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USU to host sage grouse summit in Salt Lake City Tuesday

Published: Monday, Feb. 17 2014 6:52 p.m. MST

Utah State University will host a summit this week in Salt Lake City to enhance conservation efforts for the greater sage grouse, a candidate for the Endangered Species list.

Jerret Raffety, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State University will host a summit Tuesday and Wednesday to enhance conservation efforts among federal, state and private natural resource agencies for the greater sage grouse, a candidate for the Endangered Species list.

The summit will help wildlife managers collaborate in preventing the bird from becoming listed as endangered, according to Terry Messmer, professor and extension wildlife specialist at USU's S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources.

"Through this discussion, we'll hopefully be able to demonstrate the resolve of these partners in doing the right thing, not only to protect this species and its habitat, but also the communities and working landscapes which drive Utah's economy," Messmer said.

About 250 participants have registered for the event, which will be held at the Utah Department of Natural Resources auditorium, 1594 West North Temple in Salt Lake City. The summit will be streamed online for those who haven't registered or are unable to attend in person.

The bird's decline has been a source of concern for more than a decade, with Utah's conservation efforts beginning in the 1990s. Urban encroachment, energy development, wildfires and invasive species have all contributed to a loss in greater sage grouse habitat.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the greater sage grouse warranted listing under the Endangered Species Act, but precluded the bird because of higher priority species. The bird was since added to the candidate species list, a "parking lot" for species awaiting protection, Messmer said.

On Thursday, a committee of Utah lawmakers identified efforts to keep the bird off the Endangered Species list as a top funding priority, voting to funnel $2 million in one-time money to lobby in Washington and improve on-the-ground conservation efforts. The vote by the Natural Resources Agriculture and Environmental Quality committee does not bind any state dollars, but will be forwarded to the Executive Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Supporters say the $2 million would be money well spent given that some estimates say Utah would be hit by $40 billion in "lost development," should a listing occur.

Based on the success of current management efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide in September of next year whether to list the greater sage grouse as endangered, according to Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Though the summit will focus on Utah's management of greater sage grouse, topics pertaining to the upcoming decision of whether to list the bird have ramifications throughout the bird's multi-state range, Messmer said.

"When the decision is made, it will affect 11 states and literally hundreds of thousands of people," he said. "We're bringing people together to talk about what counts toward conservation and what things we need to focus on from here on out so the threat of the listing essentially goes away."

DWR plans to identify specific goals dealing with greater sage grouse population monitoring and habitat restoration.

"What the summit boils down to is conservation of the species and getting everybody on the same page with that goal in mind," Robinson said. "Our main goal is to keep them off the Endangered Species list, and at the same time, allow recreation and some of the other industries to take place."

Messmer, who has been involved in greater sage grouse conservation for almost two decades, remains confident in the bird's likelihood to recover.

"The state of Utah is on the right track for addressing these concerns," he said. "We're optimistic that we can grow grouse."

Gov. Gary Herbert will give the summit's opening address.

Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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