To protect the declining sage grouse population and avoid its listing as a protected species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), Wyoming has to reduce the effects of energy development and impose tighter restrictions on residential development, a state panel has recommended.

Wyoming's Sage Grouse Implementation Team, which was charged with determining how state development may coexist with the sage grouse, last week submitted about 30 recommendations to Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

Some research has concluded that the grouse population in Wyoming's Powder River Basin dropped by 86% from 2000 to 2005 in areas where there was coalbed methane (CBM) activity (see NGI, Sept. 3). Grouse habitat in areas without CBM activity fell about 35% over the same period. The Bureau of Land Management office in Wyoming already has imposed seasonal restrictions on energy development in northeastern Wyoming to protect the birds.

The panel, which included members of the energy industry, state regulators, academics and environmental groups, recommended that Wyoming "reduce the footprint of energy development" through incentives that include tax exemptions and streamlined permitting.

More surveying and mapping also was recommended to determine exactly where grouse habitat is located in the state. Without mapping where the birds are, it would be impossible to adequately plan for ways to protect their habitat, said the panel.

"Once we identify these core areas, that's going to narrow our entire focus," said team member John Emmerich, deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Few places in Wyoming exist where there was sagebrush and no sage grouse, he added.

If the governor pursues the recommendations, the panel suggested that the state ask for assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The state also was urged to pursue federal "candidate conservation agreements" that would allow Wyoming to continue agriculture activity and energy development even if the grouse eventually was listed as protected under the ESA.

"By displaying this level of self discipline Wyoming can best demonstrate its determination to avoid a need to list this iconic species," the panel stated in a letter to Freudenthal.

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