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Gov. Gary Herbert's public lands director says Utah should come up with its own scientific studies on sage grouse habitat that could be used to "refute" federal wildlife agencies should they seek to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act.
Kathleen Clarke, the governor's public lands policy coordinator, told a legislative committee Wednesday that science can be "slippery," and she cast doubt on the studies that have been conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.
"I think we should try to come up with some science that is honest and true and refutes it," she said. "The fact is that I have seen in Washington that science there is kind of like the Bible. You can prove whatever you want to prove with it, just go to the right verse, and I believe that Fish and Wildlife sometimes are captured in that."
Clarke, who was the director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management during the George W. Bush administration, said that Utah should spend some money on its own studies of the sage grouse, which would help arm the state to go to court and fight a decision by the federal government to protect the bird.
The Greater Sage Grouse is a rotund bird that lives in the sagebrush covered plains in Utah and several other states, but its numbers have been falling in recent years, due to a fragmenting of its habitat by energy development, ranching and competing land uses.
Nationally, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the population has fallen by 30 percent since the 1980s. In Utah, the Division of Wildlife Resources' estimates a 1 percent to 2 percent decline per year since the '80s. There are about 22,000 birds in the state.
The federal courts have directed the Fish and Wildlife Service to make a determination on whether to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act by 2015.
Herbert has created a working group to hash out issues related to sage grouse preservation to stave off the designation, which could hinder energy development and other land uses in the state.
Clarke said the working group hopes to make recommendations to Herbert by early July in anticipation of an executive order, directing agencies how to best protect the sage grouse at the state level.
Jim Catlin, executive director of the Wild Utah Project, which has been involved in the working group, said there are reliable, peer-reviewed reports that go back decades looking at the sage grouse
"They've really assembled the best science out there for this," Catlin said. "I think what Kathleen wants to do is develop some counter-science, but the question will be: Which is the best information we have? And I would argue that really we have difficulty finding serious fault with the science that has been put together by wildlife biologists across North America and state fish and game agencies across the West."
Catlin said there is a risk in Utah basing its conservation plans on something other than the best science available. It might actually undermine the recommendations and make an endangered species listing more likely.
And Catlin said, it would take about five years to adequately monitor the sage grouse breeding patterns and populations far longer than the time frame for the Fish and Wildlife Service to make a determination on the bird.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, suggested that, if the federal government classifies the bird as endangered, it should have to pay Utah for revenues lost due to land restrictions.
"If you want to protect the birds, federal government, if this is a policy decision for the people of this country, then you're going to have to pay for it," he said. "We'll set aside this land but, you're going to have to pay 'X' dollars a year to set aside this land as singles bars for this sage grouse for them to come in and do their thing."