- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has ordered state agencies to enact a program to conserve greater sage grouse populations by the start of next year as federal officials consider whether more sweeping protections are needed.

The order issued Tuesday follows on a 2014 grouse conservation plan that places some restrictions on oil and gas drilling and other activities blamed for driving down sage grouse numbers.

Critics of the state plan say it has too many loopholes allowing companies to get around the restrictions.

Sage grouse are chicken-sized ground dwellers that range across 11 western states.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a September 30 deadline to decide if recent state and federal conservation efforts are enough to keep the bird off the list of threatened and endangered species.

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