Western way of life.”

Ross Lane, a former campaign staffer for Sen. Jon Tester, is the group’s director, based in Bozeman.

John Gibson, of the Public Land/Water Access Association, also met with Connell and Bowman to raise concern that the BLM’s sage grouse plans may hamper public access to federal lands.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the greater sage grouse has lost an estimated 56 percent of its historic habitat. The bird is now found in 11 western states and two Canadian provinces.

In 2010, the agency determined that the primary cause of shrinking grouse populations is the loss and fragmentation of its sagebrush habitat. In the eastern half of the bird’s range in Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Colorado and Utah, the Service found that energy development and agricultural conversion are primary causes of habitat loss.

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