The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on Friday proposed listing the bistate sage grouse as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which would afford special protections to 5,000 birds along the California-Nevada border. The proposed listing comes as federal regulators consider whether the entire western sage grouse population should be protected under the ESA, a decision that would have a huge impact on energy operators.

FWS earlier this year postponed a final determination to next March to list the greater sage grouse, or gunnison sage grouse, in the energy producing states of Utah and Colorado (see Daily GPI, Sept. 20; March 14).

Sage grouse species are found across the West in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and parts of Canada. In recent years western states have collaborated to maintain the sage grouse population to prevent an ESA threatened or endangered listing. A threatened listing may take years to overcome; an endangered listing could take decades.

The bistate sage grouse, smaller than the greater sage grouse, is a genetically distinct subpopulation and has been petitioned for listing since 2005. Today it is legally hunted in California and Nevada.

Federal biologists estimate that about six groups of the birds occupy about half of their historical range, with four of the six populations at risk for loss in the foreseeable future, according to the FWS. The proposed listing would designate more than 1.8 million acres as critical habitat to support the bird’s recovery. A final decision for the bistate sage grouse is expected in 2014, after which the public may comment followed by public hearings.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the FWS decision would have an economic impact on the way of life for ranchers, miners and energy developers opposed to the listing that use the mostly public lands that encompass parts of the birds’ habitat.

“This listing is further proof that we need to work together to protect sensitive species before they get to such a dismal point and negatively affect our rural economies,” Reid said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which had challenged FWS to protect the sage grouse, said the decision on Friday was overdue.

“The sage grouse we have here in Nevada and California is a true symbol of all that is wild,” said CBD ecologist Rob Mrowka. “What a relief that it’s finally getting the protection it needs to survive.”