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Feds show sage grouse plan favoring middle ground on protections

Dec 30, 2013 - By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service favor a middle path among the options they're considering for protecting habitat for the greater sage grouse in Wyoming.

Central Fremont County is one of the prime grouse habitat areas in North America and the subject of considerable focus.

The two agencies on Friday released a draft plan for maintaining and increasing sage grouse habitat on BLM and Forest Service land around Wyoming.

The plan applies to five BLM field offices, two national forests and a national grassland and is among plans being released in the several Western states that are home to sage grouse.

Two alternatives within the draft plan would allow no more than 3 percent of surface disturbance for every square mile of sage grouse habitat. Another option would allow 9 percent. The Forest Service and BLM favor an alternative that would cap disturbance at 5 percent.

Boundaries of the prime habitat zones closely follow those drawn by Wyoming officials under executive orders signed by Gov. Matt Mead and his predecessor, Dave Freudenthal.

"The foundation of where we started with this plan was working closely with the state on the core areas," BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny said Friday.

Wyoming has proportionally more sage grouse habitat than any other state.

The football-sized, ground-dwelling birds also can be found in Montana, Idaho, the Dakotas, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado.

Only about one-tenth of the birds remain compared to the population of 2 million that biologists believe when the Lewis and Clark expedition noted the birds in 1805.

Two environmental groups and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming expressed reservations about the draft plan. WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project in a joint release said the document contains too much permissive language and is too "wishy-washy."

Not only oil and gas development but the wind, mining and ranching industries could face challenges under the potential regulations for their operations under the draft plan, Petroleum Association of Wyoming President Bruce Hinchey said.

The Forest Service and BLM expect to release a final sage grouse habitat plan for Wyoming in late 2014. The plan is intended to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it faces a September 2015 court deadline to decide whether to list sage grouse as threatened or endangered.

Fish and Wildlife announced in 2010 that Endangered Species Act protection was warranted but precluded by higher agency priorities, a determination that failed to hold up to a legal challenge.

The BLM and Forest Service plan to hold public hearings on the sage grouse strategy in Wyoming in February. They will announce the locations and times of those meetings in January, Gorny said.

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