DENVER — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday the Gunnison sage grouse is in danger of extinction, and it’s moving ahead with a process to protect the chicken-like bird with spiky tail feathers as an endangered species.
The agency has proposed designating 1.7 million acres in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah as critical habitat for the bird known for elaborate courtship displays. The designation sometimes, but not always, means restrictions on human activities on that land.
The public and the scientific community have until March 12 to comment on the proposal before the agency makes a final decision on whether to list the species as endangered.
The Gunnison sage grouse, a smaller relative of the greater sage grouse, occupies only about 7 percent of its historic range, the Fish and Wildlife Service said. About 5,000 breeding birds remain in and around the Gunnison Basin in Colorado and Utah, according to the agency.
Agency officials had denied protection for the bird in 2006. They took another look after a government report found there had been political meddling as federal biologists decided whether to list multiple species.
In 2010, Fish and Wildlife said the Gunnison sage grouse warranted federal protection but that other species that had been proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act were a higher priority.
Under terms of a settlement with environmental groups, it was scheduled to make a final decision on a listing by this October.
“The Gunnison sage-grouse might finally get the protection it deserves,” said Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, in a written statement. “Federal listing will buttress efforts to conserve the species.”
Without a listing, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, ranchers, developers and others have been working to protect Gunnison sage grouse habitat. Representatives of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association didn’t immediately return phone messages seeking comment on the Fish and Wildlife Service announcement Thursday.
Online: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service species page: http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/gunnisonsagegrouse/