- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Sept. 17, on the state’s plan to establish a free-roaming herd of bison:

The state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been getting some fair criticism for its progress on resolving whether or where to establish a free-roaming herd of bison outside of the Yellowstone region.

Formal public comment ended last week on a draft study that examines the idea of establishing a herd of 400 animals without specifying when or where that might happen. The draft also considers the option of forgoing establishing a herd at all.

FWP officials say they are examining 1,600-plus comments and will issue a final draft of the study - which will include a decision on whether to proceed with plan - will be published later this year or early next year.

The sooner the better. And if the decision is to go ahead with the plan, it should name a specific site where the herd should be established and a target date for making that happen. The agency has been justly criticized by wildlife advocates for not doing so already. Where such a herd may be established - and the suitability of the site for such a venture - is critical in deciding whether it will work.

FWP was also faulted for the low number of bison suggested for a possible herd. The most likely candidate for such a herd is the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. That amount of range could certainly support more than 400 animals and the agency should consider whether such a small herd could maintain genetic diversity over time.

There are a lot of people with a passionate interest in this proposal - not the least of who are the ranchers who range stock in the vicinity of where the herd will roam. Montana Farm Bureau Federation officials say most federation members are opposed to the idea altogether over concerns of crop and property damage that could ensue as well as perceived fears the bison could transmit disease to livestock.

If the decision is made to proceed, a site needs to be named and a lot of details will have to be worked out carefully to allay area ranchers’ fears.

If it happens, the introduction of a free-roaming bison heard outside the Yellowstone region will be historic. The powers that be at FWP already likely know what their plans are. And they should share them with the public ASAP.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1iwVWob

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Billings Gazette, Sept. 23, on Gov. Bullock’s plan for child protective services:

The good news for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is that about anything he were to give to the Division of Child and Family Services is going to help.

The bad news is there is much to be done in the department that is, to paraphrase his own words, understaffed and overworked.

In the previous eight years, the caseload for the department has risen a staggering 75 percent, much of the increase tied to substance abuse. It’s probably no coincidence that during that same period of time, methamphetamine use in Montana has made a resurgence of epidemic proportion.

On Monday, Montana’s top official announced his Project Montana Kids Initiative, which proposes adding more funding for front-line child welfare case workers as well as more oversight to help Vet complaints.

His action comes in the wake of a summer’s worth of protests and complaints about the department, ranging from vindictive workers to a lack of standards and qualifications.

Give the department credit. It’s often caught in a no-win situation where removing children from families may be the best option in some cases, even though it breaks up a home. Meanwhile, in other situations, family members are equally perturbed when CPS doesn’t intervene to help. As is often the thankless case for social workers, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

But Bullock’s proposal seems to remedy in part three of the largest obstacles standing in the department’s way. First, the department will add more front-line case workers helping those in the field, closest to the problem areas. As the state’s largest population area, we believe a few more case workers here might help ease the load and complaints. We have covered several protests and fielded enough phone calls and letters to the editor that it’s hard to believe every person who had a grievance against CPS was flat-out wrong. So, if there is some merit - even for a few of these - it’s good that we are helping to put caseworkers in the field, where they’ll do the most good.

Another great aspect of the governor’s proposal is some kind of standardized review process. The department can only improve its performance if it has standards and a review process.

We would also urge both the governor and lawmakers consider the ideas put forward by some of those who have been leading the charge against the department.

If there has been retaliation or unprofessional case workers who have not acted up to standards, then the state should have some kind of review process that is at an arm’s length from the department. It seems like most CPS complaints are handled internally, which raises a serious question of objectivity. In other words, will a state agency really act against itself except in the most obvious, egregious cases?

Furthermore, we would hope the state would continue to push for standards that are not only comparable with other states for case workers, but also set the bar higher than that. We understand this would not only take money for training, but more money to recruit and keep a well-trained staff.

Updating computer software also seems like a common complaint in state government. But if bad or outdated software is getting in the way of CPS workers doing their jobs better, then the state needs to look at adding resources to ensure that field case workers are focusing most of their time on kids, not computers or paperwork.

But it’s letting lawmakers off the hook if we lay the responsibility for change solely at Bullock’s feet. He has a responsibility because it’s part of his administration. However, the department cannot control a 75 percent increase in need. The responsibility also has to shift to the Legislature.

If our Legislature, which talks so very often about “family values,” really values family so much, then there should be a rush to fund CPS better. While some in Helena have sought to villainize Child Protective Services, we hope few lawmakers would rush to defend a household where children have to grow up with substance abuse. If lawmakers are unhappy with CPS’ performance, than surely they would want to bring them up to comparable state standards, as well as to make sure case workers can keep up with the huge demand. Unfortunately, our state’s budget hasn’t reflected those same values.

The worst thing that could come from Bullock’s proposal on Monday is that people believe the work is somehow finished and the problem is solved.

Lawmakers, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1NMIW9L

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The Great Falls Tribune, Sept. 22, on the sage grouse decision:

Two words, sage and grouse, teamed up this decade to become a controversy in the West, a region that has helped the United States get closer to energy independence.

The word “sage” indicates wisdom, while one meaning of “grouse” is to complain.

So it is not surprising that some folks would grouse about a decision announced Tuesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not recommend the sage grouse, a fascinating bird of the prairie, be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Actually, we think the comments from U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell were appropriate. She said federal wildlife laws can be a catalyst for conservation even as economic development continues.

The editorial board sees the federal decision as positive for the energy sector, Montana jobs and communities overall, while at the same time acknowledging a need for conservation as habitat shrinks for the distinctive birds, known for colorful chest displays during mating season.

It’s easy to be critical, but we think the sage grouse quandary is a good example of working together. Montanans and other westerners got diverse interests often at loggerheads to sit down and fashion a result that just might work out well.

Instead of doing nothing in advance of this federal decision, states worked hard to produce their own plans to try to protect the birds, as did the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which came up with stricter rules than did states such as Wyoming and Montana.

Tuesday’s decision was lauded by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, who called the federal decision “good for our state, our economy and this iconic bird.”

This decision is essentially a compromise that may not satisfy some environmental groups seeking listing of the bird, or an energy industry that contends protections already in place go too far. For their part, GOP members of the congressional delegation, Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines, approved of the decision not to list the bird but criticized federal plans.

Once with populations in the millions, sage grouse today number 500,000 birds or less in 11 western states. In Montana, their habitat covers 33 million acres, two-thirds of which is private land. Various participants in the proactive effort to avoid the endangered listing did tremendous amounts of work through state task forces and other means.

We don’t believe the time was right to list the species as endangered, although there is still a chance that could happen in future years if the population of the species plummets. This was a sensible move to give moderate protection to these birds.

Plenty of disputes remain; this week’s decision no doubt will be challenged in court. Congress already passed legislation to prevent the agency from spending money to affect the bird’s status.

To be sure, the West had a poor record on species extinction, such as hunting in the late 1800s that nearly drove bison to extinction. But the sage grouse dilemma gives western states such as Montana and Wyoming a chance to shine up the region’s reputation by taking steps to discourage people and industries from barging into sage grouse mating areas and critical habitat.

It’s a delicate job. We support the agency’s decision and believe the proof will be in figures researchers will gather in the coming years to determine whether protection efforts can at least stabilize the sage grouse population.

Meanwhile, we applaud all the efforts expended by human beings to get out in front of this issue and display some wisdom, rather than simply to squawk and fight.

Editorial: https://gftrib.com/1KBBCtp

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