Compromise reached on sage grouse

Interior secretary crafts approach to give bird greater protection

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Federal authorities Friday embarked on a compromise effort to protect the sage grouse as a “candidate” species under the Endangered Species Act.

Short of designating the sage grouse as threatened or endangered, the compromise crafted by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar embraced the latest science indicating that grouse need help to avoid extinction in the face of energy development, grazing and house-building.

This approach “gives an open window” of “several years” for public and private land users to take action “making sure the grouse doesn’t have to be put on the endangered species list,” Salazar said. “We believe we can do that.”

Hunting grouse in Colorado and other western states still will be allowed. At the same time, energy companies poised to drill in sensitive areas may face new restrictions and are on notice that protections for the grouse in the future could one day force industry relocation.

“The sage grouse’s decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century,” Salazar said in a statement before his announcement.

“This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species’ survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources.”

A chicken-size forager found in 11 western states, the sage grouse depends on sagebrush steppe for food and protection. But its habitat overlaps the nation’s prime energy development territory in Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming.

As developers cleared sagebrush, grouse that once numbered in the millions declined. Since 1985, grouse populations have decreased by more than 30 percent, federal biologists said, with only 89,000 males counted in a 2007 survey across the eleven states.

In Colorado, the latest count found 3,344 males, Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Tyler Baskfield said. Colorado offers about 3.6 million acres of sagebrush habitat — 53 percent on public lands and 47 percent private, Baskfield said.

The federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages 8.4 million acres across Colorado and 253 million acres nationwide, plays a key role in determining whether the grouse will survive. BLM managers lease land for grazing, drilling, mining and installation of powerlines and windmills.

“We know that we can and need to do better,” BLM director Bob Abbey said, adding that he’ll issue a map of key habitat and a new strategy for protecting grouse. “This is certainly a challenge for all of us,” Abbey said.

Energy companies with deals to do exploration work in grouse-friendly areas will face stricter scrutiny, Abbey said.

Conservationists welcomed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “warranted but precluded” decision, saying that even though it falls short of adding grouse to the list of endangered and threatened species it recognizes that grouse face extinction.

“What this means is, the bird is in trouble. The declines are significant, and this is a way for the Fish and Wildlife Service to say: ‘We recognize its trajectory as downward but we have other species in more trouble and our resources are limited,’” said biologist Steve Torbit, the Colorado-based regional director of the National Wildlife Federation.

“There’s not a single villain in this. The problem has been that we — as westerners — have not paid adequate attention and respect to sagebrush. People love the mountains, love the rocks and ice. But, for wildlife, the critical area is sagebrush steppe,” Torbit said.

Industry leaders — for oil and gas, wind, and livestock — had lobbied against listing the grouse because new restrictions could complicate business.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which represents about 300 energy companies, already has been working to try to minimize harm to grouse, especially during breeding and nesting seasons, COGA president Tisha Schuller said.

Friday’s decision “just means we will continue doing what we are doing. We will continue to work with BLM and Fish and Wildlife on sage grouse management plans,” Schuller said.

“We don’t think there’s a choice between one or the other. It is our intent to work in harmony with all the stakeholders to protect wildlife resources and ensure thoughtful energy development.”

The decision announced Friday morning by Interior Secretary Salazar and Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks — followed lengthy battling. This was the second time Fish and Wildlife Service biologists conducted a review in response to multiple petitions since 1998 to list the grouse as threatened or endangered. A federal grouse “status review” concluded in 2005 that grouse did not need protection. Court challenges, alleging improper political interference in that decision-making, led to a reconsideration starting in 2007.

Designating the grouse as a “candidate” species is expected to force the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to work cooperatively with private landowners to conserve grouse. Federal authorities may give financial and technical assistance and help develop conservation agreements that give regulatory assurances to landowners who try to help grouse.

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