- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Some of the nation’s top public lands officials and rangeland scientists have gathered in Boise to try to figure out what can be done to avoid a listing of the sage grouse on the federal Endangered Species Act.

The three-day conference, called The Next Steppe: Sage-grouse and Rangeland Wildfire in the Great Basin, opened Wednesday with keynote remarks by Mike Conner, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“Just seeing this grow from primarily a federal agency discussion to a broad-based, diverse level of participation from states and local communities is very encouraging,” he said, “because that diversity of participation is what we’re going to need to make progress over the next year on an important set of issues.”

The conference is playing out as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a deadline next year on whether the chicken-sized bird needs federal protection.

“As we think about our listing decision,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told participants, “you should see this big umbrella over my head, this big thing called habitat loss and fragmentation, which is the threat to the greater sage grouse and 300 or 400 other species that depend upon that sage-steppe ecosystem, including things like mule deer and antelope and sharp-tailed grouse and sage thrasher and Brewer’s sparrow and burrowing owl.”

Neil Kornze, director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, also took part in the opening, immediately talking about wildfires. He said 95 percent of wildland fires are put out, and that the agency’s top priority will always be public and firefighter safety.

But Kornze said earlier this summer that the agency declared its intention to protect sage grouse habitat, noting fire engines and crews are being stationed in areas where fire-sparking lighting storms are anticipated in key sage grouse habitat.

“Our top natural resource priority is sage grouse,” he said. “We’ve never spoken that clearly before, but we have now.”

Following the upbeat opening, though, panelists that followed quickly outlined the tough problems of dealing with massive wildfires and invasive species that threaten a fragmented sage grouse habitat.

Photos, graphs and charts showed degraded habitats across the West caused by everything from overgrazing to cheat grass that can lead to massive wildfires that have wiped out giant swaths of sage brush. Those areas can take decades to recover, the scientists said. But they noted the wildfires are occurring so frequently in some areas there isn’t time.

Scientists blamed hotter, drier summers and even altered wind patterns that have resulted in declining success rates for sage grouse. Experts showed sage grouse nests that failed after adults attempted to raise young in unsuitable habitat.

The conference runs through Friday.

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