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Colorado seeks federal approval of habitat exchange to help preserve greater sage grouse


DENVER — Colorado asked the federal government Thursday to approve a habitat exchange that would let energy companies and others offset damage to the habitat of the greater sage grouse by financing improvements elsewhere.

The proposal — a key part of the state's effort to protect the birds — was made by Gov. John Hickenlooper to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management as a way to mitigate habitat damage from oil and gas drilling and other development.

Other states have proposed similar exchanges in hopes of keeping the sage grouse from being listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, which would trigger tougher conservation rules.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is facing a court-ordered deadline at the end of the month to decide whether to protect the birds.

The service estimates 200,000 to 500,000 sage grouse remain in 11 Western states, down 30 percent since 1985. More than half the birds' historic habitat has been lost in that time.

Colorado has about 4 percent of the remaining population and 2.5 percent of the habitat.

John Swartout, Hickenlooper's adviser on the sage grouse, said the state has a good chance of getting the exchange approved.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association supports the concept of an exchange but wants to see changes in the plan, association spokesman Doug Flanders said. He declined to give specifics.

Eric Holst of the Environmental Defense Fund supported the exchange, saying it could result in preserving habitat on farms and ranches.

"I think it's essential to have tools like this to facilitate the participation of farmers and ranchers in the conservation challenge." He said.

Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that sued to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider protecting the sage grouse, was skeptical.

"The best protection is to avoid disturbing habitat in the first place," she said. "These schemes to destroy an acre here and sort of fix it with two acres over there are not proven."

The greater sage grouse is related to but separate from the Gunnison sage grouse, which was designated as a threatened species last year over Hickenlooper's objections.

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