Federal officials say Wyoming management plan offers blueprint for Western grouse protection

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — Eager to avoid possible federal protections for sage grouse that could cripple energy production and curtail other activities on public lands in the West, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Thursday took a critical step of embracing a bird-conservation strategy first developed by the state of Wyoming.

Neil Kornze, the director of the federal agency, came to Cheyenne on Thursday to mark the agency's approval of a new resource-management plan for about 3.5 million acres in central Wyoming. The federal plan mirrors Wyoming's existing "core area" conservation strategy that limits development in areas identified as ideal sage grouse habitat.

"We think that this is a huge stride forward," Kornze said of approval of the new resource-management plan for the Lander area, which includes protections for millions of acres of bird habitat in Fremont County.

"The governor, the state of Wyoming and the people of Wyoming have done tremendous work in terms of setting out a core strategy for protecting the sage grouse," Kornze said. "It's a special effort because it looks across all types of land ownership, federal, state and private. It sets out a strategy that's flexible, that's meaningful across all those different boundaries."

Sage grouse populations have declined 90 percent in the West over the past century.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 announced that the bird deserved federal protections, but it said such action was precluded because other species were in even greater peril. The agency faces a deadline next year to decide whether to protect the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species.

Federal protections for sage grouse could be disastrous for the economies of Wyoming and other western states that rely heavily on energy and mineral production and grazing.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said Thursday he hopes the core-area approach will convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to grant sage grouse protections under the federal Endangered Species Act when it decides the matter next year.

"We strongly feel that is going to provide adequate protections for the bird in Wyoming," Mead said.

Beyond that, sage grouse protection is a western issue and the Bureau of Land Management's approval of the Lander plan will serve as an example to other states of how to address the sage grouse conservation issue, he said.

Pat Deibert, national sage grouse conservation coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, attended Thursday's plan-signing ceremony at the Wyoming State Capitol.

"This plan puts into place the Wyoming core area strategy, which we have supported as an effective conservation tool for maintaining large open spaces, which the sage grouse require, while also allowing the economic development that's essential to the Western economy," Deibert said. "So we do believe this will be effective."

The core-area approach will limit but not prohibit energy development and other disturbances on critical sage grouse habitat, Deibert said.

"It places stipulations on developments and activities, but it does not stop them because that would not be a workable solution," Deibert said. "So the intent of the core area is to try to maintain the intact habitat, minimize the fragmentation, which is what got sage grouse in trouble in the first place, and allow that development that is compatible."

In making its determination in 2010 that federal protections for sage grouse were warranted, Deibert said the agency looked at habitat loss and fragmentation, but also considered that regulatory mechanisms to prohibit further fragmentation were not in place.

With Kornze and other Bureau of Land Management officials saying they plan to consider similar core-area protection approach on scores of other pending land-management plans up for renewal, Deibert said adopting that framework on a large scale could provide the regulatory certainty her agency would require to avoid imposing new protections on the bird.

"Now the proof will be in the pudding with the implementation of these plans," Deibert said. "But the commitment that we have seen on the part of our federal land management partners and their states suggest to us that these could be incredibly effective."

Julia Stuble with the Wyoming Outdoor Council said the Bureau of Land Management has worked hard and collaborated with a wide range of stakeholders to find an appropriate balance for the Wyoming plan.

"We have to remember that this plan is just one piece of a very large puzzle when it comes to conserving sage grouse," Stuble said. "Other field offices in Wyoming — and, perhaps more importantly, other states — will have to step up in strong and creative ways if we are going to avoid an endangered species listing for sage grouse. There is a lot of work to be done to ensure that, range wide, sage grouse populations remain viable and healthy."

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