Western governors file report on sage grouse conservation efforts

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, April 2, 2015 -- The Western Governors' Association released a report today highlighting the voluntary efforts in 11 states to conserve the habitat of sage-grouse as part of an effort to avoid a federal listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The association, which represents the governors of 19 Western states, said that “the breadth and depth of voluntary conservation efforts across the region, if allowed to run their course, will provide the bird with the necessary habitat to live and thrive.”

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The greater sage grouse is found in 11 states and its habitat encompasses 186 million acres. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, estimates its population to have declined 30 percent since 1985, with between 200,000 and 500,000 individuals remaining. The agency is under court order to decide by Sept. 30 whether the bird warrants protection under the ESA.

A listing of the greater sage-grouse “will diminish the amount of new voluntary conservation work undertaken and have a significant, negative economic impact across the West,” noted the report, which emphasized the millions of dollars of investments states, private landowners and federal agencies have made in conservation efforts.

The 32-page report, the 2014 Sage-Grouse Inventory, summarizes conservation efforts completed to date, as well as projects planned for this year and in the future, arguing that listing the bird as threatened or endangered under the ESA would be “counterproductive and unnecessary.”

According to the report, Colorado, Idaho and Montana have collectively protected nearly 350,000 acres of greater sage-grouse habitat through purchase or conservation easements.

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On the federal level, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has put more than 450,000 acres of Western land into easements in the past five years, bringing its investment to $165 million, with partner matches bringing the total to $250 million.

 

Idaho wildlife and land agencies have spent $4 million improving and restoring habitat, and Utah has completed nearly 85 percent of a 560,000-acre project to ameliorate conifer encroachment in sage-grouse management areas, according to the report.

Also, the report says private landowners working with NRCS have reclaimed over 400,000 acres of sage-grouse habitat through conifer removal. Among other efforts listed in the report is the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's funding of 90 projects that directly treated sagebrush habitat over 83,000 acres in eight states to benefit the sage grouse, elk and other wildlife.

If the FWS designates critical habitat for the greater sage grouse under the ESA, it would likely increase regulatory costs for farming and ranching practices in several states, as well as mining and oil and gas development.

In February, Colorado's Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) over the agency's decision in November 2014 to list the Gunnison sage grouse as a “threatened” species and designate more than 1.4 million acres as critical habitat in Utah and Colorado. The Gunnison sage grouse is one species of the ground-dwelling game bird, found mainly in southwestern Colorado with some populations in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

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