Feds tell states how to manage sage grouse

By Ben Neary

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 2 2012 8:13 p.m. MDT

Federal officials have released a plan saying people should avoid activities that harm lands where sage grouse live.

Associated Press

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Conservation groups are welcoming a federal report spelling out how sage grouse should be managed in 11 Western states to avoid new federal protections.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's draft report issued last week advises states and federal land management agencies to act immediately to "stop the bleeding of continuing habitat and population losses."

The report is certain to command attention in Western states where listing sage grouse as endangered could result in federal restrictions on energy development and other activities.

Sage grouse are found in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. They also inhabit Canada.

Federal and state sage grouse experts, collectively called a conservation objectives team, wrote the report. A final version should be out this fall after other scientists review it.

Brian Rutledge, with the Rocky Mountain region of the Audubon Society, said the report underscores the importance of avoiding federal protections for the bird.

"We all know that this is about fragmentation of habitat, and that stopping the fragmenting is how we stop the problem," Rutledge said. He said new technologies, particularly in energy development and mining, can help limit development's disturbance in sage grouse areas.

"There's no one way that's going to work every place," Rutledge said. "But the common theme has to be to limit the disturbance and reclaim the areas that we've already damaged and haven't reclaimed."

The report follows a meeting that Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead held with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and representatives from other Western states in Cheyenne in December.

Salazar has said sage grouse have experienced a 90 percent decline in their numbers and a 50 percent decline in their habitat over the last century.

The Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2010 that sage grouse deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act but that other species demanded more immediate attention. The agency has committed to make a final listing decision for sage grouse by late 2015.

Wyoming, perhaps more than any other Western state, has much riding on the sage grouse listing decision. It's the nation's largest coal-producing state and a leader in natural gas production. It's also home to more than 30 million acres of sage brush and the largest surviving sage grouse population.

Wyoming state government years ago steered a pioneering course, established a regulatory system that limits energy development and other disturbances in sage grouse "core areas."

Steve Ferrell, wildlife policy adviser to Gov. Mead, said Wyoming's management plan dovetails well with the recommendations in the federal report. He said other states have their own plans under way.

Ferrell said it's too early to tell whether the effort will succeed in convincing the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the sage grouse as endangered. "I'm optimistic. I think we have a good chance of avoiding a listing," he said.

Noreen Walsh, deputy regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, noted that the report identifies sage grouse populations around the West. She said the agency will consider the total picture of how the species is doing as it decides whether listing is necessary.

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