Dave Showalter / Colorado Parks and Wildlife / AP Photo

New federal protection for bird may limit energy production

Protection of the Gunnison sage-grouse as a threatened species may restrict oil and gas drilling in Colorado and Utah

Federal officials granted protection as a threatened species 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.

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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a September 2015 court-ordered deadline to rule on the greater sage grouse.

Some environmental groups praised the decision to protect the Gunnison sage grouse, 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 and the extent of restrictions on drilling and other activities was not immediately known.

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.

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 Associated Press

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