Federal government pledges money for sage grouse in West

Federal government pledges money for sage grouse in West

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to allocate up to $16 million to encourage farmers and ranchers in 11 Western states to protect sage grouse and the chicken-sized bird's habitat.

The funding announcement comes a week after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the sage grouse deserves federal protection but wouldn't be listed because other species were in greater danger.

Sage grouse live in the sagebrush in California, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and western Canada. Wyoming has the bulk of sage grouse population and considerable habitat, although scientists said bird numbers have dropped sharply, mainly because of habitat loss.

Gerald Jasmer, state resource conservationist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service in Casper, said Friday his agency has asked for about $3 million of the total federal funding for Wyoming habitat improvement projects, nearly all of which would be on private land.

"We're going to be focusing on those core population areas, and most of the emphasis will be on improving habitat through good grazing management," Jasmer said. "And we'll also be looking at things like retrofitting existing fences and livestock tanks to make them more wildlife friendly."

Landowners can sign up until April 23 with county Natural Resources Conservation Service offices to seek money through the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.

Jasmer said he expects the funding could allow treatment of about 200,000 acres in Wyoming, and possible additional funding in coming years would allow even more work.

"We think we've got a very good chance of increasing population numbers, and increasing habitat quality, and perhaps staving off any need for (endangered species) listing," Jasmer said.

However, an environmental group that has been pushing for federal protections for the sage grouse dismissed the funding announcement as insignificant, given the scope of the problems facing the species.

The Hailey, Idaho-based group Western Watersheds Project announced earlier this week that it intends to continue its long-running legal challenge to try to get federal protections for sage grouse despite Salazar's announcement. The group filed a supplemental complaint in federal court in Idaho this week.

Jonathan Ratner, Wyoming director of Western Watersheds, said Friday that the funding announcement wouldn't change the group's push to protect the bird.

"We're talking like total chicken feed here, that level of money for this big of an issue," Ratner said. "We're talking about a bad joke."

Ratner said typical rangeland improvement projects include water developments, pipeline and fences for livestock producers -- all of which he said have negative effects on sage grouse.

John Emmerich, deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said Friday that the state intends to continue to allow sage grouse hunting. He said the recent federal review found that hunting at current levels isn't affecting whether the bird needs federal protection.

Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said Friday he believes the funding will help ranchers, many of whom he said are already doing projects that benefit sage grouse.

Magagna said he hopes that in addition to the funding, the federal government makes technical expertise available to ranchers.

Ryan Lance, assistant chief of staff to Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, said Friday the funding will augment the state's ability to work with private landowners to conserve sage grouse.

"Of course, with Wyoming's population, and intact habitat, we would like to see a lot of it spent here where the birds are," he said.

Bob Budd is chairman of Wyoming's Sage Grouse Implementation Team, a group Freudenthal impaneled to try to steer development away from critical areas. He said the team is working to refine its mapping of important sage grouse areas in the state by this July.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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