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There used to be millions of greater sage grouse, chicken-like birds that roamed the American West. But environmentalist say that by 2010 there were only about 400,000 of them, and now their numbers have declined to about 150,000.
That doesn’t make the sage grouse a candidate for endangered status, however, and the Obama administration says it wants to keep it that way. So on May 28 the Interior Department described an option that would help conserve the birds’ habitat, including a limit on drilling for oil and gas that might prevent such a designation.
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The target areas include parts of 11 Western states and cover 165 million acres, or about the area of Texas. Of these areas, 64 percent are owned by the federal government, but that hasn’t eased the concerns of industries including energy, ranching and mining, which are prominent in several of the targeted states.
The state with the largest targeted land tract is Wyoming, and that’s where Interior Secretary Sally Jewell went on May 28 to announce the initiative and her intent to work closely with environmental groups to keep the sage grouse from a change in their status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Several environmental groups expressed some limited support of the Interior Department’s plan, and in their comments omitted any reference to whether the sage grouse should be designated endangered. One is Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president and CEO of the Defenders of Wildlife.
“This planning process definitely has the potential of finally conserving a quintessential American species and landscape, but half-measures won’t cut it,” Rappaport Clark said. “The future of sage grouse … is at stake.”
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If implemented, the program would limit energy development in some areas of the birds’ habitat, in some cases setting up buffer zones to gird areas where the males gather during breeding season each spring and perform their mating rituals, a favorite draw for bird watchers.
Speaking in Cheyenne, Wyoming’s capital, Jewell said the restriction would affect only about 10 percent of land with significant proven oil and gas reserves. “The vast majority of the conventional and renewable energy resources that exist in these landscapes that we have in the plans will be available to develop,” she said.
Interior plans to announce its decision on the sage grouse’s status in October – no coincidence, because in December, Congress passed a spending bill that included a ban on the agency from issuing any endangered species listings in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. That’s the same day a court set the deadline for the agency to decide whether to change the bird’s endangered status.
How Interior intends to thread this needle isn’t yet known.
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Western Energy Alliance, which represents energy companies in the region, backs Congress’ approach. Kathleen Sgamma, the group’s vice president of government and public affairs, said the industry supports conservation of the sage grouse, but bristles at remote orders from Washington.
“Western Energy Alliance will protest all land use plan amendments that fail to conform with state plans, and will continue to support actions by Congress to delay these land use plans and a final listing decision,” Sgamma said in a statement.
By Andy Tully Of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com