CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Many Republicans are wary of a large federal effort to protect the greater sage grouse — but not the Republican governor of Wyoming, the state with the biggest share of the birds and more energy development in their habitat than any other.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell praised Gov. Matt Mead's efforts to protect the ground-dwelling bird as she revealed plans Thursday to preserve sage grouse habitat on federal land in 10 Western states.
"From the get-go, this state has understood that the healthy sagebrush ecosystem and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand," Jewell said.
"There is not a choice to say we're going to forget the bird. We've got to find a way forward," said Mead, whose Democratic predecessor, Dave Freudenthal, launched Wyoming's sage grouse "core area" strategy in 2007.
Aware that the greater sage grouse sooner or later would face listing as a federally protected endangered or threatened species, Wyoming leaders acted pre-emptively. They designated huge portions of Wyoming as key sage grouse habitat where energy development still could occur, but under a variety of restrictions.
Wyoming is the top coal and uranium mining state and a major producer of oil, natural gas and wind power. Its energy development occurs in the vast grass-and-sagebrush ecosystems that are home to sage grouse — a dusky-colored, chicken-sized bird famous for its elaborate courtship rituals. Wyoming's "core areas" create habitat, and the plans announced by Jewell mirror Wyoming's strategy:
Never before has the federal government engaged in such a massive land-planning effort for a single species. The Interior Department proposes new rules to protect habitat for the greater sage grouse from oil and gas drilling, wind farms, power lines and other development in 10 states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
In prime sage grouse habitat, oil and gas wells would be clustered in groups of a half-dozen or more under the federal plan. Drilling near breeding areas would be prohibited during mating season, and power lines would be moved away from prime habitat to avoid serving as perches for raptors that eat sage grouse. The government still intends to honor existing rights to develop resources on that land. The plan applies to federal lands in 10 states.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within Interior, faces a Sept. 30 court-ordered deadline to decide whether the greater sage grouse warrants protection as a threatened or endangered species. Some environmentalists say such a listing is the only way to effectively protect the birds from extinction. Others warn listing the birds would be economically devastating for the region, costing thousands of jobs. Regardless of what Fish and Wildlife decides, a federal budget rider approved by Congress late last year withholds funding from the agency to implement any listing of the greater sage grouse through at least September, 2016.
Utah GOP Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the approach is "only about controlling land, not saving the bird." Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat whose state also has large numbers of sage grouse, praised the federal policy as the best chance to keep the birds from being listed.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will take public comment and expects to adopt 14 resource management plans containing the new habitat protection measures by late this summer.
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