SALT LAKE CITY — Utah tossed nearly $9 million at sage grouse habitat improvement last year and is poised to spend another $2 million in its efforts to keep the imperiled bird off the endangered species list.
A new report by the Western Governors' Association details notable conservation efforts undertaken in 2013 by 11 western states that have populations of the bird, including Utah.
The states are in a scramble to prove to the federal government that individual conservation plans are sufficiently protective of the football-sized bird, which is an indicator species of sagebrush steppe habitat.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the bird merited listing under the Endangered Species Act, but other "higher" priorities precluded that action. It is due to revisit that decision next year.
The greater sage grouse has seen its habitat decline drastically and its numbers plummet due to a variety of threats such as wildfires, oil and gas development, urban encroachment and invasive species.
In 2012, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar formed a state and federal task force to try to avert a listing, which would have far reaching financial impacts estimated to be in the billions.
Utah is also trying to stave off a listing of the Gunnison sage grouse, entering into a cooperative agreement last year with Colorado and nine local government entities to craft a conservation agreement. The Fish and Wildlife Service is slated to make its decision on that listing next month.
The governors' association report notes that 2013 saw a tremendous amount of work undertaken by the states on sage grouse issues and also notes what is happening on the federal level. In addition to the individual state plans, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are in the midst of revising 98 land use plans, with final proposals slated to be released throughout the summer and fall of this year.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has pushed to have tenets of Utah's plan incorporated into protections proposed by the BLM, but it's unclear how much the federal government will be willing to negotiate when it comes to its land use plans.
Utah has also partnered with the Sage Grouse Initiative led by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which enrolls land owners in habitat-protecting programs and has set aside more than 240,000 acres to protect the bird.
This last legislative session, lawmakers gave $1.6 million to the Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, some of which will be used for predator control, research and habitat improvement.
Another $2 million will go to the Utah Department of Natural Resources to hire a lobbyist for Washington to try to persuade a delay in the listing.
The appropriation raised eyebrows and criticism in environmental corners, but the agency's executive director, Mike Styler, believes it will be money well spent.
"It was not our request and not in the governor's budget, but we think it makes sense," he said. "Our folks are saying there is not a lot of biological information the feds have yet, so it seems realistic to give us more time to put together that biological data."
Styler pointed to the successful, albeit controversial, investment of $800,000 by Utah policy makers over several years to push Washington to delist the gray wolf.
"Legislators wanted to do something on the sage grouse and were encouraged by what happened on the wolf issue," Styler said.
Styler and others believe it was pressure on Washington that led to last year's decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list in the Northern Rocky Mountain region.
"I'm hearing that other states are very interested in what we are doing," he said.