Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has adopted an interim policy to protect the greater sage grouse in 10 Western states until it can implement long-term policies to preserve habitat for the mainly ground-dwelling bird.

The BLM on Tuesday issued two memos to employees with guidance for managing sage grouse habitat.

One memo covers mining, oil and gas leasing, grazing and other common activities on public land. The memo allows for more detailed review of oil and gas leasing, for instance, if a leasing proposal doesn't include sufficient measures to offset loss of sage grouse habitat.

The other memo says BLM employees must consider all applicable conservation measures in large-scale resource management planning for BLM lands that include sage grouse habitat.

The interim policy comes a few weeks after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead hosted a meeting of federal and state officials from around the West to talk about developing a regional policy for sage grouse.

Sage grouse have been disappearing with the encroachment of human development on their sagebrush habitat. Their numbers are down some 90 percent across the West over the past century.

The chicken-sized birds known for their elaborate mating rituals have been in a sort of regulatory limbo. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in 2010 they deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act but that other species were higher priorities for protection as threatened or endangered.

In September, a judge approved a court settlement that set a 2015 deadline for Fish and Wildlife to decide the birds' status under the Endangered Species Act. The settlement resolved more than a dozen lawsuits that challenged the government's handling of some 250 species including the greater sage grouse.

A threatened or endangered listing for sage grouse could severely impede oil, gas and wind energy development in the West. Federal and state officials both say they don't want that to happen. The legal settlement started a clock ticking to protect sage grouse habitat and avert listing.

Meanwhile, the BLM has been looking at taking elements of a much-lauded sage grouse conservation strategy pioneered in Wyoming to other states. Wyoming's strategy designated core areas of sage grouse habitat where there are certain restrictions on development.

"We are working to do this in a way that protects the health of our land, while also facilitating safe and responsible energy development and recreational opportunities that power our economy," BLM Director Bob Abbey said of the interim policy in a release.

"By proactively addressing sage grouse conservation concerns on BLM lands, we also hope to maintain the widest possible range of options for our neighboring landowners."

An environmental group criticized the interim planning memos as too loosely written to protect sage grouse amid pressure to develop public land.

"In cases where BLM officials want to ignore the welfare of sage grouse and ram through projects that are detrimental, there will be little in the new policy to stop them," Erik Molvar with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance said in a release.

Greater sage grouse inhabit as much as 47 million acres of BLM land in 10 states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, the Dakotas, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. The interim policy focuses on habitat where the birds breed, raise their young and concentrate during the winter.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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