WASHINGTON (CN) - Both environmentalists and energy developers expressed support for the Interior Department's decision Friday to list the sage grouse as a candidate for the endangered species list, as a compromise in the conflict between the bird and the wind turbines and power lines it avoids. "We've now been told very clearly that the bird does merit protection," said Audubon Society official Brian Rutledge. "The improvement over the last administration is so great that it would be impossible for me to even make a comparison."
Energy groups said they are relieved the greater sage grouse was not listed as an endangered species because the decision allows for wind farm, gas and oil development to continue in the sagebrush expanses of the West, albeit under greater scrutiny.
The chicken-size birds don't like to nest near tall structures like wind turbines and power lines for fear that eagles and other predators will perch on the structures.
The grouse's numbers have dropped by 90 percent from their historic population, but state efforts have since maintained the population sizes at a steady level over the last decade. Encroaching development and fires, however, have steadily eaten away at the bird's habitat. It now occupies 56 percent of its original range.
Interior Sec. Ken Salazar said, "We must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species' survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources."
While the government found that the bird is in danger of going extinct, it decided that more threatened species should be given priority.
Rutledge, who is the Audubon Wyoming Executive Director, said he agreed. "I think the candidate list is the place for it," he said. "It's just a logistical question."
But the grouse's status as a candidate still means that federal agencies are now charged with protecting it, and that it will be monitored every year to determine whether it needs more extensive protections.
Many populations might disappear over the next 30 to 100 years if trends from the 1960s persist, with the remaining fragmented populations vulnerable to extinction over the long-term.
More than half of North America's sage grouse are estimated to be in Wyoming, but the bird, sporting a motley coat of brown, white and black, is found between North Dakota and Colorado, and as far West as California.
The Interior Department's action stems from a 2006 lawsuit by the Western Watersheds Project, an Idaho environmental group. A federal judge ruled in 2007 that an earlier decision not to list the sage grouse was tainted by political pressure during the Bush administration.
"This is more than about the bird," Rutledge said. "This is about the sagebrush ecosystem. This bird is a litmus test for how we have taken care of the sage and we have not taken care of it very well."
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