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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert is praising revamped federal sage grouse plans released Friday, reiterating Utah's commitment to work with its partner agencies to manage the imperiled bird's habitat.
"This new Bureau of Land Management plan improves upon the 2015 federal sage grouse plans by incorporating the best available science and aligning with the state's 2019 Conservation Plan for Greater Sage Grouse," Herbert said.
Changes impact 14 distinct plans in Utah by increasing flexibility in applying requirements in habitat areas that are not "active habitat" and allowing to exceed caps or disturbances — such as industry activity or transmission lines.
That sort of latitude is drawing fierce criticism in general from multiple environmental organizations.
“The new plans will allow sage grouse habitat needs to be overlooked and ignored whenever industry wants to site a new oil well, create a new road or build new fences,” said Greta Anderson of Western Watersheds Project. “They undercut what few protections already exist and do nothing to conserve this iconic bird.”
The plans eliminate requirements to prioritize oil and gas development outside of sage grouse habitat on four million acres of public land in Utah, according to a release from the project, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and the American Bird Conservancy.
In Utah, the plans covering BLM-managed lands do not designate any "general habitat," management areas and altogether, there are 7.3 million acres of sage grouse habitat mapped across the state.
The BLM said benchmarks or "trigger" points for local sage grouse populations remain in place for the bird's habitat when adaptive management measures are needed to address population declines.
The plans outline the procedures land managers must follow once a determination is made that a decline has been stopped or been reversed.
Populations of the football-sized grouse have declined by as much as 50 percent of their historic range due to a wide variety of threats that include wildfire, urban encroachment and the proliferation of invasive vegetative species.
The sagebrush steppe itself, the only ecosystem where the bird can survive, is one of the most threatened ecoystems in North American due to continued degradation and lack of protection, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wildfires, in particular, wipe out some species of sagebrush that have survived 150 years.
According to the Utah Division of Wildlife, sage grouse populations increase and decrease annually, with a peak in populations every eight to 10 years. The statewide population of sage grouse in Utah has shown a stable to increasing population trend over the past 20 years, the state plan says.