- Associated Press - Thursday, December 18, 2014

DENVER (AP) - Congress acted too late if it wanted to block protections for a rare bird found only in Colorado and Utah, state and federal officials say.

A spending bill approved by Congress last week included a rider that blocks the Interior Department from spending money on rules to protect the Gunnison sage grouse. But one of its bureaus, the Fish and Wildlife Service, declared the less common bird threatened on Nov. 20, three weeks before the spending bill passed.

An estimated 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse remain, all of them in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The federal protections put in place last month bring restrictions on oil and gas drilling and other activity on up to 2,200 square miles of the bird’s habitat.

The Gunnison grouse is related to the more common greater sage grouse, which is at the center of a separate and larger debate over federal protection across 11 Western states. The spending bill forbids money for rules to protect the greater sage grouse.

The wording on the Gunnison grouse appeared to be an oversight, perhaps written before it was declared threatened and never updated. It wasn’t known who drafted the provision.

“The language does not stop the Gunnison (sage grouse) from being listed,” said Emily Beyer, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department. But the measure does interfere with work on exemptions that would give landowners more certainty about what bird-protection restrictions they might face, she said.

John Harja, a policy analyst in Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office, said Interior officials could have ensured the exemption work, which would soften those restrictions, could proceed when they listed the bird last month.

The rider expires late next year. The prospects of it being rewritten, renewed or allowed to die are unclear.

Colorado has said it plans to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the listing, arguing the agency paid too little attention to state and local conservation efforts. Harja said Utah plans to file a notice of intent to sue, taking the same position as Colorado.

A coalition of environmental groups also plans to sue, arguing the Gunnison grouse is in worse shape than Fish and Wildlife said and should have been granted the more protective endangered status.


Follow Dan Elliott at https://twitter.com/DanElliottAP

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