Following news that biologists at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are recommending a “not warranted” for protection listing for the greater sage grouse, it appears that natural gas producers might be able to breathe a little easier about their activities in the West. An alliance group fighting to keep the bird off of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection list labeled the decision — if it becomes final — as “the biggest win the West has seen in decades.”

The dispute centers around the fact that the sage grouse inhabits lands managed by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Rocky Mountain West, lands that are rich in oil and natural gas. In addition to drilling, the lands are also used for grazing, mining and off-road vehicle use. Environmentalists would like to see the bird be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which would end up restricting the bird’s habitat against other uses.

In response to the leaked preliminary decision, first reported in the New York Times, the Partnership for the West grassroots alliance released a statement. “If this ends up being the final decision, it will the biggest win the West has seen in decades in its never-ending-war to control its own destiny vis-à-vis the federal government,” said Jim Sims, executive vice president of the Partnership for the West. “It is a huge win for the sage-grouse, because it means that this bird is not going to have the noose of the Endangered Species Act jerked tight around its neck — a law which over its 30-year history has failed to restore species to health 99 times out of 100.”

The preliminary decision was revealed on the eve of the Western Governors’ Association’s (WGA) executive summit on the Endangered Species Act. The San Diego, CA meeting on Friday and Saturday is focusing on identifying and discussing existing obstacles to species recovery, and deliberating how the Act can better accomplish its ultimate objective: the recovery of endangered species.

Director Steve Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another arm of the Interior Dept., must make the final decision about whether to put the bird on the endangered list by Dec. 29. The preliminary decision comes on the heels of the BLM announcement of a new strategy to protect the sage grouse that centers on protections adapted to conditions in different areas. BLM said its managers at the state and field office levels are currently developing management plans that address the highly variable conditions that exist in sagebrush habitats throughout the West (see Daily GPI, Nov. 24).

“It is a big win for Western Governors and Western stakeholders, who have been working for years in partnership with federal officials, particularly with the BLM, and local stakeholders to improve sage-grouse habitat and strengthen the species,” said Sims. “It is a win for Western landowners, farmers and ranchers who are more than willing to pitch in and help conserve this species on their land, but who rightfully fear standing in front of the loaded and cocked double-barreled shotgun that is the flawed ESA law.

“This decision also is a win of common sense over lawsuit-hungry lawyers,” he said. “Westerners have known for years that the sage-grouse was experiencing population declines. That is precisely why the region’s governors and state and local officials have been working to develop locally-based, on-the-ground conservation efforts. The pseudo-science put forward by activist lawyers in this process was rightfully rejected by the USFWS and its local biologists based right here in the West.”

However, Sims noted that the victory is “tempered by the fact that activist lawyers used this process to force the wasteful spending of tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars at the federal and state levels that could otherwise have been spent helping sage-grouse and preserving their habitat.”

The alliance includes more than 400 companies, associations, coalitions and individuals who collectively employ or represent more than one million of people across America in the following sectors: farm/ranching, coal, timber/wood products, small businesses, utilities, hard rock mining, oil & gas, construction, manufacturing, property rights advocates, education proponents, recreational access advocates, county government advocates, local, state and federal elected officials, grassroots advocates and others.

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