- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana plans to hire five full-time employees to protect sage grouse as a number of Western states try to keep the bird off the federal endangered species list.

State officials fear that increased federal protections for the bird could inhibit agriculture and energy development on its habitat.

Montana is set to spend about $500,000 annually on the new positions, including a program director to oversee the management of sage grouse.

The team, which will be hired after July 1, will distribute $10 million primarily in grants over the next two years to conserve the habitat and population of the ground-dwelling bird. It will also count and map the bird and attempt to control ravens and magpies that have wreaked havoc on the sage grouse.

“As long as state management is possible, we’ll be advocating this program as a method of managing sage grouse,” said John Tubbs, director of the state department of natural resources and conservation.

A court-ordered deadline requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide by Sept. 30 whether the animal will be added to a list of threatened or endangered species.

Montana and other Western states are taking steps they hope will make the designation and accompanying federal regulations unnecessary.

Funding for the new positions in Montana would cease if the chicken-sized bird is added to the endangered species list.

Montana’s sage grouse population is second only to Wyoming, which has dedicated two full-time state employees solely to tracking and protecting the bird.

Tom Christiansen, Wyoming’s sage grouse program coordinator, said at least 115 other biologists, wardens, policy makers and communications staff in Wyoming work with sage grouse in some capacity.

Most of Montana’s mitigation efforts have been completed on the state level by about 20 Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees and a task force established by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Sen. John Brenden, T-Scobey, who has toured the sage grouse habitats in Montana, was one of 19 fiscally conservative lawmakers who voted against the proposal to fund the five new positions.

Brenden said the federal government is blackmailing the 11 Western states where sage grouse are found by holding over their heads the possibility of listing the bird as endangered.

“Hiring five or more people is absolutely ludicrous when you’ve got the whole fish and wildlife department,” Brenden said.

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