WASHINGTON The Department of the Interior will not give endangered species protection to the sage grouse, deciding against a listing that would have restricted energy and residential development in the West.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the birds are benefiting from the largest land conservation effort in American history.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that these collective efforts add up to a bright future for the sage grouse," said Jewell, who announced the decision on Tuesday morning.
The governors of Colorado, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming joined Jewell at an event near Denver and praised the decision, saying it proves the success of state efforts to protect the sagebrush habitat.
"This is a great accomplishment," said Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican.
But House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said new conservation measures being imposed by the Obama administration to protect the bird will still restrict Western development.
"Do not be fooled. The announcement not to list the sage grouse is a cynical ploy. With the stroke of a pen, the Obama administration's oppressive land management plan is the same as a listing," Bishop said in a written statement.
Bishop said he plans to hold a congressional hearing Sept. 30 to look into the issue. Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter who has called the Interior Department's conservation plans too heavy-handed did not join his fellow Western governors and Jewell in Colorado to hail the announcement.
"For months now, the federal government's initially transparent and collaborative process has been replaced by closed-door meetings and internal memoranda," Otter said. "That's resulted in a land management scheme for sage grouse habitat that remains a mystery to property owners and state and local wildlife advocates alike."
The Western Energy Alliance, a trade group for oil and gas companies, also objected to the management plans the Interior Department released to protect the birds across 11 Western states.
"The plans exaggerate the impact from energy development and fail to recognize that oil and natural gas co-exists with sage grouse conservation," said Kathleen Sgamma, the group's vice president of government affairs.
Environmental groups praised the efforts to protect the bird and the sagebrush habitat on which it depends.
"This is a new lease on life for the greater sage grouse and the entire sagebrush ecosystem," said National Audubon Society president David Yarnold. "Unprecedented cooperation by private landowners, states and the federal government has created a framework for conservation at a scale unique in the world."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "All those involved in this historic process should be proud."
"This conservation not only protects the sage grouse, it also protects our rangelands, our mule deer and pronghorn antelope habitat, and our Western way of life," Reid said.
Sage grouse habitat covers about 165 million acres in the West. That's about half as much as before development broke up the sagebrush landscape of the West, which supports hundreds of species.
Jewell cited estimates that the sage grouse population has dropped as much as 90 percent since the 19th century.
"By many measures the sage grouse serves as the pulse of this imperiled ecosystem," she said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said that "despite long-term population declines, sage-grouse remain relatively abundant and well-distributed across the species' 173 million acre range."
The Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that, when the expected benefits of ongoing conservation efforts are considered, the bird is not at risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.
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