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SALT LAKE CITY — As the angst continues to build over a possible endangered species listing of the greater sage grouse, only one thing is readily apparent in the boisterous debate: It will get much louder before the federal government announces its decision in September.
In a congressional oversight hearing convened Tuesday, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, likened the football-sized bird to that of the Pacific Northwest's spotted owl, which conservatives blame for ruining the timber industry and hurting working families when it received federal protections.
Later in the same hearing, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., displayed a stuffed heath hen — the last of which died in 1932 on Martha's Vineyard — and warned that the sage grouse could suffer the same fate if the government failed to act, or follow the dodo, which became extinct in the late 17th century.
Such dire predictions lie at the heart of the controversy over what should or should not happen with the greater sage grouse, which occupies Utah and 10 other Western states and has seen the majority of its historic habitat ruined.
Idaho and Utah leaders, including Kathleen Clarke, director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, testified Tuesday that the greatest threats to the species are wildfire and the onslaught of invasive species in their states, not the millions upon millions in economic activity a listing would bring to a halt.
"As someone representing a state which has invested decades in sage grouse conservation, the relentless efforts to force more standardized and irrelevant mandates on the use of the land not only threatens the conservation of the species, but unnecessarily imposes hardship on the hardworking citizens of the West," Clarke testified.
She added later, "I firmly believe that regulations don't conserve species; people do."
Clarke said more than $50 million has been invested in Utah over the past decade to conserve the species, and the state is host to only 4 percent of the bird's population.
"I want to be clear that the state of Utah is absolutely committed to the long-term conservation of the greater sage grouse," she said.
The bird, too, is seeing its numbers boosted in Utah due to partnerships that tap efforts of ranchers and other landowners, a type of collaboration she and other state leaders warn will be stripped of any incentives to occur should a listing happen.
Ed Arnett, senior scientist with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said the fragile status of the bird has been known for decades, and in fact was first brought to light by a state-employed wildlife biologist who argued intervention was necessary.
The robust conservation efforts playing out in multiple states is working, Arnett added, but he also cautioned that a delay in a listing decision could have disastrous implications for the species.
"Without a little bit of crisis here to push the effort, I'm not sure the foot would stay on the gas, frankly," he said.
Arnett, representing a coalition of sportsmen, said the species needs an "all of the above" approach that most notably focuses on habitat protection.
"The Endangered Species Act is a tool of last resort and certainly not one preferred by sportsmen," he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is facing a Sept. 30 deadline to make a decision on adding the bird to the endangered species list. The court-ordered decision comes after the federal agency said in 2006 that the protections for the bird were warranted, but higher priorities precluded it from taking action. Environmental groups sued.
States want the federal government to delay any action. Utah allocated $2 million in the most recent legislative session to lobby for a postponement of the decision, and Bishop has a rider in the National Defense Reauthorization Act that would mandate a delay for 10 years.
"A lot of work has already been done toward the goal of making sure the greater sage grouse doesn't have to be placed on the endangered species list. The sage grouse is one of the West's signature species, and its habitat is also home to elk, mule deer, pronghorns and hundreds of other species." Suzanne O'Neill, Colorado Wildlife Federation
Multiple groups such as the National Wildlife Federation argue that conservation efforts to protect the species can't be slowed and states can ill afford to stop working with the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help the bird.
“A lot of work has already been done toward the goal of making sure the greater sage grouse doesn’t have to be placed on the endangered species list. The sage grouse is one of the West’s signature species, and its habitat is also home to elk, mule deer, pronghorns and hundreds of other species,” said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
“Everyone with a stake in what happens to the sage grouse and sagebrush country needs to work together rather than dig in their heels and wait until it’s too late to avoid drastic measures."
Bishop said the state conservation plans need to be given time to help the bird.
"States are the laboratory of innovation, something the federal government with its efforts cannot match," he said. "The states have not been sitting on the sidelines in this effort."