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Sage grouse, greater sage grouse

New West Daily Roundup for Sept. 22, 2015

In today’s New West: Feds pass on declaring the sage grouse as an endangered species, while Billings decides whether to authorize up to $45 million in upgrades to Billings Logan International Airport.

Pity the poor sage grouse; its status and future has been the subject of much debate in political and environmental circles in the last year. In the end, it’s not about a rather modest little fowl that lives amongst sagebrush throughout the western United States. Instead, the continuing political battle over the sage grouse’s potential endangered listing is a symbolic clash all too common in the New West: environmental protections versus economic growth. In the end, the Department of the Interior decided against endangered-species protection for the sage ground, with officials deciding instead to implement that they say is the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history. From the press announcement of the protection plan:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reached this determination after evaluating the bird’s population status, along with the collective efforts by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, state agencies, private landowners and other partners to conserve its habitat. Despite long-term population declines, sage grouse remain relatively abundant and well-distributed across the species’ 173-million-acre range. After a thorough analysis of the best available scientific information and taking into account ongoing key conservation efforts and their projected benefits, the FWS has determined the bird does not face the risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future and therefore does not need protection under the ESA.

“This is truly a historic effort – one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” said Secretary Jewell. “It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation – ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife that we do today. The epic conservation effort will benefit westerners and hundreds of species that call this iconic landscape home, while giving states, businesses and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development.”

Reaction, predictably, depended on what side of the political aisle you are on. The American Bird Conservancy expressed solidarity with the plan, though expressed some reservations as to how well the plan would work:

“We are concerned about continued habitat loss from oil and gas drilling and new power line construction,” said Steve Holmer, Senior Policy Advisor for American Bird Conservancy. “We want to see regular reviews of the species’ population trend to learn if the current long-term decline is reversed. The plans must be shown to be working, and the extraordinary conservation efforts on private lands continued. If not, the listing issue may have to be revisited in the future.”

On the other side of the fence, Western Caucus Chairman Cynthia Lummis (WY-at large) issued the following statement:

“Through hard work, diligence, and common sense, grassroots conservation has prevented a greater sage grouse listing for the time being,” said Chairman Lummis. “But we aren’t out of the woods yet. No listing does not mean no federal regulation and the sage grouse regulations finalized this week sweep across western communities and economies. My home State of Wyoming’s core area strategy represents unprecedented collaboration among communities, industries, and all levels of government. Wyoming is doing its part. Now the federal government needs to do its part to implement the core area strategy faithfully. I am disappointed that Secretary Jewell has failed to make this kind of progress range wide, where unnecessary, onerous restrictions will hurt communities while threats like invasive species and wildfire will continue to hurt the sage grouse. Much work remains to ensure sage grouse conservation across the west is focused on what’s best for the species and for people, and not simply grabbing more land.”

In Billings, an expansion/renovation of Billings Logan International Airport could begin as soon as next summer, as council members debate both short-term and long-term fixes to the airport. It once was the busiest airport in Montana, but Bozeman overtook Billings a few years ago. With airline fees possible to cover much of the cost of renovations, Billings officials are looking at a $9.5 million renovation of the B Concourse, as well as a more ambitious plan down the road that may require expertise from an airport designer. From the Billings Gazette:

One of the problems with the airport’s current configuration is that services — including food and beverage and restrooms — are currently housed in places where the flying public has not yet passed through security screening. That’s a typical pre-9/11 set-up, Ploehn said, but it doesn’t work in modern airports.

Since the terrorist attacks, families have not been able to see off their loved ones at the gate. A result is that most food is consumed and most bathroom space and holding areas must be allocated close to the gates. According to a study by airport consultant Leigh/Fisher, the Billings airport should just about reverse its current mix of restrooms and food concessions, with most made available post-screening — where most of the airport’s customers spend most of their time there.

“If you build this, will they come?” asked Councilman Rich McFadden. “Is this improved airport going to bring in more passengers and airlines?”

Well, probably; we know some businesspeople in the region who avoid the Billings airport for a variety of reasons, and it sounds like these renovations will address most of them. To their credit, Billings political and tourism officials know they’re dealing with a “vintage” airport, so some level of changes are inevitable.

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