- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming has made key sacrifices as it develops a conservation strategy for the greater sage grouse, but it won’t be enough to keep the birds off the federal endangered species list, the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told a U.S. Senate committee.

The comments by Director Dan Ashe came Wednesday as the agency faces a court-ordered deadline of Sept. 30 to decide whether the greater sage grouse warrants protecting as a threatened or endangered species.

The stakes are especially high because the birds inhabit vast areas of Wyoming that are being eyed for oil and gas drilling and wind farm development.

An endangered listing “would be economically bad for our state and because we believe we know best how to protect the bird in Wyoming,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said in questioning Ashe.

Ashe urged broader cooperation on conservation measures by several states and federal agencies. But he cautioned that even those measures might not stop ongoing litigation aimed at listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

If the agency decides a listing is not warranted, “then we’re going to have to defend that record. And so we’re going to have to be able put together an administrative record that we can bring to court,” Ashe told the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in Washington.

Greater sage grouse range across 11 states from California to the Dakotas. Wyoming, with as many as half a million of the birds, is home to more than any other state.

Wyoming already has seen grizzly bears and wolves removed from federal protection in recent years, only to have those species returned to the threatened and endangered lists by court order.

Wyoming’s sage grouse conservation strategy designates large portions of the state as core habitat. The core areas carry restrictions on development, such as limits on concentrations of oil and gas wells.

“Wyoming made difficult decisions to conserve the sage grouse. So conservation involves sacrifice. At some level, we have to make trade-offs. Wyoming has made them well,” Ashe said.

Idaho also has worked with federal agencies to conserve sage grouse habitat, he said.

“Hopefully we’ll see other states, their plans take shape here very quickly. Oregon, Montana, Colorado. It’s that collective effort that will get us across the finish line,” Ashe said.

Late last year, the Senate approved a budget provision that will prohibit Fish and Wildlife from implementing a threatened or endangered listing for the greater sage grouse. The provision will remain in effect at least through September, 2016.

Bills currently pending in the Senate and House would postpone any listing for five years or more.


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