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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar: Protecting sage grouse saves jobs

CHEYENNE – Wyoming’s approach to conserving habitat for sage grouse can be adopted by other Western states that are home to the chicken-sized, ground-dwelling bird, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday at a meeting aimed at developing a regional strategy for protecting the birds.

Salazar was in Cheyenne with representatives of several federal agencies and states.

“We see Wyoming as a template for how we address the challenges the sage grouse is facing,” Salazar said at a news conference.

Wyoming officials have been working for years to try to keep the sage grouse off the endangered or threatened list. Key to those efforts is the state’s designation of core sage grouse habitat where restrictions are in place on disruptions, including energy development.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management began to implement a similar approach last year on federal lands in Wyoming.

Now the BLM is looking to carry the strategy to Montana, Idaho, the Dakotas, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado.

Sage grouse numbers have dwindled by about 90 percent while human development has wiped out about half of the birds’ sagebrush habitat over the past century. The birds’ fate has significant implications for energy development in Wyoming – home to enormous energy potential in oil, gas, coal and wind – and other domestic energy hotspots in the region.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last year that sage grouse deserved federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, but other species were higher priorities for protection. A recent legal settlement now gives Fish and Wildlife until 2015 to decide the bird’s status as threatened, endangered or not in need of Endangered Species Act protection.

“If the decision at that point in time is affirmative, then it will make it very difficult to move forward with the jobs-creation agenda we care so much about,” Salazar said.

Friday’s meeting brought together BLM Director Bob Abbey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, U.S. Forest Service Deputy Regional Forester Marlene Finley, Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White, and representatives from Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

The meeting was closed to the news media.

The BLM in Wyoming has been updating its regional resource management plans to include conservation practices in line with the Wyoming state sage grouse strategy. The process is expected to wrap up in early 2013.

The changes include a moratorium on wind-power development in core sage grouse habitat or in areas where the birds are known to breed. They also limit total disturbance by oil and gas development to no more than 5 percent, or 32 acres, of every square-mile section of land in core habitat, or no more than one well pad per square mile in core habitat.

Similar regulations already have been proposed for sage grouse habitat in northwestern Colorado.