May 28, 2015 / 10:33 PM / 2 years ago

U.S. government plan to protect sage grouse would limit oil and gas

May 28 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's administration plans to protect the greater sage grouse in the western United States by limiting oil and gas development and renewable energy in the bird's habitat, under a federal plan released on Thursday.

Environmentalists gave measured praise to the plan, which was released by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, even as a group representing the energy industry criticized the proposal.

Mining, energy and farming companies fear sage grouse protections could restrict their businesses.

The plan comes as another federal agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, prepares to make a decision before the end of September on whether the bird should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency will consider whether the land use plan and other actions underway to protect the bird are adequate to avoid listing it as endangered, which could impose another layer of restrictions on development.

Millions of sage grouse are believed to have once inhabited a broad expanse of the western United States, but the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that only between 200,000 and 500,000 birds now remain across 10 states.

"As land managers of two-thirds of greater sage-grouse habitat, we have a responsibility to take action that ensures a bright future for wildlife and a thriving western economy," U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.

"Together with conservation efforts from states and private landowners, we are laying an important foundation to save the disappearing sagebrush landscape of the American West."

The plan calls for protecting sage grouse habitat by prioritizing future oil and gas leases development outside of areas designated as protected zones for the bird.

Most of the areas with high potential for oil, gas and renewable energy development are outside of the sage grouse habitat, federal officials say.

The plan would also allow wind farms and solar panels, which have been shown to harm sage grouse populations, in the bird's habitat, although it would steer projects outside of habitats given high priority for protection.

Other measures in the plan include limits on power transmission lines and surface mining and an effort to fight the spread of cheatgrass, which makes wildfires more devastating to the bird.

Kathleen Sgamma, a vice president at Western Energy Alliance which represents oil and natural gas companies, said in a statement that conservation of the sage grouse should be undertaken by states and not with a "one-size-fits-all federal approach." (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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