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Herbert signs executive order ramping up Utah protections for sage grouse

A male greater sage grouse near Henefer, Utah Sunday, April 16, 2006.
A male greater sage grouse near Henefer, Utah Sunday, April 16, 2006.
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said an executive order he signed Tuesday means Utah's greater sage grouse conservation plan now has an exclamation point emphasizing the seriousness and determination of the state's efforts.

"This transcends politics and is really about protecting the greater sage grouse and its habitat," Herbert said during a signing ceremony.

The event at the Capitol means Utah joins just two other Western states where governors have implemented executive orders to ramp up protections for the imperiled species.

Herbert's action drew praise from sportsmen and conservation groups such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

“We appreciate the governor and state of Utah for solidifying its commitment to conservation of the greater sage grouse. We look forward to tracking implementation of the state’s plan and its impact on the health and conditions of the sagebrush ecosystem," said Ed Arnett, director of the conservation group's Center for Responsible Energy Development.

"These places are vital to sage grouse and numerous other species of wildlife, and they play a critical role in sustaining our outdoor recreation-based economy,” Arnett said.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership noted that Utah is among three states — joining Wyoming and Montana — where executive orders have been issued on greater sage grouse protections. Colorado's is pending.

All 11 states where the bird exists, as well as the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, are mounting a concentrated attack to save the chicken-size bird to ward off a threatened listing of the animal come this fall.

The bird has seen in excess of 50 percent of its historic range decline and is facing continued threats such as urban encroachment, wildfires, oil and gas development, and grazing.

Instability in the bird's numbers is also part of the larger problem of the steady degradation of sagebrush-steppe habitat across the West, and resulting challenges posed to all manner of upland birds of other species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court-ordered deadline to issue a decision on adding the bird to the Endangered Species list, which would kick an array of restrictions Western states' leaders say would bring down rural economies and bring certain activities to a standstill.

State leaders in Utah add that such a listing would upend work that has been done on the ground to help the bird and may actually have a boomerang effect on the bird's populations in the state, which are beginning to improve in some areas.

Herbert's executive order prioritizes state agency actions when it comes to the greater sage grouse. In wildland firefighting, for example, saving sage grouse range is only behind human life and property damage.

The order also sets up a series of proactive steps that will be undertaken by state oil and gas regulators when it comes to permitting any new activity and directs watershed restoration efforts to encompass sage grouse areas.

Kathleen Clarke, director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, said the five-page order sends a message to the federal government that Utah is serious and puts in play a regulatory mechanism for state agencies to follow.

The execution of the executive order also comes as the Utah Legislature is considering a $2 million funding boost for Clarke's office to deal with a wide array of issues that involve the federal government, including sage grouse.

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