The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it won’t list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species, a widely anticipated decision that removes the threat of broad land-use restrictions to protect the bird across the West.
Instead, the Interior Department said it would rely on a new land-management plan to protect the sage grouse’s habitat of 165 million acres in 11 Western states—mostly on federal land.
The Interior Department was facing a court-ordered deadline to decide by October whether to designate the chicken-like bird as endangered. The designation could have led to land-use and other restrictions that critics feared would have economic impacts, possibly restricting oil and gas development and home-building.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell credited what she called unprecedented state, federal and local cooperation for helping conserve enough habitat to stave off the listing.
“These collective efforts add up to a bright future for the sage grouse,” Ms. Jewell said in a video statement.
The decision drew praise from environmental groups and natural-resource users who often are at odds with one another. Ranchers had worried a federal listing could have resulted in closure of public lands that many have relied on for decades to graze their cattle.
“Once you get a listing, it creates a real burden,” said John O’Keefe, president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
Instead, Mr. O’Keefe and many other ranchers have participated in an Interior Department program rolled out in recent years to set up voluntary conservation zones in a number of Western states, including Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon.
Under deals with the department, ranchers have agreed to protect sage grouse habitat such as by keeping cows out of known mating areas. In return, they have enjoyed benefits, including hope their cooperation would eventually head off a listing.
Interior officials had cited such voluntary efforts by ranchers when they announced in April they would keep a population of sage grouse in California and Nevada off the endangered list—raising expectations the department would follow suit in the broader West.
“I think it will be way better for the grouse, because right now everybody is doing something to help them,” said Mr. O’Keefe, a public-lands rancher in southeastern Oregon.
The Environmental Defense Fund supports the government’s decision because of the ranchers’ efforts, said Eric Holst, a senior director of the Washington-based group.
“Today’s ’not warranted’ decision sends a strong signal that investments in conservation are making a difference and provide the catalyst for a different kind of politics,” Mr. Holst said.
But some other environmentalists blasted the decision, saying Ms. Jewell missed an opportunity to take an important step to protect one of the West’s iconic species. John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group based in Santa Fe, N.M., blamed the decision on what he called efforts by the Obama administration to curry favor with Western lawmakers.
“That is the great tragedy of the day, that this decision would be based on politics not science,” he said. Mr. Horning said his group would seek to challenge Ms. Jewell’s decision in federal court.
Views in the energy industry, meanwhile, were mixed.
While saying they were pleased by the nonlisting too, officials of the Western Energy Alliance trade group expressed concern over the Interior Department’s plans to conserve sage grouse habitat by establishing buffer zones around mating grounds, also known as leks.
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Denver-based alliance, said the restrictions could lead to generally more rigorous oversight across the West.
“They will make it nearly impossible to operate in sage grass areas,” Ms. Sgamma said.
Some Republicans in Congress also attacked the conservation plans, saying they amount to a de facto endangered species listing.
“The new prescriptive federal plans will not help the bird, but they will control the West, which is the real goal of the Obama administration,” said House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R., Utah).
But Western governors praised the decision as an example of the federal government acknowledging different stakeholders could engineer a solution.
“Landowners, regional industries, and local, state and federal government have worked in close collaboration over many years,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said in a statement. “These improvements will enhance not only sage grouse, but also all manner of wildlife that are a crucial part of what makes Colorado and the American West the unique place that it is.”