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Sage grouse not labeled endangered species, but made 'candidate' for listing

SEATTLE - Despite making clear that sage grouse in the American West warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act, the Obama Administration declined to actually do so Friday.

Sage grouse
In this Friday, May 9, 2008 file photo, male sage grouse fight for the attention of female sage grouse on a mating ground, southwest of Rawlins, Wyo. Federal wildlife officials are readying to make a recommendation about pursuing endangered species status for sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that lives in 11 states. (AP Photo/Rawlins Daily Times, Jerret Raffety)

SEATTLE - Despite making clear that sage grouse in the American West warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act, the Obama Administration declined to actually do so Friday.

The turkey-sized birds with the regal white chest and booming hiccup-like mating call have declined 90 percent in the last century. But with hundreds of thousands of creatures still making their home among the bunch grass and tumble weeds in 11 western states, the administration ruled listing the birds was less a priority than protecting more imperiled species.

Instead, grouse will be made a 'candidate' for listing, which means the bird's status will be evaluated every year. That puts government agencies on notice that if conditions don't improve the bird could ultimately receive endangered-species protections.

"Scientists suggest that the long-term prognosis for the sage grouse is not good," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday. But "my hope is that through smart actions we take in partnership with the states, we will never have to list the sage grouse."

Once numbering in the tens of millions, sage grouse in the West have declined as the sagebrush habitat they require has been cut in half by cities, roads, wildfires, energy development and livestock grazing. An individual bird may range over 20 miles, and as a species they are easily disturbed by noise and driven off by tall structures that bring predators like golden eagles closer. In Washington state, the birds are found only in Douglas County, on the Yakima Training Center, and in Lincoln County, where biologists have been reintroducing birds they gather in Oregon and Nevada.


Friday's long-awaited decision allows livestock grazing and oil, gas and wind-energy projects to continue throughout the West, though states and federal agencies will be urged to limit impacts on the bird.

Energy industry representatives were nonetheless troubled. The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, which represents mineral developers in the Rocky Mountains, said they feared land managers would still be "introducing very restrictive policies that prevent companies from investing and creating high-paying jobs in local communities," according to a written statement from IPAMS government affairs Director Kathleen Sgamma.

The Western Watershed Project, a conservation group that sued the Bush administration after it declined to list the sage grouse, called the ruling "a sad delay" and said it may challenge this decision, too, in federal court. Defenders of Wildlife pointed out that the Obama administration also had proposed cuts in spending for endangered species protection.

The National Wildlife Federation, meanwhile, said the ruling represented progress.

"The federal government has finally acknowledged the decline," said the federation's sagebrush expert, Ben Deeble, in Montana. "It is recognizing the best new science. Now we need to make sure the government is reconciling that science with its energy-development practices."

For years, the Bureau of Land Management, for example, allowed oil and natural gas drillers in Montana and Wyoming to bypass its own wildlife rules and continue exploration and development on lands important for sage grouse.

BLM Director Bob Abbey conceded Friday that in examining his agency's track record ``I do believe there were mixed results.'

But, he added, "we have learned and will learn from the actions that have been taken so that we can do better. And we will do better."

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