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Groups Petition for More Drilling Restrictions to Protect Sage Grouse

Two conservation groups want the federal government to impose wider restrictions on western oil and natural gas development to protect the greater sage grouse.

Federal rules now prevent producers from drilling within a quarter of a mile from sage grouse breeding grounds. However, Idaho-based North American Grouse Partnership (NAGP) and Washington, DC-based Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) petitioned for a rulemaking to extend the protection radius to two miles. The rulemaking petition was sent to Dirk Kempthorne, secretary of the Department of Interior in late June.

The request would commit the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees public lands in the West, to use the best available information on the impacts of oil and gas development on sage grouse and alter agency management of the bird populations in areas currently being developed or planned for development. The groups propose an "immediate evaluation" of existing protections and management for the bird species, an assessment of risks, and interim protections pending development of a better strategy.

"A pile of current, peer-reviewed science is being ignored, and it's costing us our grouse," said TRCP's Rollin Sparrowe.

Sage grouse populations historically encompassed vast expanses of the Rocky Mountain West. However, several scientific studies have concluded that the species' abundance and distribution have declined precipitously in the past few years.

"Sportsmen have an enormous stake in maintaining productive sage grouse populations, and an overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrates that measures currently employed by the BLM to manage our sage grouse populations during energy development are inadequate," said TRCP Energy Initiative Manager Steve Belinda. The former BLM biologist said, "We are concerned that the rapid pace of public land energy development in important habitats prevents the agency from managing our valuable fish and wildlife resources as required by federal law. The BLM must do more to manage sage grouse in places where the bird is not already lost."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was ordered by the U.S. District Court in Idaho to revisit a 2005 decision that determined the bird was "not warranted" for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (see NGI, Dec. 10, 2007). In its ruling, the court specifically focused on a lack of sufficient information about grouse management efforts by the BLM. A decision by the FWS is expected by December.

"By adopting the proposed recommendations, the BLM can play a unique role in sustaining populations of this iconic upland game bird," said NAGP Executive Director Ralph Rogers. "Half of the remaining sage brush habitat in this country lies on BLM-managed lands. The agency's ability to contribute -- or fail to contribute -- to sage grouse conservation is unprecedented and unparalleled."

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