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Gov. Gary Herbert: Threat of sage grouse endangered species listing is real, could cost Utah billions

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 18 2014 12:46 p.m. MST

The two-day Utah Sage Grouse Summit began Tuesday in Salt Lake City, bringing together hundreds of Utahns from the private sector and government who have been working to keep the sage grouse from being added to the endangered species list. (Jerret Raffety, Associated Press) The two-day Utah Sage Grouse Summit began Tuesday in Salt Lake City, bringing together hundreds of Utahns from the private sector and government who have been working to keep the sage grouse from being added to the endangered species list. (Jerret Raffety, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert kicked off a two-day sage grouse summit Tuesday, bringing together hundreds of people throughout the state who have been working nearly two decades to restore the imperiled bird's habitat.

The sage grouse's potential addition to the endangered species list is a problem of epic economic consequences to states in the West, with Herbert explaining that the impact in lost economic development in Utah tops $41 billion for the oil and gas industry alone.

"The negative impacts are not acceptable to me and should not be acceptable to anyone here," Herbert told the crowd.

The event at the Utah Department of Natural Resources' auditorium is actually a precursor to a national summit that will be held in Salt Lake City this fall.

A male greater sage grouse struts at a lek near Henefer, Sunday, April 16, 2006. (Christopher Watkins, Deseret News archives) A male greater sage grouse struts at a lek near Henefer, Sunday, April 16, 2006. (Christopher Watkins, Deseret News archives)

Sage grouse, considered an "indicator" species that is a barometer for the health of an entire ecosystem, has come under increasing threat due to habitat fragmentation, expansive wildfires, urban encroachment, and energy development in Utah and the 10 other Western states where it occurs.

Because its range is so far-reaching, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to add the football-size bird to the endangered species list would have enormous consequences to industry, recreation, ranchers and private landowners.

"The threat of having the sage grouse listed is real," Herbert said.

In Utah, for example, the majority of the bird's population is found on private or school trust lands, acreage that would also be hamstrung when it comes to the type of projects that could co-exist with the bird.

The two-day Utah Sage Grouse Summit began Tuesday in Salt Lake City, bringing together hundreds of Utahns from the private sector and government who have been working to keep the sage grouse from being added to the endangered species list. (Ron Stewart) The two-day Utah Sage Grouse Summit began Tuesday in Salt Lake City, bringing together hundreds of Utahns from the private sector and government who have been working to keep the sage grouse from being added to the endangered species list. (Ron Stewart)

Four years ago, the federal agency deemed that the bird merited listing under the Endangered Species Act, but it was precluded from taking action because of higher priority species waiting in the queue. Ultimately, the deadline on the final listing decision is slated to be made by the fall of 2015, and everyone — both state agencies and sister federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service — are crafting or revising plans to keep the bird off the list.

Herbert said despite assurances in 2011 from then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that federal government preferred a states-based solution to saving the bird, Utah's plan and several other state efforts have been rejected out of hand.

"It was wrong-headed and the wrong direction to go," Herbert said, criticizing the rejection that came last year.

A Gunnison sage grouse stands on the prairie.  (Howie Garber, Deseret News archives) A Gunnison sage grouse stands on the prairie. (Howie Garber, Deseret News archives)

The governor added that an indication that Utah's on-the-ground conservation efforts are working should be the welcome news that the bird's population actually increased last year and more than 350,000 acres of habitat have been improved.

Across its range, the Sage Grouse Initiative led by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service has enrolled more than 700 ranchers in conservation easements that reduce the threats posed by urban encroachment, poor grazing practices and so-called sodbusting.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed the Farm Bill that included a strong sod-saving policy that reduces the federal subsidy on certain crops in favor of preserving remaining sagebrush-steppe habitats for important upland birds.

The initiative has also partnered with ranchers in Utah and elsewhere to remove 500 miles of high hazard fencing to reduce risks to the birds.

Greater Sage grouse walk in the snow. (Howie Garber, Deseret News archives) Greater Sage grouse walk in the snow. (Howie Garber, Deseret News archives)

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