Sage grouse plan protects bulk of Utah habitat, but is it enough?

Wildlife • State trying to prevent endangered species listing that could hinder development.
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Utah officials including Gov. Gary Herbert are mulling a draft plan to save sage grouse and keep them off the endangered species list.

A working group appointed by the governor spent the past several months developing draft recommendations that would protect 12 populations of the declining bird around the state, largely through a four-mile buffer or "avoidance zone" around breeding grounds and a limit of 5 percent surface-disturbing activities per 640-acre section. Now the administration is shopping it around to counties for comment and deciding whether to adopt or alter it.

Is it enough to thwart a threatened federal intervention that could shut down new mineral extraction and other developments on public lands? The reviews are mixed, but many observers consider the working group's suggestions an important start.

"The state is willing to invest in 70 to 90 percent of their sage grouse and have pretty meaningful restrictions," said Joan Degiorgio, northern Rockies regional director for The Nature Conservancy and the conservation community's representative on the panel. "That's pretty good, and it's a lot more than we're doing now."

Degiorgio, though, shares others' disappointment that the group largely wrote off the Uinta Basin's remaining birds in the face of intense energy development. It was a trade-off that industry and local and state officials extracted for preserving other parts of Utah where birds have a firmer footing.

The Wild Utah Project analyzed the map of 9.1 million acres — roughly 17 percent of the state — that the team recommended for 12 management zones and found it protected just 63 percent of existing grouse habitat. Those areas hold the healthiest populations, though, and therefore encompass the vast majority of birds. Team members said it made sense to focus the effort on where it can do the most good.

"They are definitely leaving out a big chunk," Degiorgio said, "but they're looking at the numbers."

The surface-disturbance restrictions would apply only to new development.

"I think it's too little [protection]," Wild Utah Project Executive Director Jim Catlin said, "especially because it doesn't include anything in the Uinta Basin. There are important areas of the Book Cliffs that should be protected."

Protecting the remote Book Cliffs of southern Uinta County would put grouse conservation on a collision course with oil and gas and potential tar sands and oil shale mining — something development interests wouldn't concede during the working group's meetings.

"We looked at it as a tradeĀ­-off, frankly," Utah SITLA (School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration) Director Kevin Carter said. "It was a balance between trying to save every bird versus trying to save enough birds to maintain a healthy population and still allow energy development in an area that's been recognized as an energy development zone."

Trust lands, which the state develops to help fund schools, make up 600,000 of the total acres in the proposed management zones where a 5 percent disturbance restriction would apply. Carter said that's too much, and he has asked the governor to shrink some of the zones.

But SITLA agreed to restrictions on about 100,000 acres around south-central Utah's Parker Mountain, where the birds are 4,000 strong on lands that the state otherwise could sell for residential development in the future. That was the trade-off for allowing more energy development on SITLA lands in the Uinta Basin and Book Cliffs, Carter said.

Uinta County Commissioner Mike McKee, another working group member, pointed out that his county's Diamond Mountain grouse population is protected by the plan.

As for the rest of the basin, where oil and gas rigs already have fragmented bird habitat: "If we give those birds an immense amount of funds it's not even assured that they will survive," McKee said. "We get the best bang for the buck in being able to take the funds that are available and enhance the areas where we really have an opportunity to give the birds lift."

Scientists believe human alteration of the sagebrush plains across 11 states has eliminated about half of the sage grouse population since Europeans arrived in North America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the birds have declined by 30 percent — probably to fewer than a half million — just since the 1980s.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said the state's sage grouse population — estimated at 22,000 this year — has declined by at least 1 percent a year since worse losses leveled off in the 1970s.

Bob Budd, a Wyoming rancher who led that state's sage grouse planning efforts, helped Utah's group formulate its draft. He said he believes Utah has the makings of a plan that will save birds and satisfy the Fish and Wildlife Service, just as his state's plan did.

If it doesn't? "You'd just be in absolute gridlock," he said, with economic development shutting down. That's why the state is eager to create a meaningful plan.

"If the Service lists the species," he said, "there are states — Utah among them — that suddenly don't have any control."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is waiting on the governor's final draft before saying whether it can endorse it as a good alternative to listing the bird for federal protection. Larry Crist, the agency's director for Utah, said he would need more information about habitat losses from previous developments, and how another 5 percent loss would compound the birds' troubles.

"We would want to understand what the existing development is and how it affects the overall cap," he said.

He added, though, that "they did a pretty good job designating the [conservation] areas."

The state is under some pressure to adopt a plan soon, before federal land managers update their plans with more stringent restrictions of their own.

bloomis@sltrib.comTwitter: @brandonloomis —