Sage grouse decision buys time for state’s conservation efforts

A federal decision announced Friday confirms the future of a showy western bird is in doubt, but also buys time to try to save it in a way that moderates impacts on western industries such as energy development and agriculture.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited a sharp drop in the population of the greater sage grouse in saying Friday that it warrants federal protection.

“We have seen a 90 percent decline in the population of the sage grouse from a century ago,” Salazar said during a media teleconference.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the bird is precluded from being listed as threatened or endangered because other species are in greater peril and more in need of help from limited federal resources.

Salazar said the decision provides a window of several years to continue working with states and others on conservation efforts that could head off a decision to list the sage grouse. It also allows continued use of public lands, including for livestock grazing and for development of conventional and renewable energy, he said.

The sage grouse, known for the males’ courtship dance, inhabits sagebrush country that increasingly has been subject to energy development, including in northwest Colorado. Luke Schafer, northwest organizer for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said he is encouraged by the government’s approach to saving the bird.

“If we work hard on the front end here, we can be successful. However, if we wait and don’t implement the measures necessary to protect the species, we’re going to have a very difficult time on the back end,” he said.

Kathleen Sgamma of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said in a news release her group is glad the sage grouse wasn’t listed as threatened or endangered and that the government recognized ongoing collaborative efforts to protect it. The group also fears the government’s decision could lead to “very restrictive policies” by land managers, “but it appears that Interior plans to balance implementation so that restrictions on energy development do not apply with a broad brush across the entire region,” she said.

The Interior Department announced a new Bureau of Land Management policy aimed at preventing energy development on priority sage-grouse habitat, or keeping it within certain thresholds. The policy also applies to the Gunnison sage-grouse, which is found in Colorado and Utah. The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce in June whether that bird merits listing as threatened or endangered.

BLM director Bob Abbey said in cases of existing federal oil and gas leases where sage grouse are a concern, the agency will review drilling permit applications with more scrutiny and probably implement additional restrictions to better protect the birds.


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