- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

ROGERSON, Idaho (AP) - The challenges in keeping sage grouse off the endangered species list are complex but not unsolvable, the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior said.

Sally Jewell on Tuesday toured some of Idaho’s best sage grouse habitat in the south-central part of the state, hearing from biologists, land managers and cattle ranchers on efforts being made to preserve areas for the chicken-sized bird.

“It’s been a very helpful day to see what’s going on,” said Jewell on a wind-swept bluff at about 6,000 feet overlooking vast plains. “It’s really helpful to be up at this kind of elevation where you can see out across the landscape because I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at in terms of the burned areas verses the natural sage brush habitat.”

Both of Idaho’s two Republican U.S. Senators, Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, met her in the tiny town of Rogerson at the start of the tour that included some 50 participants invited to join Jewell on her quest to learn about challenges facing sage grouse and the habitat they need to survive.

Federal land managers face a deadline as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under court order to decide next year whether the bird should receive federal protection. Experts told Jewell that wildfire, habitat loss due to development and invasive species are the main threats to sage grouse.

“We do have time and we do have knowledge and we have partnerships that we didn’t have a decade or two decades ago so I think that is very encouraging,” Jewell said. “But we also have increasing risk with a longer, hotter wildfire season.”

Jewell was particularly struck by maps that showed a dramatic loss of sage grouse habitat from 2000 to the present. Other maps showed how wildfires have become more frequent and larger over subsequent decades.

Karen Launchbaugh, a University of Idaho professor and a rangeland specialist, said hotter and longer summers combined with invasive species have increased wildfire problems. She said the sage grouse habitat that exists is better than it was 100 years ago, but there’s less of it and its fragmented.

Jewell often asked experts for more detailed explanations, probing to learn more, something that impressed rancher Jared Brackett, president of the Idaho Cattle Association and who runs cattle on grazing allotments through which the tour passed.

“We have to work together as partners or we won’t get anything done,” he said. But he was wary of far-off decision makers. “Local on-the-ground knowledge is always better than people sitting around looking at maps,” he said.

Locally, ranchers have been transforming themselves into quick-response firefighters, hoping to prevent some of the gigantic wildfires that have left vast areas scorched in the last decade, destroying forage for cattle and sage grouse habitat that takes decades to recover. Sage grouse, experts said, are particularly vulnerable as their key habitats have shrunk.

“We’re probably on the cusp of losing everything,” Jim Klott, a wildlife biologist with the BLM, told Jewell. “One more big fire, we’re there.”

Jewell said she learned early on that there are no easy solutions in her job, something that was especially true of the potential listing of sage grouse.

“I can’t prejudge how it’s going to come out,” she said. “We need everybody to stay at the table, and if they do we think there’s a good shot a preserving the habitat necessary for this species.”

On Wednesday she is expected to join Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe to view sagebrush conservation efforts on a ranch near Pinedale. While there she will sign nine sage-grouse protection plans in an effort to highlight private and public conservation partnerships.

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