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DALLAS (Reuters) - Efforts to protect an iconic bird could disrupt oil, natural gas and wind energy development in the U.S. West and add to the Democratic Party's green woes ahead of the 2010 congressional elections.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until February 26 to decide whether or not to list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. This may prove politically charged as it comes in the face of opposition from energy interests and state governments who fear it will hurt economic development.
It could lead to a battle between the Obama administration and groups linked to the Republican Party -- such as oil and gas interests. The issue could hurt Democratic candidates in the region -- including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. The bird's range includes much of the state.
Wyoming has already taken steps to protect the bird in a bid to stave off an Endangered Species listing which Governor Dave Freudenthal has said would be bad for the state's economy because of the industry regulations it would bring.
The large ground bird is totally dependent on sage brush. Parts of Wyoming have been identified as "core" areas crucial to the bird's survival.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Monday issued guidelines to protect the bird which state officials and environmentalists say will effectively preclude wind power development in about 20 percent of the sprawling state. The BLM move bolstered Wyoming's steps to identify key grouse habitat.
"I don't read the policy to completely ban wind energy in these areas though the restrictions might make it difficult to have an economically viable wind project (in them)," said Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy for American Wind Energy Association.
Wind energy is usually seen as "green" but environmentalists say wind turbines and the development that goes with them will further fragment critical sage habitat.
Even before Monday's BLM action, moves to protect the bird had thrown uncertainty around Wyoming projects such as a $600 million wind farm proposed by Horizon Wind Energy.
Analysts say any negative fallout for the wind industry will give Republicans ammunition to argue that the administration will sacrifice green initiatives, such as reducing carbon emissions, for the sake of a bird.
"The idea that wind power is a danger to the grouse is going to be a hard sell politically," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"It is the sort of thing that the Bush administration would have ignored and said forget it, whereas the Obama administration takes the science seriously. This will convince many of the fecklessness of the Democratic Party," he said.
The BLM is a federal agency responsible for about 253 million acres of public lands and its Wyoming guidelines could be expanded to 10 other states where the bird is found.
"We are concerned about ensuring that there are adequate protections for the sage grouse. It's an issue that we have been looking at since this administration came to office," said Celia Boddington, spokeswoman, Bureau of Land Management.
"BLM Wyoming has issued guidance for the sage grouse and we anticipate national guidance to be forthcoming shortly. The national guidance will have the same goals," she said.
The new rules also mean that in some areas future developments by the oil and gas industry would be restricted to one drilling location, or pad, per square mile (2.6 square km).
"We are carefully reviewing the habitat policy to determine what if any impact it will have on our operations in Wyoming," said Julie Gentz, a spokeswoman for Williams, which produces natural gas in Wyoming.
Environmental groups such as the National Audubon Society say the Wyoming model adopted by BLM was developed with industry to head off the need for a federal listing -- and to allow energy developments such as wind turbines in areas not seen as absolutely crucial to the bird's continued existence.
"The guidelines laid out by the BLM will definitely be considered (in a listing decision)," said Pat Deibert, the lead Fish and Wildlife Service biologist on the issue.
Deibert said a listing would not choke all energy projects in the region but would add an additional regulatory hurdle for those that required federal approval or funds. Federal agencies have to ensure such activities do not jeopardize the existence of a listed species or adversely modify its habitat.
Editing by David Gregorio