The Department of the Interior on Friday took the middle ground between conservationists and energy industry interests in determining that the greater sage grouse would not be designated as an endangered species — for now.

Secretary Ken Salazar, who hails from a Colorado ranching family, said scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) concluded that the bird, whose domain is in the West, deserved to be included on the endangered species list but that other species faced more imminent threats. The sage grouse instead will be assigned a status known as “warranted but precluded” and placed on a list of “candidate species” for future inclusion on the list. Its status will be reviewed yearly, Salazar said.

“The sage grouse’s decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century,” Salazar said. “This development has provided important benefits, but we must find commonsense ways of protecting, restoring and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species’ survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources.”

State resource agencies are to be instructed to take “stronger steps” to preserve the sagebrush habitat in “priority habitat” where the sage grouse lives, Salazar said.

Federal wildlife and lands agencies would oversee the state’s efforts. In an instruction memorandum (IM) issued Friday by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency laid out Gunnison and greater sage grouse management considerations for energy development. The IM took immediate affect.

BLM Director Bob Abbey, whose agency manages more greater sage grouse habitat than any other government agency, said that the BLM guidance would expand the use of new science and mapping technologies to improve land-use planning and develop additional measures to conserve sage grouse habitat while ensuring that energy production, recreational access and other uses of federal lands continue as appropriate. The BLM guidance also addresses a related species, the Gunnison sage grouse, which has a more limited range, and which is in the process of being evaluated by the FWS to determine whether it also warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“Managing for sensitive and candidate species is nothing new to the BLM,” said Abbey. “Using sound science and effective on-the-ground coordination with our many partners, we will build on current accomplishments in managing for sustainable sage-grouse populations on our National System of Public Lands.”

Actions available to state resource agencies to protect the sage grouse populations for oil, gas and geothermal projects are:

Oil shale, wind and solar development, and transmission projects, as well as RMP revisions, also would adhere to new BLM instructions.

“There is much we can accomplish for sage grouse working with private landowners who care about the future of this iconic western species,” said Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland. “Voluntary conservation efforts on private lands, when combined with successful state and federal strategies, hold the key to the long-term survival of the greater sage grouse.”

The ruling reversed a 2005 determination by the Bush administration, which had been overturned by an Idaho judge in 2007 (see NGI, Dec. 10, 2007; Feb. 27, 2006).

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who has pushed for increased protections for the sage grouse while promoting more energy development, said he was “unsurprised” by Interior’s decision. Freudenthal said sage grouse populations appear to be stabilizing, but he accepted the FWS ruling.

“Naturally, I would have preferred a ‘not-warranted’ finding,” said the Democratic governor. “I am encouraged by the fact that the Department of the Interior is willing to work with us so that part of the burden of maintaining the species is borne on federal land and does not simply burden private and state land.”

Wyoming will continue to work to safeguard habitat for the sage grouse through Wyoming’s core areas initiative, he said.

“Over the course of the next year, we will keep working with the core area policy to make sure that we clearly demonstrate that our sage grouse are secure, but also to ensure that the policy works for the state,” Freudenthal said.

“People still need to go to work — and work in Wyoming means working on the land in the oil patch, in the mine and on the ranch, sometimes right next to or within core areas. In this regard, I look forward to robust investments by our federal partners to facilitate sage grouse preservation in Wyoming, particularly to help private landowners,” said Freudenthal.

Joe Kiesecker, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy, said the Interior’s decision won’t give the sage grouse the same protections as an endangered species, but it would encourage land managers to weigh the potential impacts before development occurs. Mark Salvo, who directs WildEarth Guardians, noted that more than half of the existing sage grouse habitat is on public lands.

Interior’s ruling “is an acknowledgment that sage grouse are in trouble,” Salvo said. “It serves notice that we need to do better to manage this habitat. I don’t think it’s a win or a loss for anybody.”

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