updated 9/26/2007 11:18:32 AM ET 2007-09-26T15:18:32

Federal wildlife officials have released a long-range plan for removing a tiny bird that nests on West Coast beaches from Endangered Species Act protections by 2047, but a conservation group called it an "extinction plan."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its recovery plan for the Western snowy plover 17 months after the agency rejected petitions to end the shorebird's designation as a threatened species. The 292-page document lays out population targets for six coastal areas in California, Oregon and Washington and other criteria that would have to be met for such a delisting to take place.

Overall, it calls for an average population of 3,000 breeding adults to be maintained for 10 years and one chick reaching independence for every adult male in each of the six areas for the final five years of federal protection. More than 1,900 adult snow plovers, which were listed as threatened in 1993, were estimated to be living along the bird's three-state coastal range last year, according to Fish and Wildlife.

Because snowy plovers lay their eggs on open sand, the bird's threatened status has led to seasonal closures of popular beaches during its March-through-September nesting season. Last year, acting on requests from the Surf Ocean Beach Commission of Lompoc and the city of Morro Bay, the wildlife service refused to remove the species from federal protection.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a wildlife protection group, criticized the plan for setting population targets it thinks are too low.

"This is an extinction plan, not a recovery plan," said Kieran Suckling, the center's policy director. He said that because the target populations are close to being reached in some areas, "the low bar" set by federal wildlife officials provided fewer safeguards for the birds.

Fish and Wildlife said in the plan that because the snowy plover lives in areas where it comes into close human contact, nonprofit groups, beach users, land owners and other non-government entities should be involved in "a collaborative stewardship approach" for monitoring and protecting the birds and their nests.

"These groups can provide large networks of volunteers who can be mobilized to assist public resource agencies," the agency said in a statement announcing the plan's publication in the Federal Register.

For the snowy plover to be considered no longer threatened, the 10-year average census would have to reach 250 breeding adults in Washington and Oregon; 150 from Del Morte to Mendocino counties in California; 500 birds in the San Francisco Bay area; 400 birds along the coast from Sonoma to Monterey counties; 1,200 from San Luis Obispo to Ventura counties, and 500 from Los Angeles to San Diego counties.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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