DENVER (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday the Gunnison sage grouse is in danger of extinction as it proposed protecting the chicken-like bird with spiky tail feathers as an endangered species.
The agency has proposed designating 1.7 million acres in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah as critical habitat for the bird known for elaborate courtship displays. The designation sometimes, but not always, means restrictions on human activities on that land.
The public and the scientific community have until March 12 to comment before the agency makes a final decision on whether to list the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Rick Cables was disappointed with the proposal, which would give the state less flexibility in managing the species under federal law than if it were to be listed as threatened.
"For two decades our agency has worked closely with private landowners, county governments and others to protect and improve habitat, conduct research and work collaboratively for Gunnison sage grouse," Cables said in a statement. "We're disappointed in this listing decision. We'll continue to stand together and work closely with our partners in western Colorado that have been dedicated to keeping Gunnison sage grouse from being listed." His agency expects to submit comments on the proposal.
The environmental group WildEarth Guardians was among those cheering the news, though.
"The Gunnison sage-grouse might finally get the protection it deserves," said Mark Salvo, the group's wildlife program director, in a statement. "Federal listing will buttress efforts to conserve the species."
The Gunnison sage grouse, a smaller relative of the greater sage grouse, occupies only about 7 percent of its historic range, the Fish and Wildlife Service said. About 5,000 breeding birds remain in and around the Gunnison Basin in Colorado and Utah, according to the agency.
Agency officials had denied protection for the bird in 2006. They reconsidered after a government report found there had been political meddling as federal biologists decided whether to list multiple species.
In 2010, Fish and Wildlife said the Gunnison sage grouse warranted federal protection but that other species that had been proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act were a higher priority.
Under terms of a settlement with environmental groups, it was scheduled to make a final decision on a listing by this October.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife's efforts to protect the bird have included spending about $30 million to acquire conservation easements or properties with Gunnison sage grouse habitat, working with landowners and local governments to relocate birds to improve breeding, and working with local and federal government agencies to close roads and public land to protect breeding areas during critical times of the year.