Utah hopes sage grouse protections plan will soar to success

Published: Friday, May 18 2012 9:03 p.m. MDT

Sage grouse perform their annual mating ritual near a blind south of the North Park community of Walden, Colo., in this file photograph taken on Saturday, April 21, 2007.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY  — By early July, Gov. Gary Herbert will receive a list of recommendations that could shape Utah's plan to keep the imperiled sage grouse from landing on the Endangered Species list.

Such a classification could jeopardize energy development and ranching while forcing a federal solution rather than a local one — reminiscent of the economic fallout from endangered listing of the northern spotted owl.

The listing is not what any of the 11 impacted states want, said Kathleen Clarke, chairwoman of the Utah Governor's Sage Grouse Working Group.

"We will all rise or sink on this together," Clarke said.

In a legislative interim meeting earlier this week, Clarke updated state lawmakers on efforts made so far to craft a locally-driven plan to conserve the species, which has suffered drastic declines in population due to a myriad of threats.

In March 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the species warranted being listed, but the designation was precluded because of a backlog of other species with higher priority.

The delay in the designation has given states a new deadline of 2014 to prove to the federal agency that conservation efforts on a state-by-state basis are sufficiently protective. After a one-year progress review period of the affected western states, the agency will make a decision in 2015.

Clarke said Wyoming was first out of the door with its plan — which has been accepted by the Fish and Wildlife Service — Idaho has a convened a task force and similar efforts are ongoing in Nevada and in Colorado.

A western regional group under the auspices of the Western Governors Association is also involved, hoping to prove that states' joint efforts will help deal with the fragmentation of habitat and grazing practices that may threaten the species' survival. Other threats include wildfires, disease and predation.

"We are staying well connected because we want to support one another," Clarke said. "Nobody wants to be a guinea pig."

Both the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are also in the process of revamping resource management plans with an eye to incorporating land-use policies that prevent threats to the birds.

At the same time, Clarke stressed, Utah groups want plans in place that are specific to the state's unique needs. Since 2004, 11 local working groups in Utah have been crafting conservation strategies, mapping distinct populations to identify prime habitat that needs to be fiercely guarded or habitat already so compromised it can't be resurrected.

"Instead of a one-size-fits all plan, they are going out to the local areas and coming back with a conservation scheme specific to that area. … With these significant populations the geography is different, the threats are different," she said, emphasizing that a Box Elder County conservation plan will necessarily have different components than an approach taken in Uintah County.

"If Utah does not draw that map, other agencies will."

Sage grouse populations have declined regionwide from 320,000 males in 1965 to 1970, to fewer than 90,000 males in 2007 on just 5,000 communal stomping grounds called leks, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Leks are breeding habitat where the males show a flashy display of feathers to attract the hens, which typically nest within four miles of the lek.

Clarke said some of the solutions being weighed include land exchanges to preserve thriving habitat or getting the energy or cattle industry to help with costs of conservation.

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