- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

PINEDALE, Wyo. (AP) - Interior Secretary Sally Jewell praised nine Wyoming landowners Wednesday for agreeing to conserve habitat of the greater sage grouse.

Jewell and Gov. Matt Mead toured ranchland near Pinedale whose owners agreed to conservation measures in exchange for assurances that no additional federal restrictions would apply for 20 years if the greater sage grouse is listed as threatened or endangered.

The agreements cover about 61 square miles in Sublette and Johnson counties.

The landowners recognized Wednesday are the first in Wyoming to join the program, called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances. Jewell said the agreements formalize what some of the landowners have already been doing.

The greater sage grouse population is declining in the West, and the federal government faces a court deadline of September 2015 to decide whether to protect the birds under the Endangered Species Act.

Federal protection could limit energy development and agriculture and damage the economies of Western states.

State governments and the Interior Department are trying to find ways to preserve the bird’s habitat and increase its numbers without resorting to a threatened or endangered listing.

Estimates on the number of sage grouse vary from 100,000 to 500,000.

Their range covers an estimated 257,000 square miles, primarily in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The birds also live in California, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe also participated in the tour.

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