Bureau of Land Management’s Sage Grouse Plans Could Help Protect Southwest Montana Rivers 

Public land protections proposal could be a tool to help end the threat of oil and gas leasing in the Beaverhead, Big Hole, and Centennial valleys

Today, March 14, 2024, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released draft updates to the federal management plans for greater sage-grouse habitat across ten western states, including Montana. These plans could be another tool for limiting speculative oil and gas leasing and development in southwest Montana that have unnecessarily threatened water resources and wildlife habitat in the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Centennial valleys for too long. Oil and gas leasing in southwest Montana is an “existential threat” to ranching, outdoor businesses, hunting, fishing, water, wildlife, and Montanans way of life. 

“Industrial oil and gas leasing and development and the associated pollution of our sensitive water resources is the last thing southwest Montana’s rivers need,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “BLM’s updates to sage-grouse habitat plans must be driven by science and the reality that there is essentially no economically recoverable oil and gas in Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Centennial valleys. Land management plans and decisions must reflect reality, not just appease oil and gas special interests at the expense of the rest of us.”

Despite next to zero economically recoverable oil and gas, public lands in southwest Montana have been auctioned off to out-of-state industry for oil and gas leasing and development for pennies on the dollar. Industrial oil and gas development in our sensitive river valleys poses serious threats on keynote wildlife habitat, public health, and water quality and quantity. Fracking is particularly inappropriate in areas like the Big Hole valley, where the river and landscape are already facing challenges from pollution to low flows to historically low fish populations. 

Since many of southwest Montana’s public lands that are threatened by oil and gas development provide habitat for the greater sage-grouse, under the BLM’s alternative proposals, some of these lands could receive enhanced protection from speculative oil and gas leasing. If approved, protections could help ensure area wildlife, watersheds, and outdoor recreation opportunities remain intact, including enhanced protections for fragile rivers and land in the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Centennial Valleys, which need the best management practices to maintain the viability for long-time landowners and businesses.

In 2022, local businesses and organizations, including the Big Hole River Foundation, Complete Fly Fisher, Montana Trout Foundation, Montana Trout Fishers, Big Hole Lodge, Sunrise Fly Shop, Frontier Anglers, Trapper Creek Ranch, Tom Smith’s Backcountry Angler, and Great Divide Outfitters, co-signed a letter to the Dillon BLM field office requesting an amendment to the Dillon Resource Management Plan to limit fluid mineral leasing, ending the existential threat it poses to area residents and businesses.

A report from the Montana Wildlife Federation and the University of Montana found that hunting and fishing in Beaverhead County generates over $167 million each year for Montana’s economy. These activities also create more than 1,400 jobs, many of which are located in the county. It is also home to nearly 500 family farms and ranching businesses that rely on land and water resources, which have generated up to $147 million in revenue in recent years. 

Cover Photo: Dominic Sherony, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.