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David Zalubowski, AP
In this April 20, 2013 file photo, male greater sage grouse perform mating rituals for a female grouse, not pictured, on a lake outside Walden, Colo.

SALT LAKE CITY — More than 20 years of efforts by 10 Western states and in excess of 1,500 working groups will be discussed as part of a multiday lands conference this week in downtown Salt Lake City highlighting ways to save the greater sage grouse.

The most comprehensive research to date on the imperiled species and impacts from transmission lines is being showcased Wednesday during the Utah All Lands All Hands SummitTuesday through Thursday.

PLOS ONE published thestudy Jan. 30 by Utah State University and Brigham Young University researchers who worked with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Rocky Mountain Power and other utility companies.

It is the first body of research to quantify the appropriate buffer distances based on existing sage grouse habitat and installation of new electric power and transmission lines. It covered habitat in three states: Utah, Wyoming and Idaho.

Populations of the football-sized grouse have declined by as much as 50 percent of their historic range due to a wide variety of threats that include wildfire, urban encroachment and the proliferation of invasive vegetative species.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended buffer zones around the grouse's breeding areas, or leks, various state and federal plans governing the bird's 173 million acres of range are inconsistent.

"What we found was best-management practices that were all over the place," said Terry Messmer, professor, wildlife extension specialist and director of the Jack H. Berryman Institute at USU. "Some were quarter-mile buffers and others were as much as six miles."

These latest findings suggest healthy, thriving habitat can trump disturbance and the size of buffers may be different depending on how tall the transmission lines are and how the species views that as a threat. Greater sage grouse evolved absent those tall structures, which are often used by their predators as a perch.

Messmer says the research shows land managers can minimize impacts by siting new transmission lines in existing corridors if at all possible and incorporating buffers for active leks by at least 1.7 miles.

Greater sage grouse was identified as a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2010, and five years later the federal agency said listing wasn't warranted due to on-the-ground conservation efforts.

That decision will be revisited next year, however.

"The better information they have on what we are doing to quantify threats and mitigate will be part of that decision," Messmer said.

He said some people may wonder at all the "fuss" over the bird. No one wants to see a species go extinct, and public surveys indicate fairly good support — 70 percent of folks — who care about greater sage grouse and conservation of their habitat.

If the greater sage grouse is suffering, 350 species who live in the sagebrush steppe habitat are likely also having trouble, he added.

With population booming in most areas of the West, Messmer said pressure on the greater sage grouse will only increase. In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau said Idaho and Nevada tied for the top states in the country for population growth, while Utah was next.

"That landscape is a main economic driver for the West," Messmer said, also pointing to an additional 20,000 miles of transmission lines utility companies say they will need to meet energy demands.

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"We have to find a balance of meeting those growing demands and balancing it with those populations of greater sage grouse that may be impacted," Messmer said. "This study provides some new insights on how we can do that."

The study was supported by Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, Jack H. Berryman Institute, Quinney Professorship for Wildlife Conflict Management, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and Utah State University Extension.

The lands conference will be live-streamed by more than a dozen sites.