Chicken-size range birds — ones few Utahns ever see — could hold the key to state and regional economies.
The question is how to stabilize the sage grouse’s shrinking habitat without locking away future opportunities. It’s a tricky balance with federal biologists poised to list the bird as endangered, triggering stringent land protections, if the 11 states where the birds live don’t enact meaningful conservation plans quickly.
"A listing would have a tremendous detrimental effect on everything that goes on in rural Utah," warned Kathleen Clarke, Gov. Gary Herbert’s top public-lands adviser.
On Monday, Clarke joined a working group of industry, government and nonprofit officials to start roughing out a plan to save the birds and industry — and to prevent federal imposition of the Endangered Species Act.
In Utah, according to the Division of Wildlife Resources, sage grouse inhabit about 13 percent of their historic range and, in recent years, have numbered about 22,000. Their population is thought to have declined 1 percent to 2 percent a year since 1980, and even more in the two decades before that.
Hoping to craft a plan that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will accept, the group began its daylong session identifying top threats to the birds: fires that clear ground for invasive weeds, encroachment of junipers into sagebrush stands, egg predators such as foxes and ravens, energy development and grazing practices.
Then the group reviewed areas it might recommend the governor protect as core habitat, where intrusions would be minimized but not banned, and others where grouse likely would have to be sacrificed because industry already is so intense.
An example of the latter: a pod of about 400 birds pinched between the intensely drilled gas fields of the Uinta Basin and the prospective oil shale and tar sands areas of the Book Cliffs. Most in the group agreed it would be foolish to spend too much energy saving those birds when the state could concentrate on healthier populations like those in Utah’s far northwestern corner or on Parker Mountain in southern Utah, where 4,000 grouse live.
This process of earmarking some areas for intense industry while setting limits on intrusions within "core habitat" is what Wyoming did to gain greater federal latitude to manage its own birds and resources.
The Nature Conservancy’s Joan Degiorgio said she’s uncomfortable with the idea of creating a sacrifice zone in the Uinta Basin just because industry is already there. Those birds may struggle, she said, but she wants to see maps indicating what other resources or wildlife might be lost if the birds are abandoned.
Overall, though, she said she’s encouraged that the state’s process is serious — and that if it doesn’t produce a plan that’s good for birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won’t accept it.
If federal officials impose the Endangered Species Act, Utah and its schools stand to lose as habitat becomes strictly preserved, said Kevin Carter, director of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
SITLA has rich holdings to lease for oil, gas, oil shale and tar sands around the Book Cliffs, he said. It will have even more once a federal land exchange on the Colorado River is completed.
"That’s hundreds of millions, if not billion-dollar resources," Carter said. "That affects education funding in Utah in a big way."
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