DENVER (AP) — Federal officials granted protection to the Gunnison sage grouse on Wednesday, a move that could bring restrictions on oil and gas drilling and other activity to preserve the bird's habitat in parts of Colorado and Utah.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper immediately renewed the state's threat to sue to block the measures. He said the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignores 20 years of work by state and local officials to protect the bird.
Utah officials were also critical, with Gov. Gary Herbert calling the decision a step backward for conservation and the economy.
Some environmental groups praised the decision, while others said it did not go far enough.
Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said the bird qualifies as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, meaning it's likely to be pushed to the brink of extinction soon.
Threatened status is less serious than endangered, which means a species is on the verge of extinction now and requires tighter restrictions.
An estimated 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse remain in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. About 2,200 square miles will be designated as critical habitat.
The extent of restrictions on drilling and other activities was not immediately known. Ashe said the area does not appear to have significant potential for energy.
Drilling could continue despite the restrictions, he said.
"I think the industry knows how to develop with minimal surface disturbance," Ashe said. But he said the agency will closely examine any activity that could affect the bird.
Energy companies could be required to consolidate drilling on fewer sites and use directional drilling to avoid disturbing habitat, he said.
The Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas producers in the West, said Ashe is underestimating the impact on companies already operating in the area.
"We really view this listing decision as unnecessary and unfortunate," said Kathleen Sgamma, a spokeswoman for the group.
Sgamma agreed the industry knows how to lessen its impact on wildlife, which she said calls into question the need for the threatened-species listing.
Threatened status gives federal officials flexibility in approving new or expanded agricultural operations, Ashe said. Landowners who already have agreements with the federal government to protect the Gunnison grouse won't see any change, he said.
The Gunnison grouse is related to the greater sage grouse, which is at the center of a separate and larger debate over federal protection across 11 Western states. The Fish and Wildlife Service has a September 2015 court-ordered deadline to rule on the greater sage grouse.
Ashe cautioned against viewing Wednesday's decision as a clue to the next ruling. "These are separate species and a much different fact pattern," he said.
Hickenlooper and local officials in Colorado sought to delay the Gunnison grouse decision, saying voluntary steps could help save the bird.
Ashe praised the work state and local officials have done, saying it helped avoid the more stringent "endangered" status.
Some Republican and Democratic members of Congress from both states criticized the decision.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Director Greg Sheehan said the listing will require "tedious and time-consuming" federal reviews and will hurt preservation efforts more than help.
Ashe said he had asked WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group that filed suit to force a decision, for a delay, but the group declined.
WildEarth Guardians said threatened status was inadequate and the bird should have been granted more stringent endangered status.
"We can't gamble on the survival of this bird with the voluntary or scientifically inadequate protections that could be allowed under a 'threatened species' designation," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the group.
Clait Braun, a scientist who studied Gunnison sage grouse for the Colorado Division of Wildlife from 1977 to 1999, agreed.
"This is a token. It's not a serious effort to conserve this species," said Braun, who runs a consulting company called Grouse Inc.
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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