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Sage grouse avoids endangered listing

Wildlife officials announced Tuesday that the greater sage grouse does not need protection as an endangered species.

The announcement puts to rest a major chapter in the debate over the chicken-sized bird, which has become one of the most controversial species over the last year amid fights by Republicans, oil interests, conservationists, the Obama administration and others.

Development and oil drilling has threatened the sagebrush ecosystem, which once covered vast portions of the West and still stretches across 11 states. The ecosystem is the habitat for the sage grouse, which has seen its population drop about 90 percent from its 19th-century levels.

The decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service was not unexpected, however, as the federal government, states and others have put great efforts into conserving the species in the hopes that it would not need the draconian protections that the Endangered Species Act affords.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the finding that a listing is “not warranted” Tuesday morning in a video.

“Because of an unprecedented effort by dozens of partners across 11 western states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the greater sage grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act,” she said.

“The deteriorating health of the bird has sparked the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history,” Jewell said, crediting landowners, scientists, the energy industry and others for the actions.

“This has been an extraordinary effort on a scale we’ve never seen before,” she said. “And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that these collective efforts add up to a bright future for the sage grouse.”

The decision received widespread praise from conservationists and others.

“This is a new lease on life for the Greater Sage-Grouse and the entire sagebrush ecosystem,” David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society, said in a statement.

“Unprecedented cooperation by private landowners, states, and the federal government has created a framework for conservation at a scale unique in the world,” he said.

“Keeping the greater sage-grouse from being listed as an endangered species has always been my goal, and I’m glad Secretary Jewell arrived at the same conclusion,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who has sponsored legislation to delay a listing for years.

“Greater sage-grouse populations are increasing, and I commend the collaborative efforts from stakeholders to keep this bird from being listed.”

But some Republicans and energy interests complained that the land management plans put in place by the federal government and others have all caused long-term harm to the oil industry and other commercial interests.

“Do not be fooled. The announcement not to list the sage grouse is a cynical ploy.,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“With the stroke of a pen, the Obama Administration’s oppressive land management plan is the same as a listing,” he said.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America was glad that the sage grouse will not be listed, but “these new land-use plans will ultimately result in a far greater economic impact for America’s independent oil and natural gas producers.”

The FWS agreed in 2011 to evaluate the bird’s status as part of a court settlement that ended litigation over the sage grouse and hundreds of other species.

Even if the FWS had concluded that a listing was warranted, it’d be restricted in its ability to move forward.

Republicans successfully inserted a provision into a government spending bill last year that blocked any potential sage grouse listing, and the House’s version of a defense authorization bill for next year would have extended that ban for another year.

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