You can't swing a Sierra Club mug in this state right now without hitting one of the many industry-sponsored op-eds or press releases decrying key provisions in Montana's proposed sage grouse conservation plan. As the state moves to protect the greater sage grouse and avoid the bird's listing under the Endangered Species Act, coal, gas and business groups are pushing back. Unfortunately, many of their published claims and policy proposals turn out to be misinformed or downright misleading.
Consider the Montana Chamber of Commerce's recent opinion piece in the Billings Gazette, in which they ask Gov. Steve Bullock to remove key provisions in the plan. "Eliminate the three-year cessation of development activities if grouse populations fall, regardless of the cause and through no fault of human or development activity," it reads. "Drought, disease, wildfire and other natural disasters are beyond human control."
It's a little difficult to accept the assertion that drought, disease and wildfire are unrelated to development activity. University of Montana biologist Dave Naugle and other scientists have published numerous studies that show how coal bed methane development in Montana and Wyoming leaves liquid waste stagnating in storage pools across the landscape. These pools provide habitat for the mosquitos that carry West Nile Virus and exacerbate viral outbreaks in fragile grouse populations. In this case, development leads to disease.
And across the greater sage grouse's range, scientists and government agencies have documented how invasive plants like cheatgrass increase both the frequency and intensity of grouse-killing wildfires. These grasses are introduced and spread by humans. Then there's the many billion tons of carbon our industrial society pumps into the atmosphere each year. Might that play a role in worsening droughts and intensifying wildfires?
Clearly development activity has a role in the "natural disasters" that promote sage grouse mortality. The provision to stop development if grouse populations decline is crucial and shouldn't change.
The sage grouse problem is complexa bird is at risk of extinction and Montana's rural communities face tough choices about their economic future. But state policy makers and stakeholders cannot afford to ignore established science. If these powerful interests continue to undermine the state's sage grouse conservation plan then the bird will be listed under the ESA. The Montana Chamber of Commerce and its partners in science denial will howl, but, hey, that's justice. Chickens (and their wild cousins) always come home to roost.