Grouse habitat
Plan sacrifices birds in Uinta Basin
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sometimes you can have your sage grouse and development, too. And sometimes you can't.

Utah wildlife officials are trying to come up with a plan that will save the threatened species in its Utah habitat. Or, more accurately, they want to save the grouse in sufficient numbers that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won't designate them an endangered species. If that were to happen, the state would lose control of managing the birds, and more stringent restrictions on energy development would be imposed by the federal government.

So coming up with a workable plan is in the interest of both the sage grouse and energy developers. We're under no illusion that Gov. Gary Herbert has much love for the birds. That's evident from the fact the sage grouse in energy-rich Uinta Basin are mostly sacrificed under the draft plan Herbert is trying to sell to counties.

And the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration is complaining about a 5 percent "disturbance restriction" within the 600,000 acres of SITLA lands where the birds now live.

But the state is rightly working the numbers: putting its focus on habitats where most of the birds live and where energy development is not likely to become rampant, as it is in Uinta Basin. That's the practical approach, and the feds should recognize that it is probably the best the state can do.

Just 63 percent of existing sage grouse habitat around the state would be protected under the state's plan, which must gain federal approval. The Fish and Wildlife Service will consider not only the 12 management zones where the birds are still flourishing but the areas like Uinta Basin where their habitat has been ruined by gas and oil drilling.

The disappearing sage grouse has declined, according to Utah statistics, 1 to 2 percent a year since the 1970s. The governor's plan would mean another probable drop in bird numbers of 5 percent.

Scientists say that human encroachment into sage grouse habitat across 11 states has decimated the grouse population by half since Europeans arrived in North America. About 30 percent of the remaining birds have disappeared just since the '80s.

The grouse are fighting for their very survival. And they, like other threatened animal species, deserve protection, because their extinction would be a failure of humans to protect the ecosystems that keep all life viable.

There are greater reasons to save the sage grouse than to fend off intervention by the federal government. But if fear of the feds is what it takes, then so be it.