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Group proposes halting projects to protect grouse

A 16-member task force appointed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter trying to figure out a way to dissuade the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing sage grouse as an endangered species is recommending halting new wind, transmission and oil and gas projects in habitat identified as a priority for sage grouse.

The group also agreed on recommendations to suppress wildfires and control invasive species.

But The Times-News reports the task force on May 24 couldn’t reach an agreement on grazing management practices that protect sage grouse without punishing ranchers.

“What do we mean by poorly managed?” asked Bob Cope, a Lemhi County commissioner. “We don’t have a definition for that yet. We need to.”

Otter initially gave the task force until June 1 to make its recommendations, but that was moved to June 13. There is some question if the group will meet the deadline.

“I’m confident that we’ll have something to present to the governor before June 30,” said Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore.

If Otter approves the document it will be sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to be used when the agency develops its national plan to keep sage grouse from being listed.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined sage grouse deserved federal protection, but other species were higher priorities. A recent legal settlement now gives the agency until 2015 to decide the bird’s status — threatened or endangered or not in need of federal protection.

The task force in Idaho includes members from energy industries, agriculture and conservation groups. During the last month it has held meetings in Pocatello, Boise, Jerome and Idaho Falls.

The state hopes to avoid federal intervention by taking the initiative on the chicken-sized bird whose numbers have fallen dramatically in the last century.

The task force also suggested the state continue engaging local working groups with sage grouse management. Those groups are spread throughout the state and are looking at developing site-specific plans and doing habitat improvement projects.

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