Utah's new greater sage grouse conservation plan aims to protect and expand the bird's sagebrush habitat, but it places only voluntary prescriptions on private land and allows development to erase grouse turf as long as habitat is restored elsewhere.
Conservationists were quick to point out what they see as weaknesses in the plan that was crafted to prevent the ground-nesting bird's listing as a federally protected species.
"We are very committed to helping the sage grouse in Utah thrive. The folks in rural Utah consider the land, both private and federal, their backyard and they take good care of it and they want those wildlife critters to stick around," said Kathleen Clarke, Gov. Gary Herbert's top public lands adviser.
Herbert on Wednesday released the plan, which designates 11 sage grouse conservation areas that cover about 7.5 million acres. The state envisions a "mitigation bank" that lets industry purchase the privilege to "disturb" habitat, including leks, by reclaiming four times more habitat for the birds elsewhere.
"It tries to avoid disturbance. If you have to move in with an oil well or with a recreational opportunity, we hope to compensate that loss [of habitat] with a 4-to-1 ratio, which is a gain," said John Harja, Clarke's predecessor who now advises the state Department of Agriculture.
But conservationists noted the mitigation provisions lack any requirement that birds actually occupy the reclaimed habitat. And the management areas exclude lots of occupied habitat, particularly in the Uinta Basin, where an oil-and-gas drilling boom is underway, noted The Nature Conservancy's Joan Degiorgio.
"We wouldn't expect all that area to be included. It doesn't have the population density. But given this is a species on the verge of listing, these populations deserve some protection," said Degiorgio, who served on the planning team. "We appreciate the state's effort to establish these management areas. It does capture 90 percent of the species [in Utah]. We don't want to pan the whole thing."
The state submitted the plan several weeks ago to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is reviewing it, according to federal officials, who declined further comment until they release a formal response in the coming weeks.
However, a December 2012 memo from the agency indicates concerns that the plan should have larger buffer zones around leks sensitive patches of ground where grouse stage their mating ritual and stronger "triggers" that would curtail development if certain thresholds are breached.
"Continued losses may not be reversible at the level of disturbance" tolerated in the state plan, the memo states.
But Utah officials said the plan is intended to be flexible and promote cooperation. "We can overcome the Service's concerns about lack of regulatory control," Clarke said.
Fish and Wildlife expects to consider Utah's and other Western states' conservation plans while weighing whether to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected by the end of 2015. Many fear a listing would trigger widespread restrictions on oil and gas drilling, mining, road building, grazing, recreation and other activities that "fragment" or degrade habitat in the West's sagebrush steppes.
About half the land within the state's management areas is administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which intends to incorporate the state plan among the alternatives in a statewide environmental analysis it is conducting. The BLM is exploring how to amend 13 land-use plans and six national forest plans to address sage grouse conservation.
"We have partnered with the state in the past to implement sage grouse habitat conservation measures like pinyon-juniper removal and seeding projects, and look forward to continuing to work closely on conservation and management of sage-grouse habitat," BLM's Utah Director Juan Palma said.
The Utah plan would allow industry to disturb up to 5 percent of the federal and state-owned habitat within in any one sage grouse management area.
"We don't see that 5 percent as a hard figure," Harja said. "If a big fire rolls through those areas we might have to ask for more restrictions until that fire [area] can be reclaimed."
Conservationists hoped the plan would provide much stronger protections for leks. It is all but impossible to get displaced birds to establish new leks and females usually nest near the ones they use, according Allison Jones, a conservation biologist with Wild Utah Project.
A successful conservation plan should safeguard existing leks and impose a buffer of at least one mile, and preferably three miles, said Jones, who participated in the planning process but is not sure her organization's comments carried much sway.
She said each draft has gotten successively weaker over several iterations.
"The state is willing to gamble that political pressure will force the [Fish and Wildlife] Service to sign off on a less-than-adequate plan," Jones said. "Will this keep sage grouse off the endangered species list? I don't think so."
The governor, however, lauded the plan as a "win-win for everyone."
"Many diverse interests have come together to address the challenges sage grouse face in Utah," Herbert said in a press statement. "The direction the plan provides will maintain or increase the number of sage grouse in Utah while allowing economic development to continue."
Sage grouse map
To view an interactive map of the 11 sage grouse management zones, go online to bit.ly/17XQKAr.