RENO, Nev. (AP) - The threat of the Endangered Species Act has kindled awareness to the plight of sage grouse and energized efforts to try to save the plump bird that covered the high deserts when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made their way West.
"This really is a serious situation. We could lose this bird," said Clait Braun, who has studied the birds for nearly 30 years and is a retired biologist with the Colorado Division of Fish and Game.
"It was the premier game bird in North America for decades. Now we're down to a smidgeon," he said.
Experts believe as many as 2 million sage grouse inhabited what was to become 16 western states and three Canadian provinces in 1805 when explorers Lewis and Clark first noted the birds with their curved, convex beaks.
A large bird males weigh up to 7 pounds, females about half that their numbers today are estimated at 140,000, dotted across 11 states. They are no longer found in Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma or British Columbia.
In the past 20 years alone, their numbers have declined by as much as 80 percent, Braun said.
Loss and fragmenting of sagebrush habitat are the main reason for the bird's decline, and experts point to an even bigger problem the deteriorating overall health of millions of acres of arid terrain that covers much of the West.
"Sage grouse is really the poster child for sagebrush habitats. That's the critical issue," said Terry Crawforth, director of the Nevada Division of Wildlife.
"There's lots of species associated with a sagebrush zone," said San Stiver, a biologist with the Nevada agency. "It's just fortuitous that we're into sage grouse first, because if we protect sage grouse and their habitat, we've protected a whole host of species."
A petition to list sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species in the state of Washington was filed with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 1999.
In January 2000, a similar petition was made on behalf of Gunnison sage grouse found in Colorado and Utah, which last year was classified as a distinct species from other sage grouse known as the northern or greater sage grouse.
Fish and Wildlife classified the Gunnison as a "candidate" species, meaning it remains a concern and conservation efforts should be taken.
The petition for the Washington population is pending. Environmental groups, meanwhile, are working on a broader petition seeking the listing of the general population of the northern sage grouse found in 11 western states.
"We are still working on that document," said Mark Salvo, grasslands advocate for American Lands Alliance.
Complicating the effort, Salvo said, is a one-year moratorium on the listing process imposed by the agency last November.
Environmental groups plan to challenge the moratorium in court.
"We are waiting for that issue to be resolved," Salvo said. "The other reason we haven't filed a petition yet is because we haven't quite finished with our study. It takes a long time to compile and analyze the information."
Experts and environmentalists say just the threat of a listing has sparked cooperative efforts to help the bird.
In Nevada and elsewhere, groups of volunteers and conservationists are working with state and federal officials to develop protection plans.
Last June, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn appointed a 25-member team comprising people from diverse interests and backgrounds to develop a strategy. The panel hopes to have recommendations by fall.
"The threat of listing has really done a great job of elevating the status of sage grouse in the eyes of the agencies, politicians, land users and, perhaps most importantly, the public," Salvo said.
Environmentalists fear the voluntary measures will fall short of what is needed.
"Some of the plans are perhaps a little too voluntary or unfunded," Salvo said. "For that reason, we are wary of them.
"But we do appreciate the momentum these groups bring."
Sage grouse are landscape-scale species, meaning they need large swaths of land to fulfill their daily or yearly needs. A healthy sagebrush ecosystem is critical to their survival.
Anyone who has traveled the West knows the monotony of seemingly endless miles of the scrubby terrain. But experts say the amount of sagebrush actually is dwindling, being lost to wildland fires, taken over by forests, plowed under for agriculture or bulldozed for development, mining and energy operations.
"Everybody in the West is relatively responsible at some level for the decline in habitat," Stiver said. "We move power, we move people across highways. We all eat farm products, we all need water for our cities to run.
"We've heard mining is a problem, ranching is a problem, hunting is a problem. But it's not nearly that simple."
Some sagebrush is old and of poor nutritional value to sage grouse. As sagebrush ages, the chemical compounds in its leaves change, making it less palatable, Stiver explained.
Adding to the bird's demise is its bottom-rung standing in the food chain from the egg to maturity. In the survivalist hierarchy of the animal kingdom, it is everybody's dinner. Seemingly benign power wires or fences across remote countryside provide convenient buffet lines for predators.
"Sage grouse evolved with most of the predators out there," Braun said. But when habitat is chopped into small pieces, predators "can search more thoroughly."
Protecting the bird will require changes in public land management, Braun said.
"We're going to have to start managing public lands to benefit more than cows," he said.
Sage grouse eat sagebrush in the winter. And though grazing tends to increase the amount of sagebrush, livestock also eat the tall grasses in which hens nest and the delicate forbes that chicks feed on in the spring, Braun said.
Dennis Hellwinkle of the Nevada Farm Bureau said many ranchers share concerns for the bird's future and are eager to work toward protecting it, and dispute suggestions that ranching is responsible for its decline. He added that an overall listing shouldn't be granted while hunting of the birds is still allowed, as it is in several states.
"When you have an open season to hunt this bird, how can you call it endangered?" Hellwinkle asked.
Abolishing hunting seasons should be the first step "to see if the numbers come back," he said.