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Grouse protections stay

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead is maintaining the boundaries of the state’s sage grouse core areas, continuing an effort initiated by his predecessor to keep the species off the endangered species list while allowing continued energy development.

Mead signed the Sage Grouse Core Area Protection Executive Order, his office announced Friday. The identified core areas encompass 5.5 million acres in Wyoming.

Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal designated protections for sage grouse core areas in 2008. The protections limit development in areas that are considered important sage grouse habitat throughout the state.

Despite those efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said federal protection for the bird was “warranted but precluded” in spring 2010, meaning the species qualifies for protection but is a lower priority than other species.

“This is not an action I take lightly or without reservation,” Mead said in a statement Friday. “However, because the listing of the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered could cripple the economy of our state, I believe this executive order is needed. I believe this effort, which started almost a decade ago, represents the most significant conservation measure ever undertaken by a state in support of protecting a species.”

Mead’s executive order maintains the same boundaries as Freudenthal’s order, but includes some minor changes, spokesman Renny MacKay said Friday when reached by phone in Cheyenne.

The changes allow sage grouse managers to incorporate new science into management plans more quickly and gives them greater flexibility to respond to local conditions on the ground.

One conservation group said the idea of protecting core sage grouse habitat is a good one, but that idea has been compromised by loopholes for energy companies.

Those loopholes “make it questionable that we’ll ever see a major industrial project where the sage grouse protections that are proposed will actually apply,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “It seems like anytime there’s a wind farm or an oil and gas drilling project or a transmission line that’s proposed inside one of these core areas, the company asks for the land to be withdrawn from these core areas and that request is granted.”

Molvar said Freudenthal redrew the sage grouse core area boundaries in 2010 to exclude some prime habitat that energy companies wanted to develop.

“The core area concept is the right framework,” he said. “The trick is how do you get the core area concept to mean something on the ground by providing adequate protections. That balance has not yet been struck.”

Because of the impacts, Mead took into account various stakeholders in his decision, MacKay said.

“Some people would say that there are loopholes and some people would say this is too stringent – that this takes away from private property rights,” he said. “We take heed on both sides.”