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Sage grouse numbers don't justify listing

Sage grouse numbers don't justify listing

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Wyoming officials are waiting anxiously for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether the sage grouse will be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

That's because there's much at stake for Wyoming, home to half of the world's sage grouse. If the birds receive federal protection, the state's energy and agriculture industries will likely face significant disruption.

A decision from the Fish and Wildlife Service is expected within a week. The agency has been reviewing the status of the sage grouse for a couple of years, since U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill in Idaho invalidated a 2005 decision against listing the bird.

Even though that 2005 decision was tainted by inappropriate interference from an Interior Department political appointee, the Fish and Wildlife Service should reach the same conclusion this time. The sage grouse is not on the brink of extinction, even though its historical range has shrunk dramatically and its overall numbers have declined across the West.

In Wyoming, the population is holding its own, estimated at around 200,000 birds. That alone should keep the grouse from joining the "endangered" or "threatened" list.

Measures taken to preserve the bird in Wyoming are another reason to not list the species. The state Game and Fish Department, local grouse "working groups" and others have been working for several years to protect grouse habitat, and Gov. Dave Freudenthal issued an executive order directing state agencies to maintain and enhance grouse habitat in what is referred to as his "core areas" strategy.

The policy requires that energy developers planning projects in those core areas first demonstrate how grouse populations won't be affected. That's in contrast to the federal Bureau of Land Management's "adaptive management" model of approving activities first, then modifying stipulations after impacts to wildlife species are measured.

The governor's order is important, as studies have shown that oil and gas activity is harmful to sage grouse. It's likely that wind farms would have the same impact.

If the BLM fully adopted the core areas policy in its management of federal lands, its sister agency in the Interior Department would have even more reason to avoid listing the grouse.

Some argue that a listing is warranted by the dramatic decline in grouse numbers outside Wyoming. The federal government estimates as many as 16 million of the birds inhabited the West in the early 1800s, but today the high-end population estimate is 500,000 grouse on about half of its historical range in 11 states.

As long as Wyoming's population of the species continues to hold in the hundreds of thousands, however, Endangered Species Act protection isn't justified.

One potential option for the Fish and Wildlife Service is designating sage grouse as threatened or endangered everywhere but Wyoming, similar to its finding with the Preble's meadow jumping mouse. But it remains to be seen if that state-by-state approach holds up in court.

Another possibility is a deal between Wyoming and the federal government called a "candidate conservation agreement," essentially exempting public lands in the state from endangered species restrictions in exchange for efforts to conserve and improve grouse habitat. Similar agreements could be made by private landowners in the state.

Even without such formal agreements, Wyoming has shown it is serious about protecting its sage grouse. That should be enough to prevent the federal government from swooping in to take control.

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