Evoking the interests of the sage grouse, four conservation groups have challenged the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Utah state office over the federal agency’s selection of 57 parcels totaling 83,000 acres for a Feb. 19 oil and gas lease sale. The nonprofit groups allege that 90% of the parcels would hurt wildlife habitat, particularly that of the sage grouse.

BLM is in the process of reviewing the protests and will determine next week if it will drop any of the nominated parcels, according to officials in the Utah office, which last September canceled a November oil/gas lease sale.

“The decision was based on concerns over adequacy of existing environmental compliance in light of availability of new wildlife habitat information,” BLM said in a public notice issued Sept. 28, 2007.

“The BLM in Utah is clearly recognizing the harm that oil and gas drilling can cause to sensitive wildlife like sage grouse and prairie dogs,” said Megan Corrigan, a staff biologist at Center for Native Ecosystems, one of the four groups protesting the upcoming sale. “It is appropriate for the BLM to wait on leasing until they can really look at the impacts to the fragile wildlife and places, which they are in charge of protecting.”

Corrigan said her Denver-based organization’s main concern is impacts on the sage grouse habitat. She reiterated the wildlife protection community’s allegation that oil/gas drilling is having a “severely negative” impact on the sage grouse.

The sage grouse population has been on the decline across the West, and states have tried to search for a way for development to coexist with the bird. Last June Colorado released a draft plan aimed at preserving the sage grouse population. BLM’s office in Montana last July put on hold its plans to offer acreage in part of that state for oil and gas leasing because of sage grouse concerns. And the BLM has undertaken other steps to protect the bird (see Daily GPI, Dec. 6, 2007).

An Idaho district judge ruled last December that federal wildlife regulators needed to consider putting the sage grouse on the endangered species list based on scientific evidence. If ultimately listed as “endangered or threatened,” industry officials and others have said the bird’s status could slow development, impact grazing rules and curb oil and natural gas drilling in parts of the U.S. West.

Corrigan and other members of the protesting groups in Utah argue that the steps BLM has taken to minimize impact on the sage grouse’s habitat have not worked, and they are again pressuring the agency to provide what they consider as more adequate protections.

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