Spending bill delays protections for sage grouse at behest of Western lawmakers

Energy Associated Press

A legislative rider in Congress' $1.1 trillion spending bill would delay protections for a wide-ranging Western bird that's been on a collision course with the oil and gas industry.

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The Obama administration faced a September 2015 deadline to propose protections for greater sage grouse under a court-approved settlement with wildlife advocates.

But the spending package agreed to late Tuesday by Democratic and Republican leaders prevents the administration from spending any money next year on rules to protect the ground-dwelling bird. The House is expected to vote on the measure Thursday.

The bill also delays protections for the related Gunnison sage grouse of Utah and Colorado and for two subspecies of greater sage grouse in Washington, Nevada and California.

Drilling and other human activities are among the leading threats to the struggling sage grouse. Western lawmakers have argued the region's economy would suffer if protections were put in place.

Wildlife advocates say delaying protections could have irreversible impacts across the bird's 11-state range.

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Prior attempts over the past two years to block protections for grouse through stand-alone legislation failed. Attaching it to a crucial spending bill greatly increases its chances.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said protections for the bird would affect energy development, ranching and other land uses. He called the spending bill's sage grouse rider an "important win."

"When you have that kind of a listing in place and you have all these regulations and fines and penalties and compliance costs, it just makes it harder for people who are trying to make a living," the Republican said.

Mark Salvo with the group Defenders of Wildlife blasted the move in Congress as "legislative meddling" in what should be a science-based decision.

In 2010, federal biologists said protections were warranted for greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. But the Fish and Wildlife Service didn't impose them citing other priorities and a shortage of funds.

After wildlife advocates sued in federal court to force a decision, a pair of legal settlements resulted in the September 2015 deadline to propose protections.

However, those settlements with the groups WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity contained provisions that give the government leeway to miss the deadline if unforeseen circumstances arise. That means little can be done if the bill becomes law.

"I don't think we could challenge it," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said the agency was reviewing the legal implications of the sage grouse provision, which was included as just a few paragraphs in the 1,603-page spending bill.

Population estimates for sage grouse range from 100,000 to 500,000 birds. They range across 290,000 square miles of sage brush habitat in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Croplands, home development, wildfires and oil and gas drilling consumed more than half that habitat over the past century.

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Associated Press writer James Nord in Pierre, South Dakota, contributed to this report.