By BOB MOEN
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- Farmers and ranchers in 11 western states should be able to protect both their operations and sage grouse habitat through an agreement between two federal agencies.
The arrangement announced Tuesday by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar involves the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agencies will work together to help landowners protect the sage grouse and its habitat. For instance, ranchers could keep cattle from grazing sage grouse areas during the bird's breeding times.
In return, the landowners will be in better position to avoid potentially stifling regulations if the bird is judged endangered.
"It would certainly appear to me that this will be advantageous for some landowners who participate," said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
But Magagna said he needs to see more details of the agreement.
"At this point I can't say how broad that assurance will be or how great the advantage will be, and that's something I hope we'll get some clarity on in the next few days," he said.
Sage grouse are found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, California, Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon, South Dakota, North Dakota and Canada.
The chicken-size bird's once vast numbers have been reduced severely from historical highs, mainly from loss of habitat. Expanding agriculture, energy and housing developments, disease and other factors are the major threats against the birds now.
Some contend the sage grouse numbers have been reduced to the point that they should be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Others note the bird's numbers are still plentiful enough that they can still be hunted in some states.
The Interior Department announced in March that protection for sage grouse is warranted but other species are in greater need of protection.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and the NRCS have worked independently of each other to help preserve sage grouse habitat.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Idaho recently signed an agreement involving some 640,000 acres of sage grouse habitat in southwest Idaho. The accord would give landowners who voluntarily adopt habitat restoration measures protection from future land use regulations if the bird is granted endangered status.
NRCS, which began 75 years ago as the Soil Conservation Service to help farmers and ranchers implement techniques to preserve their soil, recently started a program providing up to $16 million in financial aid for producers who help sage grouse habitat.
Under the agreement, both agencies will coordinate their efforts. Landowners can take advantage of NRCS money to begin conservation practices that are endorsed by the Fish and Wildlife Service as beneficial to the sage grouse. The Fish and Wildlife Service will in turn provide landowners with "reasonable assurances" that their activities meet criteria for receiving protection from future regulations imposed if the bird is endangered, according to an Interior Department news release.
Xavier Montoya, NRCS state conservationist in Wyoming, said farmers and ranchers are receptive to helping sage grouse and other wildlife.
"I think they are all very understanding that agriculture and sage grouse can cohabitat -- that we can still graze and there can still be sage grouse," Montoya said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.