The greater sage grouse and sagebrush ecosystems across 11 western states are to receive "unprecedented support" under a joint agreement unveiled last week by the departments of Interior and Agriculture.

The federal agencies would coordinate protections for the sage grouse, which in recent years has lost 44% of its habitat because of urban development, agriculture, generation and transmission, and energy extraction, among other things.

"The human footprint across the area where greater sage grouse live is large and becoming larger as the country strives for energy independence, agriculture, development and other often competing uses," the agencies said.

The agreement ensures "beneficial and consistent actions to conserve grouse habitat and provides a collaborative framework for states and private landowners," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service and Agriculture's National Resources Conservation Service would use their authority under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to provide participating landowners with "reasonable assurances" that their activities would be consistent with the Act should the sage grouse later be listed as a threatened or endangered species.

In March the Interior Department determined that the greater sage grouse would not be designated as an endangered species (see NGI, March 8). Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at the time that the bird deserved to be included on the ESA but said other species faced more imminent threats. Instead the sage grouse was assigned a status as "warranted but precluded" and placed on a list of "candidate species" for future inclusion on the ESA. The status is to be reviewed annually.

Historically the greater sage grouse inhabited "millions of acres in the West, and if we are going to conserve the species we must work across political and administrative boundaries at a landscape scale to protect and restore its sagebrush habitat," said Salazar. "This agreement gives us a framework to prevent further habitat fragmentation and undertake other conservation efforts in partnership with states, tribes, private landowners and other stakeholders."

The Agriculture Department in March launched an initiative to protect grouse population and habitat using two conservation programs: Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program. Using the programs, the department plans to provide up to $16 million this fiscal year to provide financial assistance for energy producers to reduce threats to the birds such as disease and invasive species, and to improve grouse habitat. Producers may request financial assistance through April 23 to participate in the first round of rankings for this initiative.

More information is at www.nrcs.usda.gov and www.fws.gov.

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