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Courtesy of the Audubon Society

New West Daily Roundup for Mar. 27, 2017

Today in New West news: study suggests some cattle grazing may help greater sage grouse, an update on Montana Water Artesian Company, and GREENbike vs. inversion.

We’ve talked at length about the issues facing the greater sage grouse across the American West. The once numerous bird, which ranges across 11 states, has faced declining populations and habitat over the years; what’s more, the bird has become a hub of fierce debate over conservation efforts. The most recent controversy regarded whether the greater sage grouse warranted inclusion on the Endangered Species List. Although the Interior decided not to list the species, they did decide to pursue special protections for the bird anyhow.

Livestock and mining groups, among other industry reps, protested this development, saying that it put unfair duress on them and limited their avowed autonomy. With regards to grazing, at least, that objection has some credence. According to the Billings Gazette, a new study published by researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, Colorado State University and Utah State University shows some grazing can even benefit greater sage grouse—at least in states like Wyoming, where the bird is most numerous. And, it should be noted, emphasis on some grazing. From the Gazette:

The study was published in the scientific journal Ecological Applications. It focused on more than 700 breeding sites for sage grouse in Wyoming, one of the bird’s last remaining strongholds.

An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 grouse remain in the U.S., down from a peak population of about 16 million.

Grazing on land occupied by greater sage grouse is frequently cited by biologists as one of the causes of the bird’s decline, along with disease, oil and gas drilling and other factors.

The latest findings don’t reject that claim outright, saying higher levels of grazing early in the growing season have been closely related to grouse population declines.

The new research could give land managers another tool to help assess grazing’s impacts on a local level, said Adrian Monroe, a research scientist at Colorado State and the study’s lead author.

“There could be benefits to both grouse and producers in terms of management,” Monroe said. “Up until now, we really lacked studies that directly linked the status and trends of sage grouse populations to management of livestock.”

Monroe added that the researchers’ conclusions were not meant to provide a “one-size fits all” approach. The work is most relevant to Wyoming, because that’s where the study was centered, and areas with similar arid landscapes in neighboring states such as Colorado and Montana.

Jim Magagna of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association partially accepted the study’s conclusions in a statement, saying that he doesn’t believe the study should impact when and how stockgrowers graze their herds.

Looking at Montana, last spring, we reported a water bottling company proposed outside Creston (near Kalispell) had area residents and conservation groups concerned but the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation more or less unable to address their concerns. Opponents to the Montana Artesian Water Co. argued that the initial permitting process was too lax, especially for a company that (in the words of owner Lew Weaver) plans to sell the water out-of-state. Several residents, tribes, and federal agencies later submitted objections to the DNRC.

Recently, according to the Flathead Beacon, State Senator Bob Keenan (R-Bigfork) proposed a bill that would require “large-scale facilities that package water or water-based products for human consumption” be subject to the Major Facilities Siting Act, which deals with infrastructure like pipelines and pump stations—energy, in other words. From the Beacon:

The Montana Legislature put the act into effect in the 1980s to ensure that the state’s environmental resources are protected, the socioeconomic impact of using that resource is considered, citizens have a say in siting such projects, and to establish effective methods for processing the authorizations for these projects.

On March 7, the Senate Natural Resources Committee tabled the bill, and on March 24 Keenan attempted to blast the bill out of committee for a second reading on the senate floor. The motion failed on a 31-19 vote.

“This is the single biggest issue on the tip of everybody’s tongues in my district, so I had to come up with a solution. I have gotten north of 700 emails asking for more environmental scrutiny on water bottling plants. It is nonstop,” Keenan said. “And now it’s dead. I have no idea why there is such resistance for further environmental review. What are they trying to hide? I mean what’s the big deal if it’s a legitimate operation?”

Keenan said he believes water-bottling projects should fall under the Major Facility Siting Act’s purview after watching how the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation handled the permits sought by Lew Weaver, the Creston man interested in turning his farmland into the Montana Artesian Water Company.

[…]

Keenan said he believes the most controversial aspect of the proposed plant for many people is the sheer amount of water sought in the permits, as well as the perceived lack of oversight from the state. The DEQ’s environmental assessment of the project left much to be desired, he said.

“The state’s environmental assessment checklist is entirely inadequate,” he said. “It is superficial and it is inadequate. The DEQ found that there is no aquatic life in Flathead Lake. That right there tells me there needs to be more environmental review.”

Keenan said Montana’s Constitution ensures that water belongs to the state, and that any attempts to package it and ship it out should be scrutinized.

“It was only opposed because other lawmakers thought that it was a local issue in need of a local solution,” Keenan said. “We are state lawmakers. This is what we do.”

Finally, to fight inversion in the greater Salt Lake metropolitan area, according to Utah Business, SLC-based nonprofit biekshare program GREENbike has remained open year-round for the first time since its inception five years ago. GREENbike executive director Ben Bolte told UB that “if we’re going to call ourselves a transportation alternative, we should be available to our community all year.” He prefaced this by saying that car travel is the number one source of air quality problem in the basin, which is partially what prompted the start of GREENbike. From Utah Business:

Some annual passholders have already conveyed their gratitude. Kyrene Clarke, GREENbike Member since 2015, “I’m thrilled that the bikes have stayed out and available through the winter. Because of this, I’ve been able to maintain my daily routine and rely on the convenience of GREENbike (rain, shine, or snow) to get me to and from work.”

According to GREENbike, 1,800 people have taken 13,000 rides since December 15th, 2016, the date GREENbike typically closes for the season. 82% of those rides were taken by people who had already purchased annual passes.

Though their season has increased by three months to 365 days a year, GREENbike promises not to increase annual pass prices, which range in cost from $35-$75 per year ($.10-$.20 per day).

“This decision isn’t about making money. It’s about helping clear our air,” said Bolte. “I’m thrilled we’re giving our annual users more days of riding for the same price. Thanks to SelectHealth’s renewed commitment, we can provide this extended service and make a larger positive impact.”

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