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Ranchers, energy producers, environmentalists, Feds and 11 Western States cooperated on ways to keep bird’s habitat in tact

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced today that it will not put the greater sage grouse under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), ending a multi-year discussion over how best to protect the bird. The bird’s habitat spans over 11 Western states, and a listing on the ESA would have curbed development over the swath of the U.S. the bird inhabits.

Federal and state officials, energy companies, ranchers and environmentalists have all been working together to ensure that development could continue in a responsible way in order to keep the bird from receiving an “endangered” designation. Federal officials described the efforts to avert a listing as the most complex and complete land conservation plan ever developed to arrest the decades-long decline of the sage grouse, reports The New York Times.

Sage grouse

Source: Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

Energy companies played an important role in keeping the birds off the endangered species list, with companies like Chesapeake Energy (ticker: CHK) ordering its contracted truckers to drive to wells only in daylight hours, so as not to disturb the bird’s breeding and nesting habitat in one Wyoming field. Shell (ticker: RDSA) developed seed mixtures to bolster the heartiness of vegetation that nourishes the sage grouse and gives chicks better cover from predators. Cloud Peak Energy (ticker: CLD) developed a tool out of old mining drag lines to suppress cheatgrass before it can ruin the bird’s natural habitat, and voluntarily passed along its invention to competing coal companies and ranchers.

Brian Rutledge, vice president at the Audubon Society, an environmental group that helped develop plans to protect the sage grouses’ habitat, called the level of cooperation “unprecedented” between the states, federal government and environmental groups. “We have gotten attention paid to an ecosystem that was at best forgotten and at worst being destroyed by the way it was being managed,” he said, “we are seeing that turned about.”

Efforts to bolster the sage grouse population included mapping the nesting sites and migration corridors for protection from power lines and roads; measures to avert and fight fires that threaten sage grouse habitat; and direction oil and gas companies to use directional drilling to avoid areas sensitive for bird survival.

About half the habitat, generally drier lands at higher altitudes where the birds mate and nest, is on federal lands managed by the Interior Department. The rest is on state and private lands, particularly wetter meadows essential for the young chicks to mature.

Not everyone is satisfied

Despite Rutledge’s approval for how the conservation efforts around the sage grouse turned out, other environmental groups are not as pleased. Some groups say a 2010 Fish and Wildlife Service study shows there is strong probability that the critical sage grouse population in the Powder River basin of Wyoming and Montana will drop below minimal viability thresholds within 30 years. They say limitations on oil and gas drilling are insufficient to protect habitat, and they insist that electricity generation lines currently awaiting approval would be exempted from habitat protections.

“It’s a sign that politics as usual has taken over the process,” said Erik Molvar, director of the WildEarth Guardian’s Sagebrush Sea Campaign.

Sage grouse

Photo by Greg Albrechtsen, Sage Grouse Initiative

Environmentalist were not the only ones displeased by the news today, however. Some Republicans and industry groups complained that the land management plans will unnecessarily harm commercial interests.

“With the stroke of a pen, the Obama administration’s oppressive land management plan is the same as listing” the bird as an endangered species, said Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Others felt that this was the sign that the system worked. “This is truly a historic effort,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in prepared remarks at a ceremony with several governors and other federal officials at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver. “It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation.”

“I am pleased that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the right decision,” said Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who also chairs the Western Governors Association. “This is the result of Wyoming and other Western states taking a proactive approach to the Greater sage-grouse – working with industry, agriculture and conservation groups and the federal government. Today’s decision recognizes Wyoming and other western states were successful. We can continue to create jobs and share our natural resources with the rest of the nation while the Greater sage-grouse thrives.”

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