February 12, 2015 / 11:11 PM / 3 years ago

U.S. pushes $200 million toward protecting imperiled sage grouse

SEATTLE, Feb 12 (Reuters) - The U.S. government plans to pump an additional $200 million into improving the core habitat of the beleaguered greater sage grouse, the Department of Agriculture said on Thursday, as a protracted nature-versus-industry fight in the U.S. West heads toward a climax.

The department said the money would secure the future of the ground-dwelling bird, marked by a fan of pointy feathers at its rear and a fluffy white chest, “while maintaining our vibrant western economies.”

“About 40 percent of the species range is on private working lands. One of the things that’s said about sage grouse is, ‘What’s good for the bird is good for the herd,'” Department Under Secretary Robert Bonnie told reporters.

The additional conservation money, funded by the 2014 Farm Bill, adds to nearly $300 million the Agriculture Department has already put toward restoring and conserving more than 4 million acres (1.62 million hectares) of sage grouse habitat over the past five years.

It also comes amid a fight over the chicken-sized bird’s shrub-steppe ecosystem, sprawled across nearly a dozen Western states, including Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

Another agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, is poised to announce in September whether to extend U.S. Endangered Species Act protections to the greater sage grouse.

Meantime, individual states have been developing their own conservation plans in hopes of staving off a federal listing that many fear would have dire consequences for energy development, ranching and rural Western livelihoods.

A 2014 report by a Wyoming-based environmental consulting firm found the sage grouse poses little hindrance to oil and gas drilling, wind farms or solar power because they have minimal overlap with the bird’s core habitat.

That report followed a study the group produced with the Pew Charitable Trusts outlining how the sagebrush ecosystems supported more than $1 billion in economic activity.

Millions of sage grouse are believed to have once inhabited a broad expanse of the Western United States and Canada. Today they are estimated to number between 200,000 and 500,000 birds.

The Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the group behind Thursday’s announcement, is targeting a cumulative 8 million acres (3.24 million hectares) for conservation and restoration through 2018.

Conservation efforts by ranchers and local and state agencies and non-profits have included controlling noxious weeds and restoration of native grasses and vegetation. (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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