Utah's sage grouse conservation advisers Wednesday debated the extent of secure habitat needed to save birds and steer clear of the Endangered Species Act all the while defending their process as scientifically sound.
The working group, largely made up of industry, university and government officials, is trying to recommend a conservation map and set of rules to Gov. Gary Herbert by July 1. The rush is intended to produce a plan that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will accept before that agency decides to list the dwindling bird as an endangered species requiring new federal protections.
Much of Wednesday's discussion at the state Capitol complex centered on how many of Utah's 20,000 or so birds are enough to satisfy federal biologists, and whether smaller groups might be sacrificed for industrial development. It's a question central to the group's strategy of investing most of the state's efforts where they can save the most birds.
Some areas, such as fringe bird habitat in the Uinta Basin's gas fields, will likely be sacrificed because conservation is impractical. Others with better recovery prospects remain in play.
For instance, the group reviewed possible protection scenarios surrounding Parker Mountain, a southern Utah plateau running from around Fish Lake south to Johns Valley just north of Bryce Canyon National Park.
Utah State University biologist Terry Messmer recalled how a team, including his graduate students and Parker Mountain ranchers, has worked since the late 1990s to improve vegetation there, boosting the grouse population.
Now the state counts 3,900 birds there, compared to 500 in the adjacent Johns Valley. Some said they could foresee tiered protection zones giving the mountain birds priority but allowing case-by-case development decisions in the valley.
But Larry Crist, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Utah field office, said such a system probably would mean his agency wouldn't count the 500 valley birds toward the state's effort.
"If it was case by case," he said, "I'd say, well, there's no protection."
Others in the group wondered whether it was necessary to save all occupied habitat or whether some areas are more important. State biologists told them it's all important because fluctuating weather unusually deep snow, for one can force birds to move from year to year.
Kathleen Clarke, Herbert's public-lands adviser who is leading the group, opened Wednesday's meeting by apologizing if anyone in the group was offended by a Salt Lake Tribune editorial that questioned the state's commitment to impartial science. That editorial responded to Clarke's appearance at an interim legislative committee meeting this month during which she said the state needs its own data to overcome suspect federal science, possibly in court.
"Our work will be of no use if we do not conserve the bird," Clarke said Wednesday. "That is absolutely what we're about."