- Associated Press - Thursday, November 6, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act can be avoided, the directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management say.

Dan Ashe of Fish and Wildlife and Neil Kornze of BLM made the comments Thursday in Boise as some of the nation’s top federal land managers and rangeland scientists gathered at a conference to find ways to protect sage grouse habitat from massive wildfires.

“I’m optimistic that we have a good chance to get to a ‘not-warranted’ determination,” Ashe said about a potential listing. “Every time we come together, we see more evidence that there is outstanding conservation happening.”

In the past decade huge swaths of sage brush range the birds depend on have been destroyed by wildfires that often involve fire-prone invasive plants, particularly cheatgrass.

The three-day conference that ends Friday is playing out as Fish and Wildlife faces a deadline next year on whether the chicken-sized bird needs federal protection, a move some say could damage the economies of Western states. Much of the land sage grouse depend on is administered by BLM.

“It is a big challenge,” Kornze said. “It is 11 states large, and it’s bigger than anything that this collection of state, private and federal organizations has ever tried to tackle together. I think we’ve made phenomenal progress, but there’s more to do.”

Janice Schneider, assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the U.S. Department of the Interior, said she came up with the idea for the conference while attending a Western Governors Association conference.

The conference in Boise, called The Next Steppe: Sage-grouse and Rangeland Wildfire in the Great Basin, is intended to bring together scientists and land managers from state and federal agencies so they can find collaborative ways to protect sage grouse habitat from wildfire.

“As the Fish and Wildlife Service is starting to think about its decision on whether it’s appropriate to list sage grouse in 2015 - to propose to list the sage grouse in 2015 - we wanted to make sure that we had as robust a strategy in place on fire as we could for them to take into consideration as part of that process,” Schneider said.

All the science being shared at the conference will be digested by management and policy teams, Schneider said, ultimately resulting in work on the rangelands.

“I’m very results-oriented,” she said. “We are going to have action items coming out of this conference.”

Experts at the conference time and again cited cheatgrass as a major threat to sage grouse. The invasive, fire-prone species, scientists said, creates a devastating pattern of burning so frequently as to wipe out huge areas of sage brush. Scientists at the conference insisted that cycle can be broken, but the cost to attain that goal isn’t clear.

“I think that’s one of the things we’re going to be talking about,” Schneider said.

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