Utah aims to delay federal decision on sage grouse

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah wants more time to prove no further federal intervention is needed to protect the state's dwindling sage grouse population, throwing $2 million into the effort to retain control of the bird's habitat.

The state has hired a lobbying team that's knocking on doors of oil and gas companies and hunters in an effort to raise money to match Utah's share, state natural resources director Michael Styler said Tuesday.

The extra money will help the state urge Congress to postpone the September 2015 deadline for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision on possibly listing the bird as endangered, Styler said. The designation could bring restrictions on thousands of acres of state land.

"Any chance we have is legislative," he said, "telling them back off, save us some time."

Conservationists say the state has already had plenty of time. Allison Jones, director of the Wild Utah Project, contends it is funneling taxpayer money toward scuttling a federal agency from doing its job.

The agency weighed the potential designation as early as 1999.

Utah is among a number of Western states challenging federal science on the bird's conservation status, saying greater sage grouse face no immediate danger of extinction. It contends 500,000 birds are scattered across the West.

Conservationists are pushing for greater habitat protections, squaring off against ranchers, miners and oil and gas executives who operate on public lands. Some have said politics have no place in the scientific debate.

Utah lawmakers say they don't need to outlaw ranching, mining and energy development to protect the football-size birds known for puffing up in elaborate mating dances.

The state has awarded hunter and lawyer Ryan Benson a $2 million contract to lobby Congress in the effort to delay the decision on the endangered listing, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

To retain oversight of the bird's management, the state Department of Natural Resources plans to kick off the one-year contract with Benson's company, Stag Consulting, on July 1.

Meanwhile, federal authorities issued a moratorium Tuesday blocking oil, gas and coal leasing on more than 400,000 acres of public land in southwestern Colorado and a sliver of eastern Utah that is home to another species of sage grouse.

But Utah officials say its conservation plan, which has been in place for a year, is working. It sets aside less protected habitat than federal proposals.

Last year, the federal Bureau of Land Management unveiled a set of proposals for tightening protections for sage grouse habitat on about 4 million acres of public land in Utah and a small chunk of Wyoming.

It's now evaluating public comments on those plans, said Quincy Bahr, the Utah BLM's sage grouse project leader.

Advocates have said the BLM's goals are solid but many of its proposals don't include measures needed to achieve them.

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