updated 11/11/2004 1:44:33 PM ET 2004-11-11T18:44:33

Interior Secretary Gale Norton is touting private conservation programs to protect a rare grouse species instead of the Endangered Species Act, the use of which could disrupt new natural gas and oil drilling in the West.

“Lots of people have gotten involved to try to find ways of protecting the sage grouse without having to list it on the endangered species list,” Norton said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

Norton said extending federal protections to the bird would have a “very significant potential impact” on development. The Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service plans to decide by the end of the year, in response to petitions from environmental groups, whether to consider the sage grouse a species whose survival is endangered or, to a lesser degree, threatened.

Norton was careful to suggest that any decision would be based on ongoing scientific review of the species’ chances. She said it would be weighed against government and private conservation efforts, including those by cattlemen, energy producers and state wildlife officials.

“Then the question’s whether those are sufficient to maintain the species. ... That’s really a scientific decision,” she said.

Habitat over 770,000 square miles
Federal protections for sage grouse, which would require developers to assess and minimize any impacts on the bird, could have far-reaching consequences, particularly on Bush administration plans for more domestic energy production using public lands.

The bird’s sagebrush habitat is spread among an estimated 770,000 square miles in 11 states, including much of the Rocky Mountain’s natural gas fields.

“It has very significant potential impact,” Norton said about the grouse, a bird that looks like a large quail. “It is a very large area that is potentially affected by a listing, but there are some very large conservation efforts that are taking place.”

Oil and gas wells and pipelines now affect at least a quarter of all sagebrush habitat, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

North America’s largest grouse, the sage grouse is a brown, black and white bird that weighs up to eight pounds and has a mustard-colored pouch on its throat. As few as 100,000 greater sage grouse may remain. But at one time there may have up to 16 million of them breeding, strutting and nesting among the sagebrush-covered expanses of the Western United States and Canada, the government estimates.

'More flexibility'
Some $1.3 billion has flowed from the Interior Department to states and private landowners during the past three years to protect open spaces, wildlife habitat and endangered species, according to agency figures, but officials say they do not know exactly how much of that is solely to save the sage grouse.

The Agriculture Department in August awarded $2 million specifically to save grasslands for the sage grouse in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Washington state.

Norton said her agency has provided “a lot more flexibility to design programs that fit local needs outside the context of the Endangered Species Act, and that is what has motivated people to try to identify conservation programs that they want to pursue.”

Fish and Wildlife Service background on the sage grouse is online at mountain-prairie.fws.gov/species/birds/sagegrouse/

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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