Despite millions in federal spending for private landowners to set aside acreage for a rare grouse species, Interior Secretary Gale Norton sees "very significant potential" for the bird to disrupt plans to tap natural gas and oil in the West.
WASHINGTON − Despite millions in federal spending for private landowners to set aside acreage for a rare grouse species, Interior Secretary Gale Norton sees "very significant potential" for the bird to disrupt plans to tap natural gas and oil in the West.
A decision on whether to add the greater sage grouse to the endangered species list is due by the end of the year.
"Lots of people have gotten involved to try to find ways of protecting the sage grouse without having to list it on the endangered species list," Norton said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press in her office.
Federal protections would have far-reaching consequences, particularly for the Bush administration's push to develop more oil and natural gas fields on public lands. The sage grouse's habitat is spread among 770,000 square miles in 11 states.
"It has very significant potential impact," Norton said about the grouse, a bird that looks like a large quail. "It is a very large area that is potentially affected by a listing, but there are some very large conservation efforts that are taking place."
As few as 100,000 greater sage grouse may remain. At one time the government says there may have up to 16 million of them breeding, strutting and nesting among the sagebrush-covered expanses of the western United States and Canada.
The sage grouse is North America's largest grouse -- a brown, black and white bird that weighs up to eight pounds and has with a mustard-colored pouch on its throat.
Oil and gas wells and pipelines now affect at least a quarter of all sagebrush habitat, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
Norton was careful to avoid pre-empting scientists' outlook for the species. She said that will have to be weighed against government and private conservation efforts, including those by cattlemen, energy producers and state wildlife officials.
"Then the question's whether those are sufficient to maintain the species.... That's really a scientific decision," she said.
The Interior Department says it has given states and private landowners $1.3 billion in the past three years to protect open spaces, wildlife habitat and endangered species. Next year's budget plan includes another $507 million for the "cooperative conservation" programs.
Officials say they do not know exactly how much of that is solely to save the sage grouse. But in August, the Agriculture Department alone shoveled out $2 million to set aside grasslands in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Washington state specifically for the grouse.
Norton said her agency has provided "a lot more flexibility to design programs that fit local needs outside the context of the Endangered Species Act, and that is what has motivated people to try to identify conservation programs that they want to pursue."
Some wildlife officials liken the sage grouse to the spotted owl, an icon of timber wars in the Pacific Northwest. Ranchers worry that federally required protections for the sage grouse might lead to lawsuits that could diminish grazing rights on public lands. Western mining interests also worry about its impact.
The Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service reports at least eight petitions between May 1999 and December 2003 to consider the sage grouse an endangered or threatened species.
Source: Associated Press