By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - A long-simmering debate in the American West over an imperiled ground-dwelling bird was headed for climax on Tuesday with the Obama administration expected to unveil a conservation plan lacking Endangered Species Act protections.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was due to appear with four Western state governors at a wildlife refuge in Colorado to present a final strategy for saving the greater sage grouse while allowing energy development, mining and ranching to co-exist with the chicken-sized prairie fowl.
Whether the administration's approach finally quells the protracted dispute or prompts a new round of litigation will depend on the details.
A draft conservation plan outlined by the federal government in late May drew mixed reviews from environmentalists, with some saying the proposals offered too little protection and too many loopholes.
The plight of the grouse - a key indicator species for the vanishing sagebrush ecosystem of the American prairie - has pitted conservation groups against oil and gas drilling, wind farms, cattle grazing and housing development interests in one of the biggest industry-versus-nature controversies in decades.
Unlike many such battles of the past, commercial interests at odds with environmentalists have embraced conservation efforts aimed at staving off potentially tougher restrictions under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Both sides said they expected the administration to decide against listing the grouse as an endangered or threatened species and instead combine new federal safeguards with various measures devised by the states.
A draft plan unveiled three months ago by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management would designate protected zones for the birds and limit energy projects in and around those areas.
Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist for the group WildEarth Guardians, said Jewell had signaled strongly in recent public statements her inclination to avoid extending Endangered Species Act protections to the grouse.
Kathleen Sgamma, a vice president of the Western Energy Alliance, said her group had likewise "heard from a number of sources" that the administration would decline to list the bird formally while issuing a final version of the plan it proposed in May.
The greater sage grouse, known for elaborate courtship dances performed by males in spring, once ranged by the millions across a broad expanse of the western United States and Canada.
They are now believed to number between 200,000 and 500,000 birds in 11 Western states and southern Alberta. Wyoming accounts for about 40 percent of them.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Trott)