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Utah May Fail First Test of State's Sage Grouse Conservation Plan

Morgan County poised to usher in resort development among Henefer, Pioneer Camp leks

Additional Contact: Allison Jones, Wild Utah Project, 801.651.9385


Morgan, UT –On Tuesday night, the Morgan County Council will decide whether to approve the recommendation given by its Planning Commission earlier this month to change the map designation in the County General Plan on almost 3,000 acres north of East Canyon reservoir from “Natural Resources and Recreation” status to “Master Planned Community” status, dooming two important sage grouse breeding populations near Salt Lake City. Yaryca LLC owns the parcel.  A vote to change the map designation by the Council will open the door to an official change in zoning, and would invite a plan of development for a new resort community to be proposed by landowners and developers on this sensitive sage grouse habitat. 

The project area includes one sage-grouse lek, or mating and display site, and is only one mile away from the well-known Henefer Divide lek, which is the most visited lek in the state of Utah, partly because of its easy access from both Highway 65 and the Wasatch front. An access road to the proposed development runs right past the Henefer lek, and increased traffic from the resort subdivision would threaten the survival of this grouse population. Sage-grouse are a well-studied species, and it is well known that their populations collapse in the face of development in key sagebrush habitats.

This will be the first test of Utah’s new sage-grouse conservation plan.  Last year, Governor Herbert and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources issued a new state plan in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s finding that listing the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act is warranted.  The release of Utah’s plan was an attempt to convince federal biologists that listing the species is unnecessary, because Utah (and other states who put forward similar plans) is enacting good conservation measures in the “Sage-grouse Management Areas” (SGMAs, analogous to “core areas”) across the state.  The population in Morgan County is included in one of these SGMAs. The state plan lays out a clear scenario: act to 1) avoid developing on and next to leks, 2) minimize all disturbances, and 3) mitigate disturbances (though the scientific literature confirms that by and large mitigation efforts like trying to transplant birds from one site to another does not work).   However, the plan applies only to state and private lands, since federal lands such as the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service are amending land-use plans for federal lands to improve sage-grouse habitat protections. On state and private lands, abiding by the state plan is entirely voluntary.

“If the Morgan County Council votes to overturn the current zoning that presently protects the Pioneer Camp and Henefer Leks, it will be a clear signal that the State of Utah’s sage grouse plan fails to protect sage grouse leks that are threatened with development, and that the federal protections of the Endangered Species Act are necessary in Utah to prevent the extinction of this majestic bird,” observed Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist who is overseeing sage grouse protection efforts nationwide for WildEarth Guardians.

Allison Jones of the Wild Utah Project cautions against a decision by the County to change the County general plan to appease certain landowners: “I hope that Morgan County chooses to support the governor and Utah’s sage-grouse plan so we don’t fail our first test of the Plan.  Many proactive alternatives to development on private lands exist and are featured in Utah’s sage-grouse plan, including conservation easements to protect land from development while putting real dollars in landowners’ pockets.”

The Morgan County Council will take up this issue Tuesday September 2 at 5:00, at the Morgan County Courthouse (48 West Young Street, in Morgan).


 

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