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Published April 30, 2012, 10:33 AM

Working across agency lines

WASHINGTON — The federal government probably won’t have to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said recently, as Obama administration officials discussed their efforts to work across agency lines for the betterment of rural America.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The federal government probably won’t have to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said recently, as Obama administration officials discussed their efforts to work across agency lines for the betterment of rural America.

Environmentalists and federal officials have expressed concern about the decline in the greater sage grouse population, but because other species are more endangered, Fish and Wildlife, a division of the Interior Department, will not have to make a decision about listing the sage grouse until 2016.

That has given the agencies a window in which to try to improve its 11-state habitat. Agriculture leaders have been alarmed by the potential listing because it could make farming and ranching more difficult on a large swath of the nation’s agricultural lands.

U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told DTN that he is “pretty optimistic” about the greater sage grouse because the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has led efforts to save its habitat.

NRCS Chief Dave White has made avoiding the ESA listing for the sage grouse a priority.

“All the work NRCS did, set the stage for the Bureau of Land Management, which has 57 percent of the habitat,” Ashe said in an interview after he, White and Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes met with the North American Agricultural Journalists at Peirce Mill, a National Park Service site in Rock Creek Park in Washington on April 15.

Ashe said that the efforts to save the habitat are crossing party lines, noting that both Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, are backing the effort.

He acknowledged, however, that cooperation can’t avoid all listings, saying that a listing for the lesser prairie chicken “is more of a challenge.”

The bird’s numbers have declined dramatically in the five-state area of Kansas, southeast Colorado, northwest Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle and eastern New Mexico, and there is not much time to save this habitat because a decision on the lesser prairie chicken is scheduled for the end of this year, with a final decision in 2013.

White has started a lesser prairie chicken initiative, however, and the NRCS website notes that improving grazing land also benefits this bird and other wildlife.

“DOI and USDA are working together in an unprecedented way,” Hayes said, because “looking at your own backyard and taking care of that doesn’t work. You need to look beyond the back 40.”

“We are all trying to keep the lands productive and sustainable, conserving working landscapes,” Ashe added. “If we can have agricultural landscapes, we can save these species.”

White said the joint effort on the sage grouse was so vital because lots of people in the West farm and ranch on their own land but also rent federal land.

He added that his efforts to save the sage grouse are also part of a larger effort to preserve open space.

“The American rancher is the last best hope for keeping the West open,” White said, noting that the shift of land from agricultural to commercial and residential use has quickened in recent years. One-third of the commercial and residential use in the history of North America since 1614 took place from 1982 to 2007, he said.

Hayes, Ashe and White said they are frustrated by the perception that the Obama administration wants only to increase regulation and the power of the federal government in rural areas, but that they ignore the politics and go to work each day on projects in which they see farmers and ranchers and their agencies cooperating.

“It’s unbelievably political,” Hayes said, adding that he and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently went to the Flint Hills of Kansas where there were “15 ranchers — all partners and friends working with our people.”

White said that many rural people’s views of the Obama administration are “wrong. Perception is at variance with reality.”

Doug McKalip, the longtime NRCS employee who is now the senior policy adviser on rural affairs at the White House Domestic Policy Council, told the journalists on April 17 that the efforts on the sage grouse are only one example in which agencies are trying to work together.

Since President Obama issued an executive order on June 2, creating the White House Rural Council, all the cabinet agencies have been involved in coordinated rural efforts ranging from improving rural roads to encouraging doctors to work in rural hospitals, he said.

While many rural Americans believe Obama is increasing regulation, McKalip made the case that the administration is sensitive to overregulation and noted that it made the decision not to regulate spilled milk. “It is better trying to connect these dots together,” he said.

McKalip also noted the rural summit that Obama hosted last summer in Iowa and that he traveled through the Midwest by bus.

“There is no ‘flyover country’ for the president,” McKalip said.

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