- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming’s governor and the head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will meet Thursday about efforts to conserve habitat for the greater sage grouse ahead of a decision on whether to grant federal protection to the ground-dwelling birds.

BLM Director Neil Kornze will meet with Gov. Matt Mead as the agency’s state director signs a new resource management plan for the Lander area, which includes protections for millions of acres of bird habitat in Fremont County.

The protections have Mead’s support because they mirror a state “core area” strategy developed by Gov. Dave Freudenthal and continued by Mead’s administration. A core area is a site identified as having ideal habitat for sage grouse, which dwell in wide-open expanses of sagebrush.

“So going forward, the federal agencies also are running our strategy,” Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said Tuesday.

The bird’s population has declined 90 percent in the West over the past century. Next year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a deadline to decide whether to protect the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species.

BLM officials have praised Wyoming’s core-area strategy as a good model for their agency and other states. Even so, officials of Western states that contain bird habitat worry that sage grouse protections could seriously impede energy development across a vast area.

The Lander-area management plan encompasses 3.5 million acres, 2.2 million of which the BLM has identified as core habitat for the greater sage grouse.

Much of central Wyoming has seen or is targeted for future gas development. The new rules could affect, although not necessarily impede, that drilling because they prohibit existing or future habitat disruption to exceed 5 percent of the core area. Also, a core area may average no more than one mine or oil and gas well pad per square mile.

Development can’t come within 0.6 mile of a bird breeding area. Industrial noise will be regulated, and seasonal restrictions on development imposed.

State officials have been eager to implement - and promote - state and federal efforts to protect sage grouse ahead of Fish and Wildlife’s 2015 deadline to decide the bird’s status.

The federal government has paid $236 million to landowners in 11 states to help conserve sage grouse habitat over the past four years, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report prepared at the request of the Western Governors’ Association.

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