Compromise on greater sage grouse

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Back in Colorado, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was known as a master of the artful compromise, and his recent ruling on the greater sage grouse showed he hasn’t lost his touch.

The Interior Department straddled the fine line between business and environmental interests Friday by declaring that the distinctive Western bird deserves federal protection, but probably won’t get it unless it’s in danger of extinction.

Mr. Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, said that protection for the greater sage grouse was “warranted but precluded,” meaning that other species have stronger claims on the department’s limited time and resources.

The designation also indicates that the greater sage grouse is a “candidate species” and will be considered annually for listing as a threatened or endangered species. The department gave the bird a Level 8 ranking on its list of candidate species, a fairly low rung on the 12-level ladder and another indication that the species isn’t a top priority for protection.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department officials said the greater sage grouse population has declined by about 90 percent from a century ago, while its range has been cut in half to about 160 million acres. Still, the bird is populous enough that some states still allow sage-grouse hunting.

“The sage grouse’s decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century,” said Mr. Salazar. “This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species’ survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources.”

The department’s move had been much anticipated due to the greater sage grouse’s vast range it crosses over 10 Western states and its potential impact on the West’s economy. A decision to list the bird as endangered or threatened could have brought industries such as ranching, agriculture and oil and gas exploration to their knees.

Even though the designation fell short of a listing, environmentalists viewed the decision as a victory.

The Western Watersheds Project in Boise filed a lawsuit in 2006 after the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected petitions to list the greater sage grouse. A federal judge sided with the environmental group and ordered the agency to re-evaluate the issue, saying the decision was tainted by political considerations.

Friday’s decision means that “[W]e were right, the Bush administration was wrong,” said Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign. “The sage grouse is in trouble.”

At the same time, it’s possible the legal battle isn’t over, said Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project.

“I look forward to making a careful review of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s reasons for this decision for sage grouse,” he said. “That review will determine if further litigation is needed to bring the agency into compliance with the law.”

Mr. Salazar also praised the efforts of state agencies, saying they have “led the way” in developing conservation measures. Most sage grouse are located in Wyoming, but they can also be found in Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Oregon, as well as in five other Western states.

Kent Holsinger, a Denver-based land-use attorney, said he was disappointed in the decision, saying he would have preferred leaving conservation efforts to the states.

“There are hundreds of local and state sage-grouse programs already in place, and Interior is saying, ‘not good enough,’ ” said Mr. Holsinger.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, whose state has moved aggressively to protect sage-grouse habitat, said he wasn’t surprised by the decision.

“Naturally, I would have preferred a ‘not-warranted’ finding,” said Mr. Freudenthal. “I am encouraged by the fact that the Department of the Interior is willing to work with us so that part of the burden of maintaining the species is borne on federal land and does not simply burden private and state land.”

Mr. Freudenthal also credited the state’s sage-grouse implementation team with helping ward off a threatened or endangered listing.

“Absent the policy shift developed by the team, I have no doubt that the bird would have been listed,” said Mr. Freudenthal. “The candidate listing gives us a fighting chance, while an endangered or threatened listing would have taken the wind out of our sails. Now is the time for us to roll up our sleeves and hone our strategies to make sure Wyoming’s birds are never listed, no matter what happens elsewhere in the West.”

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