- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

DENVER — The most fearsome creature in the Rocky Mountain West these days isn’t the grizzly bear, mountain lion or even the gray wolf.

It’s a plump, ground-dwelling bird with a homely name — sage grouse — that has the potential to bring the mineral and agriculture industries of the rural West to their knees.

The Fish and Wildlife Service began on Feb. 26 a status review on whether to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The agency had little choice: In December, a federal judge in Idaho ordered the review after finding problems with a 2005 decision against listing the bird as endangered or threatened under the act.

Now many Westerners are genuinely concerned that the sage grouse could bring down their economies as much as the listing of the Northern spotted owl crippled the Pacific Northwest timber industry in the early 1990s.

How bad would it be? “To be short and sweet, it would be devastating,” said Josh Tewalt, a sheep rancher who serves as executive vice president of the Idaho Cattleman’s Association.

A decision to list the bird as threatened or endangered would put restrictions, possibly severe ones, on human activities, potentially including oil and gas drilling, ranching and any other development that could disturb or fragment the bird’s habitat.

“It would be worse than the spotted owl,” Mr. Tewalt said. “The spotted-owl comparison actually underplays the economic impact, just from the span of the areas involved. We’ve already had many curtailments for managing the sage grouse, but a listing would be huge.”

“Huge” would also describe the sage grouse’s habitat, which encompasses parts of 11 Western states, from eastern California to North Dakota. The greatest concentration of sage grouse lies in Wyoming, where the bird’s habitat covers roughly 75 percent of the state.

Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project in Hailey, Idaho, which brought the lawsuit challenging the 2005 decision, disputed predictions of economic doom, although he agreed that a listing would disrupt business as usual.

“We should look at it as a choice made to preserve our heritage in exchange for our rapacious lifestyles,” Mr. Marvel said. “While there will be economic changes and dislocations, certainly for ranchers, those kinds of things go on all the time. Four-dollar-a-gallon gas will have a much, much greater effect than the listing of the sage grouse.”

A decision on whether to list the bird is due no later than May 2009, but Western state officials don’t plan on twiddling their thumbs until then. They’re aggressively pursuing strategies to boost the sage grouse’s numbers, a proactive approach that began years before the December court ruling.

Rarely does a week go by without sage-grouse activity, and this one is no exception: In Wyoming, the state agriculture department convenes its two-day Sage Grouse Conference tomorrow. In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter is slated to sign today the state’s Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan, a state and federal conservation partnership.

For Western states, the sage grouse has been a top priority since the early 2000s. In Wyoming, for example, Gov. Dave Freudenthal brought together industry, environmental and state representatives to form a series of Sage Grouse Working Groups.

In June, he convened the Governor’s Sage Grouse Summit, which led to the development of an implementation team and a technical group to review and enact the most successful mitigation tactics.

“The potential listing of the sage grouse as endangered is a serious challenge to Wyoming and other Western states,” said Mr. Freudenthal, a Democrat, at the summit. “We’re working proactively to shore up the habitat and necessary breeding grounds in hopes of preventing such a move by the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Three years ago, it looked as if the state strategies had worked. After a steady 70-year decline, the sage grouse’s numbers began to stabilize, which contributed to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision against listing the bird.

But environmentalists argued that the agency’s conclusion was tainted by the involvement of former Interior Department deputy assistant secretary Julie MacDonald, who resigned in May amid accusations of interfering with species decisions on behalf of industry and landowners.

The lawsuit also contended that new threats to the sage grouse had emerged since 2005, notably the spread of West Nile virus, which is lethal to the bird; the expansion of oil and gas drilling in grouse habitat; and the devastation wrought by recent wildfires.

Westerners are hoping to counter those setbacks by redoubling their protection efforts.

“We’re going to push very hard to show that what we’re doing is protecting sage-grouse habitat,” said Jim Magnana of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.

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