DENVER — Federal officials say their decision to protect dwindling Gunnison sage grouse populations in Colorado and Utah has no bearing on next year's highly anticipated ruling on the far more widespread species of greater sage grouse — but advocates on both sides already are placing their bets.
"I think that this does not bode well for the greater sage grouse," said Amy Atwood, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. Atwood said she hopes the greater sage grouse will be protected, but she fears the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will succumb to pressure from industries that oppose the land-use restrictions such protections would bring.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, the Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, came to the opposite conclusion. He called the wildlife agency's decision to protect Gunnison grouse drastic and wrong. It "foreshadows the intentions of the Obama administration" as it considers protections for greater sage grouse in portions of 11 Western states, Hastings said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement Wednesday that it was designating the Gunnison sage grouse a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act means that it could impose limits on oil and gas drilling and other activities, although officials say the potential for energy development in the Gunnison grouse range is limited. About 2,200 square miles will be labeled as critical habitat for the bird.
Federal officials decided to protect it as a "threatened" species, a less restrictive category than "endangered."
The Fish and Wildlife Service faces a court-ordered deadline of September 2015 to rule on the greater sage grouse. That decision could affect development, energy exploration, hunting and ranching across the bird's vast range, which covers 290,000 square miles in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The greater sage grouse also is found in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Scientists say both types of grouse are related but separate species. About 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse remain in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The agency estimates the greater sage grouse population at 200,000 to 500,000.
Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, cautioned against viewing Wednesday's decision on the Gunnison grouse as a clue to the ruling on the greater sage grouse.
"These are separate species and a much different fact pattern," he said. "I think the Fish and Wildlife Service makes decisions on the facts and the science as we see it in each case."
Atwood, of the environmental group, said the agency routinely gives in to political pressure and provides less protection than imperiled species need. Her Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision on whether to protect the greater sage grouse.
Hastings, from Washington state, said the Obama administration is more interested in meeting arbitrary court deadlines than making rulings based on science.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Theo Stein declined to respond directly to Atwood's and Hastings' criticism, but he noted stark differences between the two grouse populations, including their numbers and distribution.
Brian Rutledge, a vice president of the National Audubon Society, a bird-focused conservation group, said the wildlife agency makes its decisions based on science, not pressure.
"Are they always right? I can't answer that," he said. "But I have high expectations. I know the people involved, and I think they will do the very best they can."
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