The Interior Department declared Friday that an iconic Western bird deserves federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, but declined to offer that protection immediately -- a split decision that will allow oil and gas drilling to continue across large swaths of the mountainous West.
The department issued a so-called "warranted but precluded" designation for the greater sage grouse, meaning that the bird merits protection but won't receive it for now because other species are a higher priority.
The decision is likely to anger environmentalists who sued the Bush administration for refusing to declare the bird endangered.
It could buoy oil and gas companies -- and Republican lawmakers from the West -- who have warned that such a declaration would freeze drilling in areas of Wyoming and other states that are also sage grouse habitat.
For practical purposes, the ruling leaves sage grouse protection largely in the hands of states.
"The sage grouse's decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in an issued statement.
"This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species' survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources," Salazar said. "Voluntary conservation agreements, federal financial and technical assistance and other partnership incentives can play a key role in this effort."
Sage grouse have dwindled to about half of their historic range due to habitat destruction, and some scientists warn that the birds could disappear within the next 30 to 100 years.