By Daniel Wallis
DENVER (Reuters) - U.S. wildlife authorities listed the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened on Wednesday, disappointing environmental activists who wanted the species given greater protection, and politicians who did not want the federal government involved.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year proposed giving the ground-dwelling bird, which only exists in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, the more at-risk designation of "endangered."
But it said conservation efforts by the two states, as well by American Indian tribes, local communities, private landowners and others had helped reduce the threats to the bird enough to give it "the more flexibly protected status" of threatened.
"This is a work in progress, however, and we will continue to join our partners in protecting and restoring the rangelands with the hope that, in the near future, the Gunnison sage grouse will no longer need additional protection," Service Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.
The Gunnison sage grouse is distinct from the Greater sage grouse, which exists in 11 Western states. Both are known for elaborate courtship dances performed by male birds in spring before breeding.
Fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse remain, and several conservation groups challenged what they said was the Service's failure to adequately to protect them.
Dr. Clait Braun, who has studied Gunnison sage grouse for almost 40 years, said they stood "at the precipice of extinction" due to factors including grazing, oil and gas development and the building of residential subdivisions.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday's listing under the Endangered Species Act gives officials flexibility to tailor the conservation measures needed.
It said stakeholders will be convened in the next few weeks to discuss how to modify the restrictions to only those necessary under a special rule due to be proposed next year, as well as how to return full management authority to the states as quickly as possible through delisting.
Colorado politicians including Governor John Hickenlooper were disappointed and said the Service ignored what they called two decades of extraordinary efforts to protect the birds.
Hickenlooper said it was a massive blow to voluntary conservation efforts and that his administration would fight the listing in court.
"This sends a discouraging message to communities willing to take significant actions to protect species and complicates our good faith efforts to work with local stakeholders on locally driven approaches," he said in a statement.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)