SALT LAKE CITY — It's crunch time for Utah and 10 other Western states that have been fighting federal protections for the greater sage grouse, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcing it wants proof of what's been done to help the bird.
The states, tribes and other conservation-oriented organizations have until Dec. 31 to detail the effectiveness of their various efforts to protect the country's largest, native grouse and its 165 million acres of sagebrush habitat.
On Tuesday, the federal agency announced it is initiating its official status review of the grouse under provisions of the Endangered Species Act, a process that entails the compilation of voluminous scientific data and commercial information related to the bird.
“We want to be sure we have the best, most up-to-date information on which to base our determination,” said Noreen Walsh, regional director of the service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.
“A tremendous amount of good work has been accomplished by state and federal agencies, groups and individuals when it comes to smart land-use planning and on-the-ground conservation. We’re asking for our partners’ help to ensure that we fully understand and capture this work.”
The process is in anticipation of the agency's September 2015 deadline to announce if the bird merits listing or if on the ground-conservation efforts have been sufficient. The decision was part of a court-approved settlement reached in 2011 after environmental groups sued to urge protection of the species.
States are seeking a delay in that determination, with Utah approving a $2 million contract this last legislative session to urge a 10-year reprieve while conservation efforts continue.
"A listing would have a big impact on the state, on private property and the Bureau of Land Management land, so it is worth it to make sure (protection plans) are done right," said John Harja, senior policy analyst with the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office.
"The state has been managing sage grouse for decades," he added. "We have spent a lot of time to make sure the species is conserved, and from our perspective, a listing is not warranted.
According to the Greater Sage Grouse Coalition, the species has seen its historic range shaved by more than half, and its population has dropped sharply in the last decade. A number of range-wide factors are at play in its decline, including habitat fragmentation, wildfires, predation, urban encroachment, grazing, invasive species and oil and gas development.
Because more than 60 percent of sage-grouse habitat is on federally managed lands, the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service are coordinating updates to more than 90 resource management plans to address identified threats.
State fish and wildlife agencies are also finalizing state-based management plans that augment efforts carried out by the Sage Grouse Initiative, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. That program has enrolled more than 950 ranchers in conservation programs that have protected more than 2.6 million acres of sagebrush habitat so far.
“There’s no doubt that without this work, the situation facing sage grouse would be much more tenuous,” Walsh added. “I applaud the partners — like the many ranchers who have entered into conservation programs — who are taking action to conserve this habitat that’s so critical to wildlife and our Western way of life.”
The federal agency is seeking information on the greater sage grouse through two avenues: details on conservation projects to save the species that will be entered into a database; plus information that documents population, trends, habitat status, hunting harvest and predation.
Members of the public who wish to provide input can do so during a public comment period that will be announced in the coming months.