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Colorado governor orders protections for sage grouse

Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperHarris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP draws line on taxes; nation braces for Chauvin verdict The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults now eligible for COVID vaccines MORE has issued an executive order to protect the state’s greater sage grouse population in a move meant to avoid potential federal regulations that could come with an endangered status for the bird. 

Hickenlooper’s order establishes a “habitat exchange” program in which ranchers and other landowners who take steps toward preserving grouse habitat land on their property earn credits for that work. They can then sell those credits to companies who want to develop on other land. The move is meant to encourage private investment in habitat preservation for the sage grouse.

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The order requires state agencies to work with regulators if their activities might threaten the grouse’s habitat, and it charges the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission with tracking energy development in sensitive habitat land. 

Beyond actually protecting the sage grouse, Hickenlooper’s order is designed to rebuff a potential decision by the federal government to list the bird as an endangered species, which would give regulators more control over the land on which it lives. The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering whether to list the sage grouse as endangered, and a decision is due by this fall. 

“We firmly believe that state-led efforts are the most effective way to protect and conserve the greater sage grouse and its habitat,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said in a press release. “Conversely, a decision by the federal government to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act would have a significant and detrimental economic impact to the state, as well as threaten the very state-led partnerships that are working to protect the species.”

The sage grouse saga has played out both in Western states like Colorado, where officials are trying to avoid an endangered species listing, and in Congress, where Republican lawmakers have also worked to keep the bird off the list. The sage grouse’s range includes land where oil and gas production is booming, and federal endangered species rules could complicate energy production there.

Conservation groups came out in favor of Hickenlooper’s plan on Friday. 

“This executive order clearly sets the stage for moving a challenging, yet exciting conservation effort into its final stages,” National Audubon Society Vice President Brian Rutledge said. “I'm delighted to see my home state step forward with a framework for organizing its Greater Sage-grouse plan.”

The Environmental Defense Fund, which has been working to set up similar habitat exchanges in other states, said the decision will “unlock new opportunities for farmers and ranchers to make sage-grouse conservation a part of their business models."

“The sooner we can put conservation on the ground, the sooner we can see sage-grouse recover and the sooner Colorado can mitigate the risk of a listing decision in the future,” said Eric Holst, senior director of working lands at the EDF. “The governor’s endorsement of habitat exchanges brings us one step closer to achieving the results we need to ensure the sustained economic and environmental vitality of Colorado.”

Other groups said that while the move is good for the sage grouse in Colorado, federal action might still be necessarily to protect it everywhere.

“We are optimistic that local and state efforts like this Executive Order, in combination with the forthcoming [Bureau of Land Management] sage grouse plan, will provide the comprehensive and common-sense protections to ensure this western icon will not just survive, but thrive for future generations to enjoy,” Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith said.