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Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News
The greater sage grouse, which lives on sagebrush-covered lands throughout Utah. Studies are underway to determine if it should be placed on the threatened or endangered species list, a move that ranchers say could destroy the livestock industry in the Parker Mountain area of Piute, Garfield and Wayne counties. Photos courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Service,
He encouraged the states to actively pursue the development of conservation plans so we could be ahead of the game. —Kathleen Clarke

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert's office rolled out its conservation plan for the imperiled greater sage grouse, setting up 13 distinct management areas it hopes will prevent the animal from being named to the Endangered Species List.

Such a federal classification would have substantial economic impacts to Utah, invoking limitations on development, natural resource extraction and grazing — limits top state officials have been fighting to prevent.

"We certainly want to avoid a listing," said Kathleen Clarke, director of the governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office. "About 95 percent of these birds in Utah live in these management areas we are going to focus on."

The conservation plan released Wednesday grew out of a yearlong working group effort led by Clarke that tapped the expertise of wildlife biologists, conservationists and public land managers such as the Bureau of Land Management and the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

A series of public meetings also solicited input from residents who may be impacted by a listing, as well as farmers and ranchers interested in implementing conservation strategies to help the small, chicken-like birds.

Populations in the West have been significantly declining for the birds, which depend on sagebrush habitat to thrive. Habitat fragmentation, urban encroachment and energy development are among the top factors leading to diminished populations, as well as invasive species and wildfires.

Utah, according to state officials, is host to about 8 percent of the bird's population in the West — estimated to be between 16,000 and 34,000 birds.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the species merited protection under the Endangered Species Act, but other species had higher priority.

"That (announcement) was certainly a rallying cry for the states," Clarke said.

In a meeting with Western state leaders in late 2011, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar encouraged the impacted states to come up with their own conservation management plans to help demonstrate to the federal government that an intensive states' approach might be sufficient.

"He encouraged the states to actively pursue the development of conservation plans so we could be ahead of the game," Clarke said.

Utah and other Western states such as Idaho and Wyoming hope the Bureau of Land Management adopts their conservation strategies as guidance in land-use decisions.

"We're working with the BLM to see if they will adopt the state plan as interim guidance," Clarke said.

Under the provision of Utah's plan, any new, permanent disturbance would be limited in the sage grouse management areas. If any disturbance should occur, it would have to be mitigated by a 4-1 ratio, coordinated though state oversight.

Annual objectives of the plan also include protection of the best 10,000 acres of sage grouse habitat, enhancing 25,000 acres of existing habitat and adding 50,000 acres to the total habitat.

Clarke said the idea is to promote the best conditions in prime habitat for the species and avoid habitat degradation.

Utah's approach to avoiding any new disturbances in those management areas falls in line with the results of a study released this week by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The research found that the greater sage grouse require landscapes with extremely minimal levels of human land use. Scientists analyzed 3,000 active breeding areas called "leks" and found that 99 percent were in landscapes with less than 3 percent of a developed category of land.

Over the years, efforts to save the bird have brought on several initiatives by state and federal agencies and advocacy groups.

The Environmental Defense Fund introduced an effort last year that included a regional habitat credit trading market for energy developers and private land owners. The idea is that credits can be earned in exchange for investment in conservation practices to protect the sage grouse.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service has "Working Lands for Wildlife," an initiative to help ranchers voluntarily restore or enhance 400,000 acres of rangeland over five years to combat sage grouse habitat loss.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is not expected to make a final decision until 2015.

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