Idaho deal urges landowners to protect sage grouse
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho and the federal government have signed an agreement that offers incentive and protection for ranchers and landowners who voluntarily take conservation steps to improve the plight of the sage grouse and its declining habitat.
The agreement, hailed by federal wildlife officials as the first of its kind anywhere in the bird’s range, for now targets an isolated population across 640,000 acres in southwest Idaho. But similar pacts are being negotiated elsewhere in Idaho, Wyoming and other western states inhabited by a species being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court imposed deadline to make a listing decision on the bird by Feb. 26.
The accord signed Friday by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the federal service would give landowners who voluntarily adopt habitat restoration measures protection from future land use regulations if the game bird is granted endangered status.
“We’re trying to be proactive and do the right thing for the landscape,” said Cal Groen, Idaho Fish and Game director.
“Private landowners are a key for this effort. We feel this will be good for sage grouse and private landowners.”
Once abundant in the sagebrush steppes stretching from the Dakotas to California, sage grouse populations and habitat suitable for breeding are dwindling from threats posed by oil and gas development, livestock grazing, urban sprawl, invasive species, drought and wildfires.
State and federal researchers differ on exact population numbers but agree the chicken-sized bird now occupies about half its original year-round habitat. In 2005, federal biologists estimated 100,000 to 500,000 greater sage grouse lived across 11 western states.
The FWS has two weeks to meet a deadline imposed by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill as part of a lawsuit filed by conservationists pushing to bolster sage grouse numbers and tougher habitat protections.
Under terms of the voluntary conservation agreement, landowners who agree to plant sagebrush, add wetlands or change grazing patterns to improve breeding ground habitat will be unburdened by tougher land-use rules typically imposed for endangered plants and animals.
For now, the 30-year accord applies solely to landowners in four counties in a region more than 75 miles northwest of Boise. The sage grouse in Adams, Gem, Payette and Washington counties are isolated from other colonies and have been in decline for decades, prompting Idaho to declare the area off-limits to hunting more than 20 years ago and rank it the highest risk for expiration in the state.
“This is proactive species conservation,” Jeff Foss, state supervisor for the FWS, said of the pact. “It’s a good balance for conservation issues on the ground and some assurance for landowners.”
But conservationists said that any voluntary measures taken by the region’s ranchers and farmer will fall short of dealing with the bigger challenges of reversing the species’ decline and reconnecting its fragmented habitat.
Todd Tucci, attorney for Advocates for the West, one of the groups that sued the government in 2005, said the bigger challenge is dealing with sage grouse habitat on public land, where wind energy development, oil and natural gas drilling and cattle grazing pose thornier policy questions. Research shows a quarter of sage grouse habitat is on private land.
“The problem with these agreements is they are seen through a lens of what is the minimum amount that needs to be done to say we’re protecting the species,” said Tucci.