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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Guests walk over to a turbine for the Ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Milford Wind Corridor project.

SALT LAKE CITY — With 44 percent of its habitat lost to agriculture, urban development and threats like wildfires, the greater sage grouse has become the target of a joint conservation effort that will be undertaken by 11 states, including Utah.

The recent announcement by top officials of the U.S. agriculture and interior departments will make millions of dollars available to livestock producers and others who help the birds by doing things like reducing threats such as disease, removing invasive species and making improvements to sage grouse habitat. Producers can sign up through April 23 to participate in the first round of the initiative.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that based on new information and analysis, the greater sage grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency, however, was precluded from making the designation because of higher priorities. As a result the bird was designated as a candidate species.

"The greater sage grouse has historically inhabited millions of acres in the West, and if we are going to conserve the species we must work across political and administrative boundaries at a landscape scale to protect and restore its sagebrush habitat," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. "This agreement gives us a framework to prevent further habitat fragmentation and undertake other conservation efforts in partnership with states, tribes, private landowners and other stakeholders."

The announcement comes even as state wildlife biologists and others have taken to the field in Cedar Valley to capture and attach radio transmitters to dozens of sage grouse.

Begun earlier this month, the effort represents the first step in a multiyear study to assess the impacts of wind turbines on the bird's populations. Biologists are specifically trying to determine if the sage grouse adjust their habitat because of the wind turbines, which have come under criticism by some environmental groups because of their threats to birds.

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A 97-turbine tower First Wind project opened late last year as part of the Milford Wind Corridor, supplying 203.5 megawatts of electricity as only the first phase of an alternative energy effort anticipated to eventually deliver 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

Some wind projects in states that are home to sage grouse populations have been denied permits because of concerns that the birds will not nest within a mile of the turbines. In other states such as Wyoming, wind energy developers have put in place conservation efforts to mitigate the impacts.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com