By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Montana's governor on Tuesday signed an executive order creating a habitat conservation plan for sage grouse in a bid to keep management of the imperiled bird in state hands rather than see it come under strict federal Endangered Species Act protections.
The greater sage-grouse, a chicken-sized bird dependant on shrinking sagebrush ecosystems in Montana and 10 other Western states, is at the center of a battle that pits environmentalists against industries such as ranching and energy development.
"Montanans recognize that it is in the best interest of our state, its economy and our quality of life to maintain state management of the greater sage-grouse," Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Montana is the latest of core sage-grouse states, including Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, to craft a plan aimed at increasing populations of the bird to avoid federal listing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to decide next year whether states' efforts to conserve the ground-dwelling bird and its habitat will ensure its survival or if the grouse must be added to the federal endangered and threatened species list.
Federal safeguards could hamper activities like the development of oil and gas fields, wind farms, utility lines and roads, and might impose restrictions on ranchers with permits to graze livestock on public lands where millions of sage-grouse once strutted.
Today, their numbers are estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000 in Western states and two Canadian provinces, where the birds have lost more than half their historic range. About 10 percent are killed by hunters every year, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Under Montana's conservation plan, the state would offer incentives to lessen impacts in sage-grouse areas from new land uses and development, while giving priority to maintaining and improving habitat on lands tied to the core population of sage-grouse.
The program, hailed by representatives of Montana's petroleum, mining and ranching industries, also would borrow a strategy crafted by Idaho and Nevada that calls for killing ravens and other creatures that prey on sage-grouse.
Conservation groups such as WildEarth Guardians said that Montana's plan, like Wyoming's, provided insufficient safeguards for the birds' strutting grounds, or leks, where male sage-grouse perform elaborate courtship dances each spring before breeding.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman from Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman)