Utah to craft sage grouse protection plan

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah officials have been scrambling to craft a sage grouse-protection plan to possibly replace new federal guidelines they fear will harm the state’s mining industry and hinder oil, gas and wind energy development.Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration will form a committee to come up with the plan within the next three months, Utah Department of Natural Resources director Mike Styler told a gathering of industry and conservation interests on Thursday.Utah officials are following the lead of Wyoming, which imposed restrictions on development in designated core areas of sage grouse habitat. Because Wyoming crafted a plan that federal biologists like, the state can opt out of most federal rules until a potential 2015 endangered species listing.Utah’s effort will start with a recommendation from state biologists to prohibit surface disturbance by mining and other industries within a mile of sage grouse breeding areas, the Salt Lake Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/yin0sd ).The goal is to prevent an endangered species for the chicken-sized birds, which are known for their elaborate mating rituals. Such a listing could severely impede mining and industrial development in the West.Sage grouse have been disappearing with the encroachment of human development on their sagebrush habitat. Their numbers are down some 90 percent across the West over the past century.But the birds have been in a sort of regulatory limbo. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in 2010 they deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act but that other species were higher priorities for protection as threatened or endangered.In September, a judge approved a court settlement that set a 2015 deadline for the federal agency to decide the birds’ status under the Endangered Species Act. The legal settlement started a clock ticking to protect sage grouse habitat and avert a listing.In the meantime, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has issued temporary guidelines that propose a three-mile buffer around the sage grouse breeding areas, known as leks. Utah has 311 leks that have been in use at least once in the past 10 years. Historically, there were 442 known sage grouse leks in the state.One potential way around the guidelines is creating a state plan that both Fish and Wildlife and the BLM agree will help prevent a decline of the species.

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