RENO, Nev. (AP) -- The Obama administration is launching an effort to accelerate protection of sage grouse along the California-Nevada line with $31 million in spending through 2024 to help ranchers and others improve habitat in what one top official says may be the best, last chance to keep the bistate population off the list of threatened species.
"This is the last train out of the station," Jason Weller, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, told The Associated Press.
While the multiagency effort targets grouse habitat in California and Nevada, officials said they hope it will spread in years to come to the overall habitat of the greater sage grouse across 11 western states.
"With proactive conservation investments, we're helping farmers and ranchers who are improving habitat through voluntary efforts to stabilize this population of sage grouse," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday in formally announcing what he said was a "groundbreaking commitment" to provide $25.5 million over the next five to 10 years to help buy conservation easements in areas with key habitats.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management also is committing $6.5 million over 10 years to finance a wide range of improvements for the bistate population, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed be granted protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The service estimates there are only about 5,000 of the birds left. A final decision is expected in April.
"The biologists that work for NRCS and our partners were concerned that absent an accelerated action, staying the course we are on, all signals were it's likely going to be listed," Weller said in a telephone interview from Washington. "There are no promises here, but hopefully it will make a difference in the ultimate listing decision."
In proposing last year to list the bistate population as threatened, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with conservationists who raised concerns about the lack of certainty and funding for future efforts to protect the bird.
"We are trying to address that uncertainty," Weller said. "It's all hands on deck. We are committing the money. This is about as concrete as we can get."
The leader of a national group representing ranchers who graze sheep and cattle on public lands said Friday it is "a positive move by the administration."
"Listing the sage grouse would cause ranchers to lose property rights and hinder their ability not only to raise cattle, but to continue to implement conservation efforts, assuring viable habitat for the varied species of the West," said Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council.
"We applaud the funding efforts and encourage the ranching industry to take advantage of this opportunity," added Ron Torell, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association.
Conservationists said the new initiative should not preclude a federal listing.
"That is clearly the administration's desire," said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco.
"But these are voluntary measures, and we don't know if they will follow through with them," she said Friday. "They kind of gloss over the fact the threats are actually increasing. There are a number of utility lines and wind projects planned in the area with the bistate population, and without a listing we can't assure those will be evaluated in a way that really takes the sage grouse into account."
In addition to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the USDA's Forest Service will focus efforts to stem the invasion of juniper and other conifers into the sagebrush habitat grasses that grouse need for nesting and protection from predators.
"I applaud the NRCS, USFS and the BLM for their very significant commitments, which will help provide certainty that important conservation actions in key areas of the bird's habitat will continue to be implemented," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees both the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The service in October proposed protecting the distinct population along the Nevada-California line under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal would designate about 1.8 million acres as critical habitat.
The bistate population is separate from the greater sage grouse population, which is also under consideration for protection. The service plans to make a decision by late 2015 on whether greater sage grouse also warrant protection.
Weller said Friday's announcement should help spur similar efforts in the nine states beyond Nevada and California with greater sage grouse -- Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota.
"It's bigger than just the bistate population," he said. "It puts a marker in the ground for the overall sage grouse population across the West."
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