- Associated Press - Friday, February 19, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A Montana panel overseeing a sage grouse conservation plan finalized guidelines on Friday for awarding $10 million in grants to help boost habitat for the imperiled bird.

Meanwhile, state officials have completed evaluating the bulk of 112 projects proposed within prime habitat for the sage grouse, as part of the ongoing implementation of an executive order issued by Gov. Steve Bullock in September.

“I am very happy to report that we are under way,” Carolyn Sime, a resource program manager for the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Sime told a Friday meeting of the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team that things were “going quite well.”

Montana is taking measures to protect sage grouse habitat on state lands in response to federal restrictions on 67 million acres of public lands in 11 states, including Montana, to protect sage grouse habitat and prevent the bird from being listed as a threatened or endangered species.

The restrictions cover wide swaths of eastern Montana.

The executive order requires submission of project plans for further state review. While state officials say they have no jurisdiction to reject projects because of the sage grouse, Sime said the state can provide guidance to prevent excessive disruptions to the bird’s habitat.

Sime said the oversight panel could consider creating “doughnut holes” that exempt some cities and townships from some of the requirements imposed by the state.

Last year, the state legislature established a stewardship fund to enhance sage grouse habitat.

The oversight panel will begin accepting grant applications from groups or agencies as soon as early next month and could begin awarding grants at its next session in May.

The panel will consider projects that preserve grazing land, removes safe havens for predators, including old barns that might harbor raptors that could feed on the chicken-sized birds.

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