Federal help for the fight against climate change, a cause of drought in Montana - TAI News
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Seeley Lake, Montana. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Department of the Interior announced on April 18 that it had finalized a federal rule that will now include the conservation of wildlife and the natural environment as part of the decision-making process for land administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

The bureau manages about 245 million acres of land throughout the United States, including more than 55 million acres in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota overseen by BLM Montana/Dakotas.

“As stewards of America’s public lands, the Interior Department takes seriously our role in helping bolster landscape resilience in the face of worsening climate impacts,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement. “Today’s final rule helps restore balance to our public lands as we continue using the best-available science to restore habitats, guide strategic and responsible development, and sustain our public lands for generations to come.”

Before the implementation of the new rule, BLM offered leases for the land under its use to mining companies, the oil and gas industry, and ranches. The agency has now expanded lease availability to entities that intend to conserve public lands.

The agency said that restoration leases will be offered to groups that seek to restore degraded land, while mitigation leases will allow developers to offset their use of land for development by investing in public lands.

The impact of climate change was cited by the Interior Department as one of the major challenges prompting the new rule. The agency noted that the American West faces threats from invasive species, increased numbers of wildfires, and drought brought on by climate change, and that the new rule would help to protect the economic future of the region.

Drought is of particular concern in Montana, where ranchers and farmers have been hit hard in recent years, resulting in lowered beef production. The Montana Department of Natural Resources released a drought management plan in 2023 that determined increased temperatures would likely lead to more drought conditions in the state in the future.

Conservation groups praised the Biden administration’s action.

Wild Montana, a group that advocates for the protection of public lands, said that in the past the Bureau of Land Management had neglected conservation and outdoor recreation in its policies regarding the use of public lands and that the new rule has restored “balance to agency decision-making.”

“This rule better balances conservation on our public lands, which is crucial to combat the climate crisis at the scale science requires and reduce climate-related disasters including droughts, wildfires, and devastating changes to ecosystems and watersheds,” America Fitzpatrick, conservation program director of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a release.

The National Wildlife Foundation cited the restoration of balance as well.

“The finalized public lands rule will provide the Bureau of Land Management with new tools to restore and conserve degraded lands, while supporting robust local economies,” said David Willms, an associate vice president of the organization, in a statement.

The Western Energy Alliance, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, opposes the rule. Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the group, told the Washington Post that the group intends to sue the federal government to prevent implementation of the new directive.

“These conservation leases seem to be designed to preclude energy development on federal lands,” Sgamma told the paper.

Elevating conservation concerns over land use echoes public sentiment.

In January, a poll of 400 registered Montana voters conducted by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project found that 67% of respondents said they preferred that elected leaders prioritize protecting the natural habitat over maximizing land used for drilling and mining. Additionally, 63% of those polled said that the loss of habitat for fish and wildlife is an extremely serious or very serious problem.

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The Montana Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.