SAN FRANCISCO Federal wildlife officials on Friday proposed to list as threatened populations of greater sage grouse in Nevada and California in an effort to save the struggling species, a decision that promises to have wide-ranging effects on mineral and energy development in the West.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that invasive species and energy development in the desert have had a devastating effect on the large, ground-dwelling bird's populations, said Ted Koch, Nevada state supervisor for the service.
"It's not the 11th hour for sage grouse here, but it is maybe the 10th hour," Koch said. "And that's good news. It means we have some time and space to turn things around."
The service found multiple threats facing this specific sub-population of the sage grouse, a chicken-size bird whose males have a large white tuft of feathers around their necks.
The service estimates there are only about 5,000 of the birds left.
Non-native pinyon pine and juniper trees introduced to the habitat, coupled with the power lines that crisscross through the area have given low-to-the-ground perches for raptors, which eat the grouse, Koch said.
The service also found that an invasive grass from Asia that burns easily has helped decimate sagebrush, which is key to the grouse's survival. The cheat grass rebounds after wildfires much quicker than sagebrush.
The final decision on the service's proposal will occur next year, and the public will have 60 days to comment and there will be two public meetings to discuss the findings, one in Bishop, Calif., and the other in Smith Valley, Nev.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the decision will have "major ramifications" on the way of life in parts of Nevada and California.
Ranchers, miners and energy developers who use the mostly public lands that serve as the sage grouse's habitat have opposed the listing, saying it would have a deep economic impact in the rural West.
"This listing is further proof that we need to work together to protect sensitive species before they get to such a dismal point and negatively affect our rural economies," Reid said in a statement.
Friday's proposed listing comes as the service is also determining whether the entire western sage grouse population should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Sage grouse also live in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and parts of Canada.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the service to protect the sage grouse, said the decision was long overdue.
"The sage grouse we have here in Nevada and California is a true symbol of all that is wild -- what a relief that it's finally getting the protection it needs to survive," Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based center ecologist, said in a statement.