This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A private contractor hired to help Utah keep greater sage grouse off the endangered species list had a lot to say about how the state will save the iconic bird, but much less about his own efforts.
About one-fourth of the way through a one-year, $2 million contract, consultant Ryan Benson assured members of the state's Natural Resources interim committee, "We have made treatment progress."
Benson did not say how he is spending the generous special appropriation lawmakers set aside in March.
And members of the committee didn't press him Wednesday.
Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis called Benson's written submission "an embarrassment."
But Dabakis, who has been deeply skeptical of the money spent on the effort, also remained silent during the contractor's presentation.
"They have been so elusive and so unwilling to provide documentation and what they did provide was so flimsy, I thought it would be a waste of the committee's time," Dabakis said later. "Their response would just be more PR and spin."
The Utah Department of Natural Resources hired Benson, an anti-predator activist affiliated with Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, earlier this year to lobby members of Congress, engage with the public and craft legal strategies to get Congress to delay a sage grouse listing decision.
In recent years, the state has given Benson's group, Big Game Forever, $800,000 to lobby Congress to delist gray wolves, but auditors were never able to determine how that money was actually spent.
Two weeks ago, state officials transferred management of the sage grouse contract from DNR to the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, which is in the governor's office. So Benson now will answer to public lands coordinator Kathleen Clarke.
"We recognize there is a need for transparency. We have moved oversight more directly under our office," said Marty Carpenter, spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing sage grouse, a ground-nesting bird native to 11 Western states, as a threatened species and has a court-imposed deadline of September 2015 to decide.
An endangered listing would shut down energy development in Utah, DNR director Mike Styler told the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.
"We are sure whether sage grouse is listed or not listed, someone is going to sue, so we are accumulating a body of evidence that shows we are doing all we can and having great success conserving sage grouse," Styler said.
Benson did not respond to an e-mail request for comment. His 11-page progress report, required quarterly under his DNR contract, gives a detailed history of the sage grouse issue and of Utah's conservation efforts. It also gives vague descriptions of meetings with politicians and policy makers and of a "legal, scientific and factual analysis" geared toward proving Utah's ability to manage sage grouse.
Benson's remarks to the committee were limited to what state officials have been hearing for months: The state is doing a laudable job conserving sage grouse habitat.
Utah has spent $110 million restoring 1.1 million acres of habitat and data show the investment is paying off, Benson claimed. As an example, he pointed to a tripling of the bird's numbers on Parker Mountain, a block of school land in Wayne County.
But some conservationists contend Benson could be overstating Utah's success. What matters most is not overall bird numbers, but the average number of males per lek, according to Allison Jones, executive director of Utah Wild Project. Leks are sage grouse mating areas where the birds perform their signature dance.
"You take data points over time and see the curve going back to the 1950s going up and down every 10 years," Jones said. "The highs get a little lower and cutting across is the regression line. That line is still down."