Utah hopes sage grouse protections plan will soar to success

Published: Friday, May 18 2012 8:00 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) 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.

This undated image provided the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a wild sage grouse. (Gary Kramer, Associated Press) This undated image provided the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a wild sage grouse. (Gary Kramer, Associated Press)

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.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said getting industry to help shoulder the financial costs of preservation comes with a cost passed on to consumers, something he believes should be borne by the federal government.

"If you want to protect these birds, federal government, then you are going to pay for it and we will set aside some land for these single's bars for these birds," Noel said.

But environmental groups warn it is better for industry to be involved now on a voluntary basis rather than later through mandates.

The listing of the northern spotted owl can provide a glimpse of what kind of impact an endangered species listing can have on industry. The endangered status is blamed for pushing a struggling logging industry in the Pacific Northwest to near extinction, reducing harvests by 80 percent and costing more than 150,000 jobs. Protections also extended to private lands to the save the species in three states, where the loss of old-growth forests threatened the birds existence.

One initiative rolled out early this year in Colorado and Wyoming sets up a regional habitat credit trading market for energy developers and private landowners, in which credits are earned in exchange for investment in conservation practices to protect sage grouse.

Developed by the Environmental Defense Fund, the idea is to take proactive steps to ward off any listing.

"If the grouse is listed it is going to have a pretty big impact on energy companies and private land owners," said David Wolfe, the group's western interim director of habitat and energy.

"It is an insurance policy against facing operational disruptions," for energy companies, Wolfe said. "If they have certainty they will not face disruptions, that has financial value to them."

Companies or land owners could purchase and then bank credits earned from avoiding activities that would disrupt sage grouse habitat or investing in safeguarding additional habitat. The credits would then help facilitate the energy or other land-use projects.

"If you only avoid and minimize, you are still losing ground," Wolfe said. "The only way to stabilize is to add a little bit in for the species and maybe preclude a listing, which is better for everyone."

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com
Twitter: amyjoi16

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company