Protection decision near for sage grouse

Wes McStay remembers the greater sage grouse being so common when he grew up that he’d see their leks, or mating grounds, right on county roads on the way to school.

Cars had to swerve to avoid the birds, known for the males’ strutting courtship dance.

Now, the Moffat County rancher fears the bird soon could become extinct.

“In just my lifetime I’ve seen a tremendous decline,” McStay said.

McStay and conservation groups are anxiously awaiting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision later this month about whether the greater sage grouse warrants Endangered Species Act protection. So are other entities, such as the oil and gas industry, which could see its activities affected by an endangered species listing.

Fish and Wildlife must decide by Feb. 26. It is under a court order to reconsider the matter after concerns that a prior decision had been improperly manipulated by a political Interior Department appointee in the Bush administration.

Environmentalists say the bird’s population has dropped anywhere from 69 to 99 percent.

Erin Robertson, senior staff biologist for the Center for Native Ecosystems, said so far the approach to trying to reverse the decline has involved local working groups and state conservation plans. But the entities involved lack authority at the land-management scale that is required, and an endangered-species listing is one way to provide such authority, she said.

Ranching, urban sprawl, recreation and other activities share part of the blame for impacts on the bird’s sagebrush habitat, but conservationists say energy development also is playing a significant part. They say the Bureau of Land Management needs to do more to protect habitat from drilling.

Moffat County, where the BLM forecasts an increase in drilling, is home to two-thirds of the state’s sage-grouse population. Another population is north and west of Parachute, in an area of intensive natural gas development, some of it on private land.

Steven Hall, a Colorado BLM spokesman, said his agency has been a leader in pursuing a lot of the science guiding sage-grouse decisions, and it increasingly has been restricting surface disturbances and imposing drilling stipulations to protect the birds’ habitat.

Kathleen Sgamma of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said her industry, like ranching and other industries, is concerned about a possible endangered-species listing.

“We work very hard to ensure sage grouse are protected while still enabling economic activity and jobs, so we’ll have to see what happens later this month,” she said.

Dr. Robert L. Orr, 500 Patterson Road, recently was recognized as the 2009 biennial honoree for the national Edward H. Angle Society of Orthodontists for his outstanding contribution to the specialty of orthodontics.


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