- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A decision by the U.S. government on whether to propose protections for the greater sage grouse in 11 Western states could come next week, the chairman of a committee overseeing Montana’s conservation plan said Friday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until the end of the month to decide whether to propose designating the ground-dwelling bird as a threatened or endangered species. Congress has prohibited the agency from acting on that decision through at least September 2016.

The agency could decide that federal protections aren’t warranted, or that the measures are warranted but precluded by higher priorities.

Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team chairman Tim Baker described to the committee an invitation he and other state officials received Friday to a “historic conservation announcement” on Tuesday by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in Commerce City, Colorado.

“We don’t know what the answer is, but we think there is an answer coming,” Baker said. “If the decision next week is ‘not warranted,’ which would be awesome, we still have a lot of work to do.”

Baker, who is Gov. Steve Bullock’s natural resources adviser, said afterward the invitation left him optimistic that there would be no federal intervention.

Montana and other states with sage grouse populations have been scrambling to come up with their own measures to show the federal agency that they can effectively stem the bird’s decline. They are concerned that federal protection measures would be more restrictive than the states’ plans and hurt their economies.

Montana created its sage grouse conservation program and the 11-member oversight committee in an effort to ward off federal protections. Montana officials are hurrying to have the state’s conservation program running by Jan. 1, with an initial focus on how to regulate activities in sage grouse habitat.

That includes drilling, but also involves regulations on anything the state has a regulatory role in, from pipelines to overhead lines to noise, said Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Jeff Hagener, another member of the committee.

The Montana program is based largely on one being used in Wyoming. It would create zones six-tenths of a mile around certain sage grouse breeding grounds where roads could not be built and other activities, such as oil and gas exploration, would be limited.

Existing farms, mines and wells would be exempt.

The plan also includes a grant program to enhance and restore sage grouse habitat on private lands that will be developed after the regulations are in place, Baker said.

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