Utah unveils final sage grouse plan to mixed reviews

Posted: Apr 26, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E News PM
Sage grouse

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) today unveiled a final state plan for the imperiled greater sage grouse that he and others say will restore dwindling grouse habitat and prevent the bird from being listed as an endangered species.

But conservation groups that have reviewed the plan say it misses the mark and will not do much to help keep the bird off the Endangered Species Act list.

The new plan seeks to conserve and protect as much as 10,000 acres of high-quality grouse habitat each year, as well as enhance and restore as much as 25,000 acres of impaired habitat across the state. The plan also sets a goal of increasing the total amount of sage grouse habitat by 50,000 acres annually.

The plan lays out incentive-based programs to avoid grouse impacts on private, local government and state trust lands, as well as what is described in the plan as "reasonable and cooperative regulatory programs" for other state and federal lands. It also calls for limiting permanent disturbance within designated "Sage Grouse Management Areas" to 5 percent of the area, according to the plan.

"Many diverse interests have come together to address the challenges sage grouse face in Utah," Herbert said today in a statement. "The direction the plan provides will maintain or increase the number of sage grouse in Utah while allowing economic development to continue. It's a win-win for everyone."

State and federal regulators are desperately trying to preserve the grouse after the Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that the bird warrants Endangered Species Act protection, placing it on a list of "candidate species" whose status is reviewed every year. Federal and state leaders across the West have said such a listing would damage the region's economy, including its vital ranching, agricultural and energy sectors.

Fish and Wildlife is under a court-mandated deadline to determine whether to list the bird for federal protection by 2015.

The state of Utah wants Fish and Wildlife to sign off on its approach and the Bureau of Land Management to implement many of the strategies, as BLM works to amend resource management plans across Utah and nine other Western states as part of the agency's ongoing work to develop a national sage grouse planning initiative.

The state conservation plan effort was led by Kathleen Clarke, a former BLM director in the George W. Bush administration who now serves as director of the state's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office.

Clarke touted the plan's effort to address grouse conservation on private lands. "State representatives and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are ready to work with private landowners who wish to conserve sage grouse in a way that benefits the landowners and the birds," she said today in a statement.

But a number of conservation leaders said today that the plan is insufficient and will not have much of a positive impact on grouse in Utah, which is home to about 8 percent of the total grouse population across the bird's 11-state range.

For one, the plan allows development of various types within 1 mile of active leks, even though the plan documents that most sage grouse in Utah nest within 3 miles of leks, said Mark Salvo, federal lands policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife.

Salvo noted a U.S. Geological Survey-led study published this week in the journal Ecology and Evolution that concluded sage grouse need miles of uninterrupted sagebrush steppe with little nearby human activity to survive and thrive (Greenwire, April 23).

"We are concerned about several components of the Utah sage grouse plan," Salvo said. "It is uncertain that the plan will recover sage grouse in the state given the many allowances for degrading land uses in sage grouse habitat."

Allison Jones, a conservation biologist at Wild Utah Project in Salt Lake City, said there are some positive elements in the plan, noting it would reduce grouse hunting permits in the state if grouse populations drop.

But overall, she said, the plan does not go far enough to protect the bird and likely will not result in keeping the greater sage grouse off the ESA list.

"In the whole, I think it misses the boat," she said.

Alan Clark, sage grouse coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, defended the plan.

He noted the plan was devised by a sage grouse working group requested last year by the governor that included county commissioners, federal land managing agencies, and Fish and Wildlife, as well as state environmental regulators, representatives from energy and recreational industries, and the conservation community.

"As with most complex issues, not everyone agrees with everything in the recommendations," Clark said. "Despite their differences, though, the group developed a sound and balanced approach to conservation of the greater sage grouse."

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