No protection for bird

Panel concludes sage grouse outlook less than dire

The greater sage grouse has a low risk of becoming extinct, and it does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to an advisory board of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists.

Fish and Wildlife Director Steve Williamson announced the board's recommendation during a teleconference Friday afternoon. Williamson has until Dec. 29 to make a decision based on the recommendation.

But in three years as director, Williamson has yet to make a decision contrary to an advisory board's recommendation. That means the greater sage grouse will probably not be listed as a threatened or endangered species.

"It's not likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The act requires a high risk of extinction," Williamson said.

The biologists considered "the foreseeable future" to be the next 40 to 100 years, said Ralph Morgenweck, Fish and Wildlife Service regional director of the mountain-prairie region, which includes Colorado.

If the greater sage grouse were listed as a threatened or endangered species, the FWS would take over management of the bird and institute a range of regulations to protect it. Organizations such as the Partnership for the West, of which Moffat County is a member, insist the regulations would be detrimental to agriculture and the oil and gas industry.

The Moffat County Commissioners have lobbied against endangered species protection for the greater sage grouse, arguing the bird could be better protected through local efforts.

Moffat County Natural Resources Director Jeff Comstock said the FWS made a wise decision.

"The local people that will be affected the most will manage the bird," Comstock said. "Local communities can manage their resources better than any agency in Washington, D.C."

Moffat County's sage grouse conservation practices won't be affected by the FWS's decision.

"The sage grouse is part of the diversity of natural resource issues that are important to us," Comstock said.

The county will continue to include language that protects greater sage grouse and its habitat in the oil and gas leases it negotiates, Comstock said.

Moreover, the Moffat County sage grouse management plan should go into effect before the end of the year. The sage grouse working group has been developing the plan for the past eight years, and it is expected to be released any day.

Most of Moffat County is prime greater sage grouse habitat. The county provides some of the last remaining greater sage grouse habitat in Colorado.

Greater sage grouse depend heavily on sagebrush for breeding and nesting habitat.

Biologists participating in the species review determined 100 million to 150 million acres of sagebrush exists in the United States. The biologists estimated that is roughly half the amount Lewis and Clark would have discovered while exploring the West.

Environmentalists had anticipated the FWS's announcement would not support a listing of the greater sage grouse. Some hoped the 11 states that contain sage grouse habitat would take the lead on sage grouse conservation.

"We would be happy to see the states step up to the plate and protect the sage grouse," said Erin Robertson, staff biologist for Center for Native Ecosystems, a Denver-based wildlife conservation group. "But they haven't yet, and the health of the sagebrush ecosystem continues to decline while the states do little more than talk."

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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