Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Friday announced an agreed upon effort to develop and implement a land conservation strategy aimed at protecting the sage grouse and future opportunities for a robust economy throughout the West.

Mead and Salazar held a press conference following talks in Cheyenne, WY, that included representatives from 11 western states. The state and federal officials reportedly discussed current strategies, challenges and areas of collaboration among local, state and federal government in addressing the needs of the sage grouse species to avoid having to place it under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The focus is to avoid having the sage grouse eventually placed on the federal endangered list in 2015 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) because of the possible adverse economic consequences for some states. Mead estimates that such a designation would impact 80% of Wyoming’s lands with severe economic repercussions.

“The proactive approach that Wyoming has taken has allowed for a balance between development and the sage grouse,” said Mead.

The day before the meeting, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Salazar’s Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service (USFWS) announced the initial steps in what will be a formal planning process to evaluate greater sage grouse conservation measures in land-use plans in the 11 western states. The two agencies opened a 60-day comment period on issues that eventually should be addressed in federal environmental impact statements (EIS).

Earlier this year Mead was sent a letter of commendation by the USFWS for his state’s efforts to conserve sage grouse throughout the state under a protection plan he ordered (see NGI, July 4). Subsequently, Mead led discussions of the sage grouse management issues with the other governors, offering them Wyoming’s support, at meetings of the Western Governors’ Association (WGA).

“I believe this is a way to show the federal government how states can lead when it comes to species management, and do so in a very responsive and proactive way,” said Mead at the WGA summer meetings in Coeur d’Alene, ID.

In June Mead signed an updated version of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Core Area Protection Executive Order. He characterized the order as providing more flexibility for management of the area, adding language requiring continual reevaluation of the science and data for sage grouse management.

Salazar lauded what Wyoming was doing and said the efforts with other states could be used as a model for developing voluntary group efforts by the states rather than relying on federal mandates. Friday’s meetings were an effort to develop more sharing of ideas and efforts among the western states.

Salazar said unless the states and federal government address the sage grouse issue, the ways of life of ranchers and hunters will be adversely affected. “It is important that we be proactive to address this challenge before it becomes an issue that dramatically impacts the West adversely. It is important that we continue to have development and job creation in oil and gas, renewable energy and recreation.”

USFWS has determined that listing the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act was warranted, but it was unable to do so because there were higher-priority species in need of the federal government’s resources.

In a Thursday announcement by BLM and USFWS, the U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said his agency is “committed to conserving the habitat of the greater sage grouse to prevent the species from being listed as endangered.”

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