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Conservation bank appears unlikely to spare the sage grouse from court

Conservation bank won't stop controversy

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Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse tries to impress a group of females, at left, on Thursday, April 10, 2014 on a lek near the base of the Rattlesnake Range in southwest Natrona County. (Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune)

Wednesday's announcement of a sage grouse conservation bank in central Wyoming comes amid a pair of growing controversy's over the bird's status as a potential endangered species.

One concerns the discovery of a large wintering ground in the middle of a planned 2,000 well natural gas field in western Wyoming. The other involves a lawsuit filed Wednesday by a coalition of western counties and energy and agriculture interests. The groups claim the government's sage grouse science is faulty.

Those controversies will further complicate the government's sage grouse efforts. The Fish and Wildlife Service faces a court ordered September deadline to decide the bird's status and has announced a series of initiatives in recent months designed to protect it.

Against that backdrop, state and federal officials appeared Wednesday at a press conference in Cheyenne and heralded the new conservation bank as a way to preserve the sage grouse without hindering energy development. Off-setting development in one area by conserving land in another makes an endangered species listing unnecessary, they argued.

"There are people out there who would say it is a victory if we had to list the sage grouse," said Jim Kurth, Fish and Wildlife Service deputy director. "We in the Fish and Wildlife Service don’t feel that way. (The Endangered Species Act) is a safety net. We can show that working with people that live on the land, we can do this conservation work."

Under the arrangement, a public agency like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would examine an energy companies' development plans and determine its impact on sage grouse. If the company could not avoid or minimize the impacts, the government would allow the firm to buy credits to compensate for the development. Credits will be purchased from a private company, the Sweetwater River Conservancy, which has protected the 10 ranches it operates between Casper and Rawlins for sage grouse conservation.

Gov. Matt Mead framed the measure as a compromise and noted it is one in a string of efforts made by Wyoming to preserve sage grouse. Last year, Mead and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a plan to work with land owners to employ sage grouse conservation measures on their properties. In exchange, the land owners received a guarantee they would not be subject to endangered species regulations should the bird be listed.

"This bank strikes a balance between conservation of sage grouse and enabling oil and gas and other development across Wyoming," Mead said Wednesday.

Others were less sanguine. The bank is a political solution to conserving the bird, not a scientific one, said Clait Braun, a critic of the government's conservation efforts who studied sage grouse for three decades at the Colorado Division of Wildlife. A loss in sage grouse numbers in one area cannot be compensated in another. That would require habitat improvements in the latter region, and such improvements have not been scientifically proven to boost sage grouse numbers, he said.

"It reminds me of a ship, the Titanic. The ship is sinking," Braun said. "I don’t give sage grouse much hope in the next 40 years, and here the governor is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Meanwhile controversy continues. New research suggests that some 2,000 sage grouse winter in the expanse of sagebrush known as the Naturally Pressurized Lance southwest of Pinedale, making it the largest wintering grounds for the bird in Wyoming. The region has been tabbed for a 2,000 well natural gas field and is not designated as core area under Wyoming's sage grouse conservation plan, which would restrict energy development. Members of a local group charged with overseeing sage grouse conservation efforts recently sparred over whether to designate the area for protection. But the matter went unresolved and will now go before state officials at the Wyoming Sage Grouse Working Group.

The bank will allow Wyoming officials to say they are protecting the bird while enabling drilling in the Naturally Pressurized Lance to move forward, Braun said.

"I look for this one to be easily litigated and defeated," he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, the coalition of energy and ranching interests said they were going to court because the federal government is "using selective and faulty information that ignores a large body of scientific literature on the species." That information is being used to justify top-down government solutions to sage grouse conservation efforts, the groups said.

The controversies signal one of the few certainties facing sage grouse today: Regardless of whether the conservation bank saves the bird, sage grouse appear headed for court.

Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or benjamin.storrow@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow

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