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New Wyoming sage grouse conservation bank could conserve habitat in Rhode Island-sized area


CHEYENNE, Wyoming — A new system announced Wednesday to conserve habitat for the greater sage grouse will start by making 86 square miles of Wyoming ranchland available for preservation through arrangements with oil and gas companies and others who, in exchange, want to develop the birds' habitat elsewhere in the state.

Eventually the sage grouse conservation bank announced Wednesday in Cheyenne could preserve almost 1,100 square miles — a region about the size of Rhode Island — through a series of conservation easements. A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement that generally prohibits new development of wildlife habitat on private land.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state of Wyoming and the Sweetwater River Conservancy cooperated to develop the sage grouse conservation bank. The conservancy owns several large, private ranches on either side of Pathfinder Reservoir and in the Muddy Gap area between Casper and Rawlins.

The approach is an important one because 40 percent of sagebrush habitat is in private hands, said Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Jim Kurth.

"There are people out there that would say it's a victory if we have to list sage grouse. We at the Fish and Wildlife Service certainly don't feel that way," Kurth said.

The announcement comes a little more than six months before a Sept. 30 court-ordered deadline for the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether the greater sage grouse needs federal protection under Endangered Species Act.

Even if Fish and Wildlife were to determine protection is necessary, if and when the greater sage grouse might be listed as threatened or endangered would remain an open question. Congress late last year voted to withhold funding from Fish and Wildlife to list the species.

The greater sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird whose numbers have dwindled by more than half since pre-settlement times. The bird ranges across 11 states, from California to the Dakotas, and numbers no more than 500,000 today.

Wyoming is home to about 200,000 greater sage grouse, more than any other state.

Through the conservation bank, developers wouldn't necessarily offset an acre of developed habitat with an acre conserved, but would purchase credits that represent land preserved for sage grouse on the Sweetwater River Conservancy ranches.

The Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust, a land preservation arm of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, would help to secure the conservation easements.

"This bank strikes a balance between conservation of sage grouse and enabling oil and gas and other development across Wyoming. It also secures a large expanse of land with structured public access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor opportunities," Gov. Matt Mead said.

Livestock grazing on the ranchland will continue, Mead pointed out.

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