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US report: Grouse needs wider buffer from drilling

November 21, 2014

BILLINGS, Montana (AP) — A government report with significant implications for the U.S. energy industry says the breeding grounds of a struggling bird species need a 3-mile or larger buffer from oil and gas drilling, wind farms and solar projects.

The study comes as the Obama administration weighs new protections for the greater sage grouse. The ground-dwelling bird ranges across 11 western states.

A 3-mile (4.8 kilometer) buffer is a much larger protective area than the no-occupancy zones where drilling and other activity is prohibited under some state and federal land management plans.

Those plans also contain more nuanced provisions that backers say will protect sage grouse, such as seasonal restrictions on drilling and limits on the number of oil and gas wells within key sage grouse habitat.

But some wildlife advocates say too much development is being allowed under those plans, undermining efforts to help grouse. Such opposition could be bolstered by Friday’s report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Greater sage grouse populations dropped sharply in recent decades due to disease, pressure from the energy industry, wildfires and other factors.

The new report comes as state and federal officials scramble to come up with conservation measures to protect the grouse ahead of a court-ordered September 2015 decision on protections.

The USGS did not recommend specific management recommendations. But survey scientists said it should help the Interior Department as it crafts a conservation strategy for the birds.

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