WASHINGTON (AP) _ Some wildlife experts want to make the greater sage grouse an endangered species icon. Its Western habitat, unfortunately, is atop some of the nation's largest untapped natural gas fields.
The grouse has lost about nine-tenths of its 2 million population in Western states and Canada since the early 19th century. A decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether it should be listed as an endangered species is expected by the end of the year.
Developers wanting to drill for natural gas in the grouse's habitat, in sagebrush-covered areas of Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, are tense.
``It makes everybody stop in their tracks and have to deal with deadlines and paperwork,'' Greg Schnacke, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said at a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing Friday. He said the threat it will be listed is stalling efforts to lease mineral and drilling rights.
Terry Crawforth, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, told the panel the grouse population has diminished to the point where ``if they don't have sagebrush, they won't survive.''
If environmental groups have their way, the Fish and Wildlife Service would not only place the birds on its endangered species list, it also would restrict further use of grouse habitat spread among 770,000 square miles in 11 states.
More than a quarter of sagebrush habitat is affected by oil and gas wells and pipelines, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
John O'Keefe, representing the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said ranchers worry that an endangered species listing for the grouse would produce lawsuits challenging ranchers' grazing rights on the land.
Crawforth said it's still possible to avoid protracted legal battles such as those that made the northern spotted owl a revered and reviled symbol of the environmental movement in the 1990s.
After the owl gained protected status in 1990 due to the loss of its habitat to logging, the Clinton administration settled lawsuits brought by environmentalists by reducing logging on tens of millions of acres of federal land.
``We're hoping that the sage grouse can become the poster child for the sage, and not become a spotted owl,'' Crawforth said, referring to the owl's use in environmental lawsuits.
The Agriculture Department already is doling out dollars to ranchers and farmers willing to set aside some of their land for grouse habitat. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., said he envisions government relying on ``a broader management of land'' with less federal control.
The controversy hasn't stopped the Bush administration from proceeding with lease sales. After Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal cautioned the Interior Department against offering more land around Pinedale for oil and gas drilling, the Interior Department went ahead with a lease sale anyway.
Freudenthal, a Democrat, had told the department additional oil and gas leasing would ``further jeopardize sage grouse habitat, migration corridors, crucial habitat and other important resources'' for wildlife.