Montana to decide whether to relocate sage grouse to Alberta

HELENA, Mont. - Montana officials are set to decide Thursday whether to relocate dozens of sage grouse to the Canadian province of Alberta, a plan opposed by some lawmakers who say the state should look to bolster its own fragile population first.

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The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission will vote on a recommendation by the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency to send 40 greater sage grouse to Alberta this year, followed by 40 more in 2018 and 2020. Canadian officials requested the relocation to aid in the recovery of its population, which is at about 120 of the chicken-sized birds.

The Montana sage grouse would come from populations in Valley and Phillips counties that have rebounded this year. Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency director Jeff Hagener said there are an estimated 10,000 sage grouse in the area and removing the initial 40 hens would have an "insignificant impact."

The program would be evaluated each year to determine if Montana's sage grouse population is healthy enough to proceed with future relocations, Hagener said.

Last year, federal officials announced restrictions on 67 million acres of public lands in 11 states, including Montana, to protect the bird's habitat and prevent it from becoming a threatened or endangered species. Montana is taking its own measures to protect sage grouse habitat on state lands and to give incentives to keep landowners from damaging the bird's habitat.

Several Montana lawmakers oppose the relocation plan because of the politics that have surrounded protecting the bird at the expense of economic development. The state Environmental Quality Council on Thursday sent a letter to Fish, Wildlife and Parks requesting a three-year block on moving the birds out of the country.

Instead, a relocation program should take place within the state, from areas where there are an abundance of sage grouse to those where there are few, said Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte.

Others on the council suggested that the sage grouse could be moved to the border, but kept in Montana. The birds could then fly to the Canadian side or stay on the Montana side.

"Then nobody has their feathers up," said Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda.

The Alberta government's study identifies specific leks, or breeding grounds, where the birds would be taken. The relocation would be supplemented by researching the Canadian and U.S. populations with the goal of increasing their connectivity with genetically similar populations in Montana.

A previous relocation of 41 sage grouse was done in 2011 and 2012. Thirteen of the females in that group initiated nests and only two nests resulted in hatchlings, while a number of the birds were killed by predators.

Officials on both sides of the border said the pilot program showed the Montana birds could integrate with the Alberta population.



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