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Federal protection considered for sage grouse

April 29, 2008 | 10:26 am


The fate of basic industries across the West -- grazing, mining, energy -- soon could be at least partially tied to that of a bird about the size of a chicken, according to the Associated Press.

The federal government is under a judge's order to reconsider a decision against listing the sage grouse as endangered, and wildlife biologists are scouring the species' customary mating grounds to see how many are left.

The species was seen as recently as 2004 over an area as large as California and Texas combined, but its habitat used to be close to twice that, and research has shown that many types of human activity continue to harm it.

Some have compared the debate over the sage grouse, above, to the heated controversy over the fate of the northern spotted owl in the 1990s. Read on to see more of the AP report.

States and even some companies have made efforts to protect the sage grouse on their own, hoping to avoid a federal listing that could stretch across 11 states.

The prospect of listing the species has drawn comparisons to the northern spotted owl, whose listing as a threatened species in 1990 drew the ire of logging interests in the Northwest.

But the grouse occupies several times as much land as the owl.

"It will affect everything we do and know [as] a Western state, everything from livestock grazing to mining to development of sage brush habitat, wind energy," said Ken Mayer, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "I don't think we have ever been in this position before."

Ranchers and the oil and gas industry dodged stiff regulations in January 2005 when the government decided the bird didn't need to be listed as an endangered species.

But in December, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise, Idaho, overturned that decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, partly because it was tainted by political pressure from Assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald. MacDonald resigned last May amid questions about alleged interference in dozens of other endangered species decisions.

"Her tactics included everything from editing scientific conclusions to intimidating staffers," Winmill wrote.

The agency has until December to issue a new decision.

-- Francisco Vara-Orta

Photo: Kim Toulouse / Nevada Department of Wildlife

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