By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
With prompting from Sen. Jim Risch, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week sent a letter of concurrence to Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter in support of the state's greater sage-grouse conservation strategy.
The strategy is aimed at keeping sage-grouse off the endangered species list.
Risch, R-Idaho, had put a hold on the nomination of Sally Jewel to become secretary of the Interior until that letter was received, said Brad Hoaglun, Risch's director of communications and senior policy adviser.
The letter was received April 10 and Risch released his hold, which had prevented Jewel's nomination from moving forward for consideration by the full Senate. The Senate approved Jewell's nomination that day.
Risch said his hold on Jewell's nomination was to get a commitment from the Department of the Interior to follow the best science available and support the collaborative effort that has been taking place to protect sage-grouse in Idaho.
"Only by working together can we achieve solutions that are acceptable to all parties. I am very pleased that Interior nominee Sally Jewel agrees with that approach," Risch said in a statement last week.
Otter is concerned that with a change in the agency, the issue is front and center, said John Hanian, Otter's press secretary.
"We are cautiously optimistic it will be," he said.
Given the potential economic impact of listing the species, the governor wants to be sure the issue is treated with seriousness and urgency, he said.
Given the vast area designated for sage-grouse conservation, it's a significant potential economic impact -- hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.
This is a significant issue for more than 1,800 permittees who graze on public land in Idaho, Risch said.
In addition to ranchers, the issue would affect such things as off-road recreation, transportation, mining, power transmission lines and wind energy development, Hanian said.
"It's pretty broad and adds up quickly, he said.
Unfortunately, he said, Fish and Wildlife's support for Idaho's conservation plan does not mean it's a done deal.
The letter states: "This concurrence should not be construed as being automatically implementable by (the U.S. Bureau of Land Management). ... That is a determination BLM must make."
Segments of the strategy need clarification and refinement, the Fish and Wildlife stated.
Sage grouse are currently designated as "warranted but precluded" candidates for the endangered species list. Fish and Wildlife is under a court order to make a decision on listing the species by 2015. BLM has until 2014 to revise its resource management guidelines for sage-grouse habitat and submit it to Fish and Wildlife for consideration.