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States, feds join forces to protect sage grouse

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Gov. Matt Mead and officials from western states Friday discussed a strategy to save sage grouse and keep them off the federal endangered species list.

If grouse numbers dwindle and the federal government is forced to protect the bird through the Endangered Species Act, ways of life in western states – including oil and gas development, renewable energy efforts, hunting and fishing – will be at risk, Salazar said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the status of sage grouse. A decision is expected in 2015.

“It’s important between now and then that we put the kind of protections in place that will protect the species,” Salazar said at a gathering in Cheyenne. The states need a conservation program for sage grouse that “works well for jobs and works well for conservation of the species.”

Wyoming’s plan to save the grouse relies on designating core habitat areas that receive protection from development. It was touted Friday as a model.

“It’s important that we continue to have development,” Salazar said. “We can move forward with a conservation agenda that someone like Teddy Roosevelt would be proud of today.”

Representatives from Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming attended the meeting. Mead agreed federal protection would have wide-ranging effects.

“Roughly 80 percent of the state could be affected,” if the federal government is forced to act, he said. With a cooperative effort among the states, modeled after Wyoming’s core habitat strategy, “we could collectively and proactively … keep the species off the list.

“By doing a good job of protecting sage grouse habitat, we’re also protecting habitat for other species,” Mead said. About 80 other species benefit from the sagebrush habitat on which sage grouse rely.

“If we could do this in a cooperative fashion with this species, perhaps we could set a model for other species,” the governor said.

The meeting came as the Bureau of Land Management announced a plan to change the way it manages its property to better protect the chicken-sized bird. Conservationists applauded.

“We are pleased that the BLM is finally recognizing that its standard operating procedures on sage grouse are failing, particularly with regard to oil and gas development,” wildlife biologist Erik Molvar, with Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, said in a statement. “The sage grouse plan amendments offer an opportunity not only to replace inadequate BLM protections, but also to close the loopholes in state core-area policies that prevent them from protecting sage grouse in the face of industrial development.

“In the end, recovering sage grouse populations to the point where the survival of the species is secure and Endangered Species [Act] listing becomes unnecessary is everyone’s interest, from conservationists to oil industry executives, from ranchers to sportsmen,” Molvar said. “If everyone gets on board with responsible development, we can succeed.”

Conservation groups say the idea of protecting core sage grouse habitat is a good one, but that idea has been compromised by loopholes for energy companies.

Gov. Mead signed the Sage-Grouse Core Area Protection Executive Order on June 2. It identified 5.5 million acres of core sage grouse habitat in the state, implementing restrictions on development designed to conserve the species.