Frequently Asked Questions

General Application Questions

What is the status of greater sage grouse?

The greater sage grouse is an upland game bird native to Montana. Due to habitat loss and fragmentation, the population of sage grouse has declined across its range in 11 western states. As recently as 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered it for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

On October 2, 2015, USFWS published its decision that listing was not warranted due to the commitments states like Montana made to institute regulatory mechanisms and habitat protection measures. Montana retained its management authority for sage grouse. Montana’s interests are best served by fulfilling its commitments to sage grouse conservation so that a listing will never be warranted.

The Montana Legislature passed the Greater Sage Grouse Stewardship Act (Act) in 2015 establishing the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team and the Stewardship Fund Grant Program. Governor Bullock signed Executive Order 12-2015 on September 8, 2015. Taken together, the Act and Executive Order 12-2015 establish Montana’s Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy to address population decline and habitat issues proactively and collaboratively.

Montana’s goal is to conserve the bird and its habitats so that Montana will maintain authority to manage its own lands, wildlife, and economy.

Who is this website intended for?

This website is for anyone proposing new activities in sage grouse habitats designated as a core area, general habitat, or a connectivity area when the new activity requires a permit from a state agency. Individuals or entities requesting state funding or technical assistance from state agencies will also use this website if the activity will occur in designated sage grouse habitats. Lastly, state agencies undertaking state actions in designated sage grouse habitat will also use this website.

This website helps the Program implement Montana’s Conservation Strategy and guide development or other state activities by cataloging where proposed projects would occur in sage grouse country and facilitating consideration of potential impacts to sage grouse and their habitats--before they occur through a consultation process.

Additionally, the Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program and state agencies will implement Executive Order 12-2015 and its stipulations when reviewing or providing consultation, or technical, financial, or other assistance for non-regulated activities for which a permit is not required.

Why do I have to use this website?

Scientific studies have shown that sage grouse are very sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation. Sage grouse are also sensitive to disturbance when they are concentrated on leks for a few short weeks during the breeding season. Through consultation with the Program and implementation of the measures outlined in Executive Order 12-2015, Montana aims to first avoid adverse impacts, then minimize them and restore habitats to pre-disturbance conditions. Impacts that cannot be avoided, minimized, or restored will require compensatory mitigation.

Montana fulfills its commitment to conserve sage grouse by guiding development in key sage grouse habitats so that the bird does not get listed in the future.

What are core areas, general habitat and connectivity areas and why are they important for sage grouse?

Sage grouse core areas were delineated as areas of highest conservation priority. Altogether, areas delineated as core areas contain about 76% of the breeding males in Montana according to 2012 lek counts. Because these sagebrush habitats comprise the best and most important areas to conserve sage grouse, stipulations and conditions for development are most conservative in core areas. Stipulations and conditions are designed to maintain existing levels of suitable sage grouse habitat by regulating uses and activities in core areas to ensure the future abundance and distribution of sage grouse in Montana.

General Habitat areas are also important to sage grouse and critical to the effort to maintain the abundance and distribution of sage grouse in Montana. These areas also include leks and nesting areas, but at a lower density than core areas. Development scenarios in general habitat are more flexible than in core areas, but must still be designed and managed to maintain populations, habitats, and essential migration routes. This is because Montana’s Conservation Strategy must assure habitat connectivity and movement between populations in core areas.

Connectivity habitat includes those areas that provide important linkages among sage grouse populations, particularly between core areas or priority populations in adjacent states and across international borders. As of January 1, 2016, Montana has one designated connectivity area in Valley County called the Montana-Saskatchewan Connectivity Area. This area contains vital sagebrush habitats to maintain the ability of sage grouse to move between Canada, Valley County, and other populations in Montana. This connectivity area is subject to the same stipulations as apply in general habitats.

What is the role of the Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program?

The first point of contact for addressing sage-grouse issues for any state permit application should be the Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program (Program). The consultation process should be completed prior to submitting a permit application to the permitting agency. The applicant then includes documentation from the Program along with the permit application.

Project proponents (proponents) need to have a thorough description of their project and identify all aspects of the project or activity during the consultation process with the Program. Having complete information expedites the consultation process.

Project proponents should contact the Program at least 45-60 days prior to submitting their application. More complex projects will require more time. The Program has a role of consultation, recommendation, and facilitation, and has no authority to either approve or deny the project. The permitting agency will review the Program’s report and may approve or deny the permit or attach stipulations to the permit according to their policies, rules, and statutory authority.

The purpose of the initial consultation with the Program is to become familiar with the project proposal and ensure the project proponent understands recommended stipulations and the stipulation implementation process before submitting a permit application, applying for a state-funded grant, or undertaking some activity in designated sage grouse habitats.

How does the website work?

Project proponents provide information about the activity being proposed in a sage grouse core, general habitat, or a connectivity area. The user can determine whether the activity as proposed would occur in a core area, in general habitat or in a connectivity area.

Step 1:
  • Type in and complete the fields in the left column, including the contact phone number and email address so the Program can contact users. This information is kept secure and will not be shared or disseminated.
Step 2:
  • Use the search bar to find your project area quickly.
  • Select a base map. Click on “Switch Basemap” to select a different map.
  • Turn on the sage grouse layers to see the designated sage grouse habitats where the Executive Order 12-2015 applies.
  • Draw the proposed activity by clicking and dragging the mouse on the basemap. For new roads, pipelines, or powerlines, draw a single linear feature. Indicate how wide the linear corridor will be using the Easement field. For other activities, such as a well pad or a mining area, draw a polygon.
  • Zoom in or out to different scales and levels of detail on the base map by clicking the +/- symbol.
Step 3:
  • Check the box or boxes to indicate which state agency is responsible for the permitting process of interest. Click all agencies that apply.
Step 4:
  • Click the “Submit” button to alert the Program of your project. Your information will be saved and kept secure and confidential.
What happens next?

The user will receive an automated email response with a number to confirm that the information was received. Each submission will receive a unique confirmation number.

Program staff will review the proposed activity and determine whether it is proposed for a core area, general habitat, or a connectivity area. Program staff may contact the proponent or even the permitting agency for additional information or to ask questions.

What if my proposed activity is in general habitat or a connectivity area and complies with Executive Order 12-2015?

For projects proposed in general habitat or a connectivity area, the consultation process begins after this initial submission. The Program will review the proposed activity to determine whether it complies with all the stipulations, conditions, and recommended practices outlined in Executive Order 12-2015.

If so, the Program will send a letter indicating compliance. This letter may also include recommendations and best practices to avoid and minimize impacts consistent with Executive Order 12-2015.

This letter can then be taken to the permitting agency and submitted along with the permit application. The state agency can then process the application consistent with the results of the consultation process. State agencies can approve, condition, or deny the permit pursuant to their own policies, rules, and legal authority.

What if my proposed activity is in general habitat or a connectivity area and does not comply with Executive Order 12-2015?

The Program will likewise contact proponents of projects that don’t comply with Executive Order 12-2015 to discuss the proposal and look for alternatives that would bring the project into compliance and still be economically feasible. The Program may first send a letter and may also meet with the proponent and even the permitting agency.

Through the consultation process, projects may be modified where economically feasible. The Program will then formulate recommendations and mail a letter to the proponent.

This letter can then be taken to the permitting agency and submitted along with the permit application. The state agency can then process the application consistent with the results of the consultation process. State agencies can approve, condition, or deny the permit pursuant to their own policies and legal authority.

What if my proposed activity is in a core area?

For projects proposed in a core area, consultation is a two-step process. First, the proponent enters the information on the Projects webpage to start the consultation process. Proponents will receive a confirmation email.

Next, the Program defines the DDCT assessment area and reviews the proposed project in greater detail using the Density Disturbance Calculation Tool or DDCT. The Projects are evaluated based on both disturbance and density. The Program may request additional information from the project proponent about existing disturbance known within the project area. The Program will also digitize existing disturbances which must be considered.

The DDCT calculation determines the density of development and the level of disturbance that would result if the project was fully implemented in addition to the existing disturbances. The total density of development and disturbance is then compared to the maximum allowed by Executive Order 12-2015.

All activities will be evaluated within the context of maximum allowable disturbance (disturbance percentages, location and number of disturbances) of suitable sage-grouse habitat within the area affected by the project. For additional information, see “Frequently Asked Questions: Core Area Density and Disturbance Calculations.”

Is the DDCT required for every project?

No. The DDCT process is only required for activity proposed in core areas. Core areas are the “best of the best” sage grouse habitats in Montana. Therefore, the stipulations and conditions for activities in core areas are more conservative than those for other designated habitats. New activities may not exceed the density of development or disturbance threshold caps set forth in Executive Order 12-2015.

Are any existing land uses and landowner activities exempt from compliance with Executive Order 12-2015?

Yes. Those uses and activities that exist on January 1, 2016, will not be managed under the stipulations of Executive Order12-2015. Existing land uses and activities (including those authorized by existing permits but not yet conducted) shall be recognized and respected by state agencies.

While existing land uses and activities are typically not subject to the Order, existing operations may not initiate new activities resulting in new surface occupancy within 0.6 miles of an active sage grouse lek. Any existing disturbance will be counted toward the calculated disturbance cap for a new proposed activity. The level of disturbance for existing activity may not exceed 5%.

Examples of existing activities include oil and gas, mining, agriculture, processing facilities, power lines, housing, operations and maintenance activities of existing energy systems within a defined project boundary (i.e. ROW). Provided these uses and activities are within a defined project boundary (such as a recognized federal oil and gas unit, drilling and spacing unit, mine plan, subdivision plat, etc.), they may continue within the existing boundary, even if they exceed the stipulations.

Is anything else exempt from Executive Order 12-2015?

Yes, see Attachment F in Executive Order 12-2015.

The following existing land uses and landowner activities are generally exempt from compliance. Notifying the Program of new activities in designated sage grouse habitats through this website, including these exempted activities, is strongly encouraged, as some stipulations and recommendations from Executive Order 12-2015 may still apply.

They are:

  • Existing animal husbandry practices (including branding, docking, herding, trailing, etc.);
  • Existing farming practices (excluding conversion of sagebrush/native range to cropland agriculture);
  • Existing grazing operations that meet rangeland health standards or utilize recognized rangeland management practices (for example, allotment management plans, Natural Resource and Conservation Service grazing plans, prescribed grazing plans, etc.);
  • Construction of agricultural reservoir and aquatic habitat improvements less than 10 surface acres and drilling of agriculture and residential water wells (including installation of tanks, water windmills, and solar water pumps) more than 0.6 miles from the perimeter of a lek in Core Areas and more than 0.25 miles from a lek in General Habitat or Connectivity Areas. Within 0.6 miles of a lek in Core Areas and within 0.25 miles of a lek in General Habitat or Connectivity Areas, no review is required if construction does not occur March 15 - July 15 and construction does not occur on the lek. All water tanks shall have bird escape ramps;
  • Agricultural and residential electrical distribution lines more than 0.6 miles from a lek in Core Areas and 0.25 miles from a lek in General Habitat or Connectivity Areas. Within 0.6 miles of a lek in Core Areas and within 0.25 miles of a lek in General Habitat or Connectivity Areas, no review is required if construction does not occur between March 15 - July 15 and construction does not occur on the lek. Raptor perching deterrents shall be installed on all poles within 0.6 or 0.25 miles, respectively, from leks, if they are proven to be effective according to Avian Power Line Interaction Committee guidance. Other management practices, such as vegetation screening and anti-collision measures, should be applied to the extent possible. Routine maintenance of existing power lines conducted between July 16 - March 14 is also an exempt activity;
  • Pole fences. Wire fences if fitted with visibility markers where high potential for sage grouse collisions has been documented;
  • Irrigation (excluding the conversion of sagebrush/grassland to new irrigated lands);
  • Tribal lands under existing and future state water compacts;
  • Spring development if the spring is protected with fencing and enough water remains at the site to provide mesic (wet) vegetation;
  • Herbicide and pesticide use except for in the control of sagebrush and associated native forbs. Grasshopper/Mormon cricket control following Reduced Agent-Area Treatments (RAATS) protocol;
  • County road maintenance;
  • Production and maintenance activities associated with existing oil, gas, communication tower, and power line facilities in compliance with approved authorizations;
  • Low impact cultural resource surveys; and
  • Emergency response.

Are private lands important to sage grouse in Montana?

Yes. Approximately 64% of sage grouse habitat in Montana is in private ownership. Montana’s private landowners care about the future of sage grouse and manage their lands productively in this regard. They know their interests will be better served if Montana maintains authority to manage sage grouse and the bird is not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Program and state agencies will work collaboratively with private landowners and local governments to maintain and enhance sage grouse habitats and populations, and to the greatest extent possible shall use non-regulatory measures that reflect unique localized conditions, including soils, vegetation, development type, predation, climate and other local realities.

Voluntary incentives designed to conserve sagebrush habitat and grazing lands within sage grouse areas designated as core areas and general habitats on private and state lands will be created and encouraged.

How is private land treated under Montana’s Conservation Strategy?

Montana’s private landowners are currently managing their lands in a responsible manner, and it is not coincidence that such a high percentage of productive sage grouse habitat is found on private land. It is critical that existing land uses and landowner activities continue to occur in core areas and general habitat, particularly agricultural activities on private lands.

Many uses or activities on private lands are not subject to state agency review, approval, or authorization. Only those projects occurring after January 1, 2016, for which state agencies are vested with discretion by state or federal statute to review, approve, or authorize are subject to consistency review with Executive Order 12-2015. Montana’s conservation strategy in no way creates, adds to or expands the regulatory authority of any state agency.

Before submitting its final recommendations to a state or federal agency and to the project proponent for any use or activity it has reviewed, the Program shall comply with the provisions of the Private Property Assessment Act, Title 2, Chapter 10, Part 1, MCA.

Disturbance Calculation Process Questions

What if my proposed activity is in a core area?

For projects proposed in a core area, consultation is a two-step process. First, the proponent enters the information on the Projects webpage. Proponents will receive a confirmation email. The Program may request additional information from the project proponent about any other existing disturbance(s) known within the project area.

Next, the Program defines the assessment area and reviews the proposed project in greater detail using the Density Disturbance Calculation Tool or DDCT. The DDCT calculation determines the density of development and the level of disturbance that would result if the project was fully implemented, given the disturbances which already exist on the landscape. The total density of development and disturbance is then compared to the maximum allowed by Executive Order 12-2015.

All activities will be evaluated within the context of maximum allowable disturbance (disturbance percentages, location and number of disturbances) of suitable sage-grouse habitat within the area affected by the project.

What exactly is the DDCT?

The DDCT is a GIS-based analytic tool that calculates both the number of disruptive activities averaged per square mile (640 acres) and total surface disturbance within the DDCT assessment area. The assessment area is created by placing buffers around projects proposed in sage-grouse core areas and the nearby leks.

Why is the DDCT needed?

With the signing of the Governor’s Executive Order 12-2015, it became necessary for state or federally permitted development, state-funded grant projects, or state activities within a sage grouse core areas to comply with Executive Order 12-2015 and all its requirements. The DDCT provides information on the density and disturbance thresholds relative to the Order’s requirements.

How does the DDCT process work?

A project proponent first visits https://www.sagegrouse.mt.gov/projects/ and enters information about the project in the fields provided. Proponents also can upload spatial data and provide greater detail about the proposal.

Next, the Program maps existing disturbance and uses the GIS-based program to calculate density and disturbance in the buffered area around the project.

The program then prepares a report and contacts the proponent to discuss the results, particularly if the threshold caps on density and disturbance would be exceeded. The Program will prepare a letter for the proponent to include with the permit application.

How is disturbance calculated in general?

Total disturbance acres within the DDCT assessment area will be determined through an evaluation of:

  1. Size of the assessment area.
  2. Existing disturbance.
  3. Approved permits, which have approval for on-the-ground activity, but have not yet been implemented.
  4. Proposed disturbance.

Existing disturbance acres and those acres for which a permit has been approved are added together. This total is then added to the number of acres of proposed new disturbance. That sum is divided by the size of the assessment area to calculate a percentage of disturbed acres within the assessment area.

How is the DDCT assessment area determined?

A four-mile boundary is placed around the project’s proposed area of disturbance within a core population area. All active leks are identified that may be affected by the project within the 4-mile boundary. All active leks located within the four-mile boundary and within a core population area will be identified as “affected” by the project for the purpose of the DDCT calculation.

A four-mile boundary will then be placed around the perimeter of each identified lek. The core area within the boundary of identified leks and the four-mile boundary around the project boundary creates the DDCT assessment area for each individual project.

Any portion of the DDCT assessment area occurring outside of core area will be removed from the assessment area. Any portion of the DDCT assessment area occurring in non-suitable habitat such as bodies of water or forested areas will be removed from the assessment area for purposes of the percentage calculation.

If there are no affected leks within the four-mile boundary around the project boundary, the DDCT assessment area will be that portion of the four-mile project boundary within the core population area.

Disturbance will be examined for the DDCT assessment area as a whole and for each individual affected lek within the DDCT assessment area.

What is the maximum density and level of development allowed in core sage grouse habitats?

Total disturbance is limited to no more than 5% of the total suitable habitat within the DDCT assessment area.

Total density of energy development and mineral extraction operations is limited. The number of oil and gas well densities should not exceed an average of one pad per square mile (640 acres) within the DDCT assessment area. The number of active mining development areas (e.g., operating equipment and/or significant human activity) should not to exceed an average of one site per square mile (640 acres) within the DDCT examination area.

For additional information on maximum allowable development and other stipulations, please refer to Executive Order 12-2015.

What is a surface disturbance?

Any anthropogenic or wildfire surface disturbance that results in loss of sage-grouse habitat is considered disturbed in the DDCT calculation. Surface disturbance includes, but is not limited to, roads, well pads, mining operations, cropland, buildings, some vegetation treatments, wind turbines, and pipelines.

The Program may request information about existing surface disturbances from the project proponent. The Program will also map existing disturbances within the DDCT assessment area to assure all disturbances are mapped. Examples include:

  • Roads and transportation networks greater than or equal to 10 feet wide that do not have a noticeable strip of vegetation down the middle. Roads less than 10 feet wide that are clearly discernible as improved are also considered a surface disturbance. Smaller or new roads may still have to be digitized. Road disturbance will be digitized from ditch to ditch across the road;
  • Oil and gas wells and oil and gas unit boundaries;
  • Mining activity based on boundaries permitted by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality;
  • Cropland;
  • Buildings, including ranch structures and subdivisions. Disturbances around dwellings that would prohibit all sage grouse use is considered disturbance. If the building is only used intermittently, the actual building footprint is used;
  • Vegetation treatments;
  • Pipelines;
  • Transmission lines;
  • Cellular and Radio Communications Towers; and
  • Any other anthropogenic feature.

How are surface disturbances mapped?

Some surface disturbances come from other existing spatial datasets obtained from other trusted data sources such as state or federal agencies. However, these spatial datasets are not complete for all disturbances in the state.

For mapping disturbances in the DDCT assessment area where no existing spatial dataset includes that information, a method called “head’s up” digitizing will be used based on NAIP aerial photography images. Surface disturbances will be added during the “heads up” process based on the NAIP image.

Website and DatA Security Questions

Is my information private and secure?

The Project tool was designed to accept and store information securely. Users are not able to access, view or modify information once it has been entered into the system.

How will my personal information be used?

The State of Montana will use information to process and record potential disturbances. Information will not be shared or disseminated to third parties for the purpose of marketing or profit.

Can I access this website from a mobile device?

This site was designed to be used on all electronic platforms. It is however recommended that a computer be used for the sake of accuracy.

How can I make a comment or request help using the site?

For any comments or concerns, please contact the Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program at sagegrouse@mt.gov.