Gunnison sage-grouse gets federal protection, Utah officials react

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The Gunnison sage-grouse would probably enjoy all the attention.

The bird is something of a show off.

It lives in and around the iconic sagebrush of the Western United States and is best known for its spring mating ritual.

The males strut, puff out the white plumage on their chests and flex their tails, showing a spray of feathers. Females, apparently, find the display hard to resist.

A number of the birds live on Jay Tanner's ranch in Grouse Creek, Utah.

"If you haven't seen the sage-grouse strut on the leck at the beginning of the year, it's one of the great things to see in Utah," Tanner said. (Leck is a term that refers to hard, clay subsoil according to the Merriam Webster dictionary.)

But Gunnison sage-grouse populations are under attack, not by people directly. They suffer as the landscape transforms from sage to cheat grass, and their natural protection changes more quickly than their ability to adapt.

Noreen Walsh runs the regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Although everyone is focused on the greater sage-grouse as a species, this habitat really supports incredible wildlife resources like mule deer and pronghorn that are big economic drivers in western states," Walsh said.

That explains in part why the grouse are under consideration for federal protection. The Gunnison sub-species of the bird just received a "threatened" designation on Wednesday.

That decision angered Utah elected officials, including Governor Gary Herbert.

"It does kind of send a signal that the aggressive approaches of the respective states is being ignored: We don't care what you do," Herbert said, referring to Utah's longtime effort to create a plan to protect sage grouse without a federal designation.

The governor spoke to a conference gathered to talk about sage grass policy.

Professor Terry Messmer of Utah State University organized the conference. Messmer started studying the birds in 1995.

He said ranches provide excellent habitat for grouse. The larger conflict comes with energy development.

"There's no doubt there are impacts related to energy development,” Messmer said. “All forms of energy development. But we know enough about the biology of the bird, about the science, about the technology of oil and gas development that a lot of those impacts can be mitigated.”

Related story: 2 Utah Congressman upset after species of bird gets federal protection