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Larry Dalton, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
A male sage grouse performs his strutting ritual. Utah and three other states in the West were among those that sent representatives to a congressional hearing on sage grouse management on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017. They urged greater local control over the chicken-sized bird.

SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders in Western states pressed their case in a congressional hearing Wednesday that management of the greater sage grouse is best carried out without federal interference.

"Federal land management agencies have made threats to the sage grouse worse," said Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Twin Falls.

Bedke testified before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, during an oversight hearing on "state-based management solutions" to protect and restore the birds' number.

In June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a secretarial order directing a review of federal agency amendments to 98 resource management plans in 11 Western states where the birds exist.

Utah and four other states appealed the land use amendments, and other states are challenging the plans in court, asserting the successes of state management plans were ignored.

Zinke has signaled that some of those provisions in the plans may need to be modified or rescinded altogether.

Environmental groups, which have petitioned to have the bird added to the endangered species list, say any lessening of restrictions in sage grouse habitat will threaten the species, which occupy 56 percent of their historical range.

"The long-term slide across populations on the range of the bird happened on the watch of state fish and game agencies," said Allison Jones, executive director of the Wild Utah Project.

"To dismantle the protections we only got in place (to avoid a listing) is turning back to frankly what didn’t work before."

Darin Bird, deputy director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told committee members the federal plans don't provide flexibility for individual state approaches to protecting and restoring sage grouse habitat and fending off threats.

"When it comes to sage grouse, our No. 1 concern in Utah is wildfire," he said.

But Bird said the state, in collaboration with federal and private partners, has reduced wildfires over the past nine years by 50 percent and wildfires are impacting one-fifth of the land they used to over the same time frame. Bird said the land is more lush and provides a better environment for the birds.

According to a hearing memo on sage grouse, Utah spends $5 million a year protecting the species and has seen overall numbers of the bird increase since 1990.

The memo points to certain success stories in conservation of the species playing out in multiple states and asserts state plans have been the primary "driver" of rangewide improvements.

But ranking member Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said states' complaints over the federal management plans are without merit and ignore the spectrum of threats that imperil the bird.

"Making our lands more resilient to these threats is a complex challenge, and the solution is painstaking science-based range restoration, not turning cattle loose and calling it a day," he said.

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J.J. Goicoechea, chairman of the Eureka County Board of Commissioners in Nevada, said the federal plans make it difficult to manage wildfire threats.

"If we don’t empower the state and the locals, we will never get ahead of habitat loss."

In 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a "no listing" decision of the species, but indicated it would revisit that finding in 2020. Critics like Bishop say the corresponding federal land use amendments are so restrictive, they constitute a "de facto" listing of the species.