Idaho and Utah Announce Conservation Measures to Forestall ESA Protections for Sage-Grouse
While the federal debate over Sage-Grouse protections has stalled since the passage of the FY15 appropriations bill—which as we discussed in Sage-Grouse Rider Frustrates Conservation Efforts included a rider effectively prohibiting the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) from issuing new rules concerning the birds—the discussion continues at the state level. In particular, Idaho and Utah recently announced new conservation measures in an attempt to demonstrate that the Greater Sage-Grouse can adequately be protected without federal safeguards pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Mining, oil, and gas interests favored the appropriations rider because it prevents FWS from listing the Greater Sage-Grouse under ESA, a designation that would challenge industry development in Idaho, Utah, and nine other western states where the bird is indigenous. In the absence of ESA listing, the Greater Sage-Grouse will be subject to federal protections only through the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which is still in the process of revising approximately 100 land-use plans that span millions of acres of the bird’s habitat.
On February 11, 2015, the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) announced a plan to protect 700,000 acres of state endowment lands to “further demonstrate Idaho’s commitment to conserving sage-grouse to prevent a listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act.” The new measures would complement Idaho’s existing 2012 plan, which already covers millions of acres of Sage-Grouse habitat. While IDL’s proposal would impose certain lease stipulations—including a half-mile buffer around the bird’s breeding areas, noise limits on drilling, and the adoption of best management practices—it would largely protect industry interests by allowing for mining, oil and gas development, and wind farm operation. IDL is currently reviewing public comments on the plan. The state’s Land Board and Oil & Gas Conservation Commission will vote on the proposal on May 19, 2015 and May 21, 2015, respectively.
Like Idaho, Utah is ramping up conservation efforts to stave off ESA listing of the Greater Sage-Grouse which, according to Governor Gary Herbert, would “have a significantly devastating impact” on the state’s economy, particularly on farmers, ranchers, and the energy industry. On February 10, 2015, Herbert signed an Executive Order directing state agencies to coordinate implementation of the Utah Sage Grouse Conservation Plan of 2013, which mandates maintaining a minimum average population of the bird on monitored breeding grounds and protecting 10,000 acres of its habitat through incentive-based programs. The Executive Order in in particular also directs the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to coordinate with the Division of Wildlife Resources on all regulatory actions proposed within so-called Sage-Grouse Management Areas; these areas provide habitat and breeding ground for 94% of the state’s Sage-Grouse population.
It is not yet clear if these efforts will produce the desired effect and persuade FWS to forgo listing the Greater Sage-Grouse under ESA. Due to a settlement agreement with environmental groups, the agency has until September 2015 to make that decision.
 See Jodi Peterson, New state and fed efforts to protect sage grouse, Mar. 6, 2015, available athttps://www.hcn.org/articles/states-struggle-to-keep-sage-grouse-off-the-endangered-list.
 IDL, Idaho Department of Lands outlines plan to protect sage grouse habitat, Feb. 17, 2015, available athttp://www.idl.idaho.gov/news-media/2015-releases/2-17-2015-idaho-dept-lands-outlines-plan-to-protect-sage-grouse-habitat.pdf.
 See IDL, Proposed Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan, Feb. 11, 2015, available athttp://www.idl.idaho.gov/sage-grouse/draft-sage-grouse-mgmt-plan_v021115.pdf.
 Brett Prettyman, Utah guv directs state agencies to protect sage grouse, Feb. 10, 2015, available athttp://www.sltrib.com/news/2164901-155/utah-guv-directs-state-agencies-to.