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Draft report outlines greater sage-grouse conservation goals

Greater sage-grouse. Photo courtesy USFWS.

States, BLM trying to stave off an endangered species listing

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A new draft report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may help provide a road map for greater sage-grouse conservation by identifying high-risk populations of the birds, outlining specific measures needed to avoid or mitigate impacts and setting population conservation goals.

The draft report is part of a multi-state planning aimed at protecting sage grouse and enabling economic growth, including oil and gas development, across the interior West.

The USFWS is working toward a court-ordered deadline for making a decision whether list greater sage-grouse as threatened or endangered. As part of that process, the Bureau of Land Management is updating land management plans across huge swaths of the West. At the same time, western states are also involved in trying to develop sage grouse conservation plans, hoping to forestall an endangered species listing.

An earlier technical report compiled by the BLM included very specific direction on needed conservation measures, including buffer zones for key sage grouse habitat and caps on disturbance to important nesting and breeding grounds, but it didn’t spell out conservation goals for the birds.

“Generally speaking, it’s a really interesting and new thing for the Fish and Wildlife Service to do … You don’t often see them put something like that together in advance of a listing decision,” said Megan Mueller, a Rocky Mountain Wild conservation biologist working on greater sage-grouse issues.

Mueller said she’s hopeful that science will be a fundamental part of guiding sage grouse conservation efforts.

“As westerners, we share responsibility for conserving our land, water and wildlife, including sage grouse. It’s up to all of us to work together to protect sage grouse and the wildlife that shares its habitat,” she said. “Sound science should guide development of balanced, responsible land-use plans designed to protect sage grouse while allowing responsible energy development.”

Mueller said the USFWS used input from state wildlife agencies to identify at-risk populations and provide guidelines for reducing threats, including habitat fragmentation from roads, energy development and wildfires.

The draft report has been submitted for scientific peer review, the results of which are due to the USFWS in the fall.

“This report represents an unprecedented joint effort with the states, and we commend them for helping to outline conditions that will ensure the viability of the species,” USFWS director Dan Ashe said. “The challenges facing the greater sage-grouse and the conservation of its sagebrush habitat are at a scale that cannot be addressed by any one federal or state agency, non-governmental organization, or Tribe.”

The USFWS emphasized that the report  allows flexibility for States or other agencies to determine and develop the measures that will best achieve conservation success.

Along with the science-based peer review, the report will also get a political once-over from the greater sage-grouse task force, co-chaired by Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

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