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Feds announce $23M to protect sage grouse habitat

DENVER (AP)--A federal agency has announced $23 million to protect grasslands in Wyoming, Colorado and Montana for sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird whose males are known for flashy mating displays.

It would be offered as matching funds, with state, local and tribal governments or non-government agencies providing the other $23 million.

The money would essentially buy development rights on nearly 50,000 acres of farms and ranches, ensuring that the land will be preserved as habitat for sage grouse, said Dave White, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

White announced the funding Feb. 4 at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association trade show in Denver.

"If you want to save sage grouse, you must save ranches,'' White said.

Sage grouse live in California, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and western Canada and rely on sagebrush for cover and food.

Populations have been shrinking over the last century, as vast grasslands have been destroyed or fragmented. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the bird a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, but it hasn't been formally listed as threatened or endangered.

NRCS is among the agencies working to shore up populations enough so the bird isn't listed, which could lead to restrictions on activities on public land.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association generally considers local conservation efforts to be a more scientifically viable way to protect a species, rather than listing it as threatened or endangered.

The funding announced Feb. 4 includes about $17 million to preserve 40,000 acres of sagebrush grazing land in Wyoming and about $2.5 million to protect 2,000 acres of sagebrush grasslands in Colorado, White said.

It also includes about $3.5 million to preserve 7,000 acres in Montana that would "lock down'' a corridor for sage grouse in Saskatchewan use to get to a spot on public land in Montana where they spend the winter, White said.

Separately, NRCS also has worked with ranchers to mark and remove fences so that sage grouse won't fly into them and encourage prescribed grazing to keep grasses longer, thereby increasing chicks' chances of survival.

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