Triangle Mobile is hoping to build a cell phone tower at highways 66 and 191 in remote southern Phillips County that will improve cell service in the area. The service would benefit the sparsely populated southern portions of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and along the highways south of the reservation, areas that are used by Hi-Line residents driving to Billings, where cell service is often nonexistent.
The tower seems to be right in line with Montana’s efforts to improve digital service in the rural eastern part of the state. But the effort has run smack dab into another state priority — preserving the threatened sage grouse.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, DNRC, says it will assess Triangle up to $1.8 million in mitigation fees to offset damage to sage grouse breeding grounds. Triangle usually spends about $425,000 to build cell phone towers. The additional $1.8 million cost would doom this project, Triangle officials said, leaving the area without service.
DNRC officials insist the $1.8 million figure is “premature” saying the review process is still going on. The estimate may change, they say, if the method for calculating assessments changes. That will be
discussed at a meeting of the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team at the state capitol 10 a.m. Friday.
The sage grouse protection program was created in 2015 in an effort to stave off federal action to declare the bird an endangered species, which would have resulted in stricter federal regulations. After much debate, parties agreed on a program all sides could live with, and Gov. Steve Bullock signed an executive order imposing the rules.
Triangle says its proposed tower falls within the governor’s rules, but DNRC has designed regulations that have gone beyond what Bullock had ordered. Triangle said the proposed tower will have no effect on sage grouse habitat areas. The nearest lek, or breeding grounds, is two miles away.
Although leks are very sensitive to development, there is no hint that a single tower that far away would have an impact, said Tim Nixdorf, Triangle’s director of wireless operations. The area is basically a salvage yard, he said. The tower will be less than 200 feet tall, so it will not have to be lit, and Triangle will install deterrents so that it will not be a danger to any form of bird life.
Areas with large numbers of towers — 18 per square mile or more — can affect breeding grounds, Nixdorf said. Science has shown that is probably not because of the towers themselves, but because there are a greater number of people living in an area with so many towers.
But John Grassy, DNRC’s communications director, disputed those arguments, calling the area “a designated Core Habitat area, the highest conservation priority for Sage Grouse.”
“Some of the largest active Sage Grouse Leks in Montana are found in the area,” Grassy said in a written statement, responding to Havre Herald questions.
The Highway 191 area is especially prone to Hi-Line winters. Nixdorf said. Sometimes the Montana Department of Transportation closes the roads and communications are difficult. People are stranded on the roads, and they find it difficult or impossible to communicate with friends, relatives or law enforcement. When there are accidents, summoning ambulances is next to impossible, Nixdorf said.
“Safety is a real concern here,” Nixdorf said.
Grassy said DNRC strongly supports improved call service to remote areas which is why they have proposed numerous alternative locations to Triangle where no mitigation is necessary. Triangle said those locations would not provide service to the areas they are targeting.
Nixdorf said there is concern DNRC limitations will prevent any form of development in the 35 percent of Montana that is under sage grouse restrictions. Transmission lines that would be beneficial to the rural areas might be barred because under the rules there is no difference between building a power line or a building, he added.
Triangle seems to be attracting support from local political officials. Triangle has built its business model around serving remote areas that big carriers ignore.
Sen, Jon Tester, D-Montana, while on an interview with The Herald on other topics, said he was learning of the problem from reporters.
“Triangle needs to give me a call, and I’ll find out what’s going on,” he said.
On Aug. 30, during a visit to Havre, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., talked to Triangle CEO Craig Gates about the proposed cellphone tower. Gianforte asked to be kept informed as the situation develops.
And Hill County Commission Chair Mark Peterson said he has taken up Triangle’s cause even though the area covered under the sage grouse regulations doesn’t include, as of now, Hill County. It starts at the
Blaine County line and goes east.
“I am an environmentalist,” Peterson said, expressing his support for sage grouse conservation efforts.
But he said the assessment, including the $1.8 million DNRC wants to charge Triangle, has more to do with creating “a cash cow for DNRC” than it does with saving the sage grouse.
He’s afraid that, eventually, such environment restrictions will extend to Hill County.
“We’ll have to pay every time we want to repair a road,” he said. ”Pretty soon, people will have to pay a toll if they want to drive down a road.”
The future of the rules governing mitigation fees will be discussed by the oversight board on Friday. The board could uphold the draft rules or ease them.
Nixdorf said Triangle will have a short time to respond to them in writing, then the board will make a final determination as early as October.