- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho officials have released a draft management plan to bolster a struggling species once considered the most abundant upland game bird in the Pacific Northwest.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game says the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse occupies less than 5 percent of its historic range in the U.S., with 60 percent of the remaining population in Idaho. The estimated breeding population of the bird in the U.S. is 51,000.

Jeff Knetter, upland game and migratory bird coordinator for Fish and Game, said the agency wants to avoid having sharp-tailed grouse end up on the same path as sage grouse.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a Sept. 30 deadline to decide whether sage grouse need federal protections under the Endangered Species Act. Sharp-tailed grouse have twice been petitioned for federal protections, in 1995 and 2004, but federal officials determined such protections weren’t needed.

“We want to get out in front on this one,” Knetter said.

Sharp-tailed grouse are similar to sage grouse but prefer grasslands rather than sagebrush steppe.

Grasslands tend to make for good farming country, the plan notes, and the bulk of Idaho’s sharp-tailed grouse population is in agricultural areas in eastern Idaho. The plan said that a key ingredient to a stable sharp-tailed grouse population is a federal program that pays farmers to convert land into sharp-tailed grouse habitat.

So the state agency has also filed a request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add 20,000 acres to that program, called State Acres for Wildlife. In Idaho the average price paid to farmers is $54 per acer per year, with farmers typically signing 10-year contracts.

Sal Palazzolo, private lands program manager for Fish and Game, said the program currently has a cap in Idaho of 117,300 acres. He said the state last week submitted a request to add another 20,000 acers.

But he said Idaho is competing with other states for a shrinking national land conservation pie limiting how many acres are eligible. State Acres for Wildlife is part of the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which is part of the Farm Bill. The programs have many objectives, including protecting farmers from volatile commodity markets. One of the objectives that came later, Palazzolo said, was using private farm land to improve wildlife habitat.

The last Farm Bill approved by lawmakers cut the number of acres in the program from 32 million in 2014 to a gradual decrease to 24 million by 2019.

“It’s a friendly competition, but there’s certainly competition,” Palazzolo said.

Parts of the 62-page plan deal with problems caused for grouse by livestock, pesticides, human disturbances and isolated populations.

But the first page of the plan notes that 70 percent of sharp-tailed grouse habitat in Idaho occurs on private land, underscoring the importance of State Acres for Wildlife.

“I think it’s pretty apparent that they’re trying to get ahead of the curve,” John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and public lands expert, said about the draft plan.

The largest population of sharp-tailed grouse is in the eastern portion of Idaho with some overlap into Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. Smaller populations are found on the Idaho-Oregon border, Washington state, and northwestern Colorado.

Idaho allows sharp-tailed grouse hunting in the eastern part of the state in October, with a daily bag limit of two birds. Hunting grouse with falcons is also allowed from mid-March to mid-August, with a daily bag limit of one bird.

Palazzolo said he didn’t think releasing Idaho’s sharp-tailed grouse draft plan would influence federal decision makers on Idaho’s request for more State Acres for Wildlife. Knetter said he hoped it would.

“If we had more acreage, we’d have more people enroll,” he said.

Public comments are being taken through June 24 on Idaho’s plan.

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