- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - People in the state with the most sage grouse and energy development in their habitat mostly welcomed Tuesday’s announcement by the Interior Department that the birds don’t need protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The decision means Wyoming’s coal, oil, gas, uranium and livestock industries won’t have to live with the possibility of strict limits to their business out in the sagebrush country.

“It provides a path forward for development. It provides a path forward to ensure that habitat is preserved for the sage grouse,” Gov. Matt Mead said at a news conference.

It doesn’t mean no limits: Along with announcing the decision, Interior unveiled land-use plans to protect sage grouse habitat on almost 28,000 square miles of U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands in Wyoming, or 29 percent of the state.

Similar plans are taking effect in nine of the other 10 states, from California to the Dakotas, home to the greater sage grouse.

In Wyoming, the new federal restrictions include limiting disruptive activity, such as oil and gas drilling, as far as six-tenths of a mile away from any sage-grouse breeding area.

Elsewhere in designated high-priority habitat, mines and oil and gas drilling pads would need to be spaced no closer than every square mile. Drilling would be prohibited each March 15 to June 30 during spring breeding season.

Wind power generally would be prohibited in priority habitat, but it could be allowed with special stipulations.

Critically, the boundaries and restrictions in the federal priority habitat pretty well line up with Wyoming’s sage grouse “core area” strategy in place since 2010. Work on that plan - praised by other states and a model for the new federal regulations - began over a decade ago.

Close coordination and cooperation between the federal government and Wyoming on sage grouse will continue, said Bob Budd, chairman of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team. “We’re not at loggerheads. We’re not at odds,” Budd said.

In July, Mead told Interior officials he worried the federal planning to help sage grouse played down potential restrictions on livestock grazing in Wyoming. Those differences have been resolved, Mead said.

New differences likely will need to be worked out, Mead policy adviser Jerimiah Rieman said. “This is not the end. Just sort of the end of the beginning,” Rieman said.

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming welcomed the decision not to list the greater sage grouse and is comfortable with federal habitat protections as long as they continue to track closely the state provisions, Vice President Esther Wagner said.

A Wyoming-based representative of WildEarth Guardians, Erik Molvar, criticized the plans as inadequate to protect them from development, grazing and invasive weeds.

Wyoming is home to perhaps 200,000 of the estimated 500,000 greater sage grouse still found in 11 states from California to the Dakotas. Wyoming also has the nation’s biggest coal and uranium mining industries and is a top regional oil and gas producer.

A central Wyoming fly-fishing and bird hunting guide business welcomed the news four days into Wyoming’s annual sage grouse hunting season held over the last week and a half of September.

“So many families are relying on the economy and oil and gas production to not go down. But at the same time, I know that the people here have a great respect for, you know, just our culture. Our culture of being outdoorspeople and working hard,” said Judi Ostrander, co-owner of Grey Reef Anglers and Wingshooting.

Sage-grouse hunting likely will continue in Wyoming. Hunting provides critical data for biologists while doing little harm to the birds’ overall numbers, according to department officials.

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