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Greater Sage Grouse Won't Get Federal Protection


This morning, some big news about a little bird. Later today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce the greater sage grouse, a charismatic Western bird, does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act. It's a huge deal in much of the West, involving millions of acres of land and billions of dollars of investments, as NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Here's a quick sage grouse primer for those of you not versed in the bird. The greater sage grouse lived in 11 Western states in the vast uninviting places you see in Westerns, sometimes called the Sagebrush Sea. Its numbers have been steadily declining for decades as humans have settled the West, fragmenting that sea by building homes, roads, fences and oil pads. Sage grouse, finicky birds that they are, aren't too keen on human development. In 2010, the population numbers of sage grouse were low enough that the federal government said the bird warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, but it didn't list it because of other priorities. Environmental groups say they didn't list it because of political pressure. Western industries, like oil and gas, mining and agriculture, say that a listing would cost them billions of dollars in lost economic activity. Today, the federal government says things have gotten better. Here's Gary Frazer, the Fish and Wildlife Service's assistant director for endangered species.

GARY FRAZER: The service has concluded that numerous large populations of greater sage grouse and numerous large areas of high quality habitat remain distributed across the landscape.

ROTT: And, Frazer says, those birds and habitat are better protected than ever before, thanks to massive new land-use plans that will be implemented by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, along with conservation efforts by states, industry and private landowners. Because of all that, Frazer and the Department of Interior decided that the bird does not need federal protection. Sarah Greenberger is with the Department of the Interior and says her department will reassess the need for those protections in five years. In the meantime...

SARAH GREENBERGER: It means that states will continue to manage the greater sage grouse as they do today. It means that communities, ranchers, businesses, developers will have much greater certainty going into the future.

ROTT: Just how long that certainty will last, though, is a bit less clear. Already groups on both sides of the issue are threatening lawsuits, environmental groups on the grounds that the new federal and state plans still allow too much development on the landscape, energy groups saying that the plans are too restrictive. The Department of Interior says it based its decision on the best available science and is hopeful that the compromise won't be undone by litigation. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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