- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The federal government created a smoke screen for plans that will suffocate industry with its Tuesday announcement that it won’t list the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species, Utah officials asserted.

The U.S. Interior Department said the ground-dwelling bird did not need additional protections under the Endangered Species Act after some limits were put on energy development and other activities.

U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, says rejecting additional protections is a step in the right direction but that he worries plans to restrict oil and gas development and other measures will be just as onerous.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert echoed Stewart’s comments, saying the plans are unnecessary and just as restrictive as protections the bird would have received under the Endangered Species Act. Bishop called the announcement a “cynical ploy.”

Tuesday’s decision follows a yearslong battle over the sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that inhabits grass and sagebrush and once numbered about 16 million. Over the past 100 years, development, grazing and invasive cheatgrass have cut into the animal’s habitat, leaving an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 of the birds in 11 Western states.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service approved new sage grouse policies for 10 of the 11 states, including Utah. They include spacing out oil and gas wells and prohibiting drilling during mating season.

Listing the bird as endangered or threatened would have brought more sweeping restrictions on drilling, grazing and other human activities. The Obama administration and some environmental groups said the decision to avoid a listing but protect the bird strikes a balance between conservation and development.

Other conservation groups criticized the plan, saying it allows too many loopholes for development.

The Center for Biological Diversity on Tuesday called the protections “half-measures,” while the group WildEarth Guardians said the plans were “replete with crippling flaws and loopholes.”

John Harja, a policy analyst with Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, said the plans will be unnecessarily burdensome to mining and oil and gas development in Utah while ignoring steps to protect the bird that local officials proposed.

For example, the federal plan ignores a proposal to remove some pinyon and juniper trees encroaching on the low-lying sagebrush that the birds prefer, Harja said.

Sage grouse won’t stay in areas where there are too many tall pinyon and juniper trees. If the trees aren’t removed, it wastes suitable habitat, Harja said.

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