March 31 (UPI) -- A genetically distinct type of greater sage grouse found on the border between Nevada and California is not eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday.
The agency report, published in the Federal Register, said the bi-state sage grouse does not meet qualifications to be listed as a threatened species because existing area conservation groups and wildlife agencies have created plans to protect the bird's high-altitude sagebrush habitat.
About 3,300 birds remain on 4.5 million acres of high-desert range between the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains on the diagonal border between Nevada and California.
Sage grouse are large, ground-dwelling prairie chickens distinctive for their strutting mating rituals in which males fan their plumage and inflate orange air sacs on their chests.
The bird's habitat is threatened by disruption of the sagebrush environment, wildfires and livestock grazing.
A parallel battle over endangered species listing is raging over the greater sage grouse, where the bird's population has dropped in the U.S. West from 16 million fowl 200 years ago to fewer than 300,000 today.
A "threatened" listing would impose strict federal restrictions on cattle and sheep grazing and other land uses, possibly causing local livestock producers to lose access to federal grazing privileges or blocking future real estate development.
"[State wildlife] agencies and industry are more fearful than anyone about an Endangered Species Act listing and foresee difficulties," said Brian Rutledge, Rocky Mountain vice president of the National Audubon Society. "That's why they have cooperated so fully to help develop a policy they could live with."
Since 2002, a working group of federal and state land management agencies, as well as tribal members and private ranchers and landowners has been collaborating on a $45 million plan to improve sagebrush habitat and sage grouse numbers.
The Fish and Wildlife report said conservation stakeholders have worked to protect 50,000 acres of habitat.
"This partnership shows that conservation for at-risk species can be successful when we work together and leverage our resources," Paul Souza, the Fish and Wildlife director for the California-Great Basin Region, said in a statement.
"Everyone moves forward with the best available science and works to have the biggest impact and they hope for the best," said Amy Sturgill, data and communications coordinator for the Bi-State Sage Grouse Local Area Working Group, which developed the conservation plan.
But members of conservation groups criticized the efforts of the voluntary conservation collaborative as unsuccessful.
"These stakeholder handshake conservation actions are not working because the sage grouse population is crashing," said Laura Cunningham, California director of Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group. "These birds need stronger legal protections."
The bird's predators, ravens and coyotes, are attracted by landfill sites in the area, Cunningham said. Cattle grazing, expanded by removing pinyon forests, limits the height of native prairie grasses in which birds and their chicks could hide, she added.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service seems to be completely catering to the ranching industry, to chop down trees and make more forage for cows," Cunningham said.
The federal wildlife agency had been blocked from delisting the species as threatened by a 2018 ruling from the U.S. District Court of Northern California, which directed the agency to restudy the bird's situation.
The Fish and Wildlife agency's analysis said even if the bird didn't qualify for endangered species status, the species still was at risk.
"Small population size and a discontinuous population structure occur throughout the Bi-State [distinct population segment]'s range, which could make the Bi-State more vulnerable to impacts of threats," the report said.