Colorado takes steps to protect greater sage grouse, hoping to avert tougher federal rules

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DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday ordered state agencies to take steps to protect the shrinking population of greater sage grouse in hopes of avoiding a listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, which would trigger tougher conservation rules.

Hickenlooper directed the state to set up a "habitat exchange" for buying and selling conservation credits. It would allow oil companies and others to offset damage to sage grouse habitat by financing improvements elsewhere.

Other steps include reviewing oil and gas regulations to see if the protection of habitat should be strengthened, requiring all state agencies to consult with Colorado Parks and Wildlife on activities that could affect the birds and keeping comprehensive records of existing habitat and the results of conservation efforts.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 200,000 to 500,000 birds remain in 11 Western states. They live on about 258,000 square miles, and much of their habitat overlaps with ranching and oil and gas development. More than half the birds' historic habitat has been lost and that the number of greater sage grouse has declined by 30 percent since 1985, the agency said.

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

Other states are taking their own steps to protect the bird and head off a federal listing. At least four others are setting up habitat exchanges, said John Swartout, Hickenlooper's policy adviser on the greater sage grouse.

The Fish and Wildlife Service faces a court-ordered deadline in September to decide whether to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act. Listing the bird as endangered or threatened would likely bring restrictions that energy companies, ranchers and other land users find odious.

Noreen Walsh, the Denver-based regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, praised Hickenlooper's plan. But she said the state needs to revise its oil and gas regulations to provide certainty for conservation.

Colorado conservation groups generally welcomed the plan.

"Gov. Hickenlooper's executive order is a step in the right direction for sage-grouse conservation, and we appreciate his work to improve Colorado's efforts," said Whit Fosburgh, president the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

The Audubon Society, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Conservation Colorado also welcomed the plan.


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