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Hoping to head off federal intervention he sees as potentially "devastating," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday ordered state agencies to make protecting sage grouse a priority when making decisions on issues from development to firefighting.
"We care about the greater sage grouse. We care about its habitat and we want to make sure its habitat and sage grouse are preserved and protected and can continue to flourish as part of our overall flora and fauna of Utah," Hebert said at a press conference.
The executive order he signed Tuesday puts an "exclamation point" on that concern, Herbert added.
It's a statement Herbert and Utah officials hope gets through to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it faces a September decision on whether to list greater sage grouse for protections under the Endangered Species Act.
"The concern we have here in Utah that in doing so [a federal listing], it will have a significantly devastating impact on our economy," Herbert said. He cited restrictions on farmers, ranchers, natural resource extraction and energy development if the birds make the list.
Eleven western states are home to greater sage grouse and only 4 percent of the population is found in Utah. But that population is getting a lot of attention.
Utah lawmakers hope to divert another $2 million to convince Congress to delay a listing decision for 10 years. The appropriation, proposed by Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, would add a second year to an effort aimed at buying time to demonstrate state grouse conservation plans like Utah's can work.
"We are up on numbers. We are above our target goal," Van Tassell. R-Vernal, told an appropriations subcommittee Tuesday. Utah is among seven Western states each contributing $1 million to $2 million to build political support for a listing delay.
Van Tassell also asked for $1 million to preserve sage grouse habitat. He envisioned spending it on fire protection on private ranch lands and removing pinyon-juniper stands, which are believed to encroach onto sagebrush.
However, conservationists contend grazing and oil and gas development play a bigger role in the loss and decline of grouse habitat.
The governor's executive order is not much different than what the state has been doing to protect and encourage sage grouse populations since the Utah Conservation Plan for Greater Sage Grouse was implemented.
"The first year we have seen some remarkable trends with a up to 40 percent increase in sage grouse," Herbert said. "That gives us encouragement although it might be more robust than it will be [over time]."
The order directs Utah agencies to minimize the impact of activities on sage grouse, consult with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources on decisions that could affect sage grouse habitat, incorporate directives from the conservation plan into state operations and report on Utah efforts.
"We are not imposing the kind of constraint on private property that the feds will apply to federal lands," said Kathleen Clarke, director of Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office.
Clarke said funding for sage grouse habitat improvements through the Watershed Initiative will be a priority and firefighting plans will take the birds and their range into account.
"Sage grouse will be a priority right below human life and property during fire management," she said.
Alan Matheson, the governor's senior environmental advisor, said federal officials have reviewed the plan.
"The feedback has been incredibly positive. They really hadn't recognized the level of detail," Matheson said. "We have gone into each of the sage grouse management areas and identified major threats geographically and created plans and actions to address issues."
Critics have questioned whether Utah is requiring sufficient protections on private land and from industry.
The Conservation in the West Poll released Tuesday as part of the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project showed 69 percent of voters in six western states supported a balanced sage grouse plan from the Bureau of Land Management.
In Utah, 67 percent supported such a plan, described as keeping habitat open to recreation but putting limits on energy development, livestock grazing and off‐road vehicle use in certain areas.
Tribune reporter Brian Maffly contributed to this story.