RENO, Nev. - Documentation of an "impressive" number of steps being taken to save the sage grouse from extinction may be enough to keep the bird off the U.S. list of protected species despite significant loss of its habitat to wildfires across much of the West in recent years, a top Interior Department official said.

Assistant Interior Secretary Stephen Allred emphasized he will play no role in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's upcoming decision on whether the greater sage grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act across 11 Western states.

But Allred said during interviews while attending a wildfire conference in Reno on Tuesday and Wednesday his department has made some significant policy changes aimed at bolstering populations since USFWS rejected a listing petition in 2005. He believes the bird would be better off in the long run if it is not listed as threatened or endangered.

"From a practical standpoint, the identified measures I've seen encourages me that we are doing what we need to do," said Allred, assistant secretary for land and mineral management.

"They are pretty impressive. There's a considerable difference from six years ago," he told The Associated Press.

"You lose so much flexibility when you list that the ability to do what I'm going to call sort of 'out of the box' things to improve (habitat) is severely restricted," he said. "So I am hopeful that what we are seeing is that we are dealing with the issue and that will make a difference and it won't be listed."

A judge in Idaho overturned the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision last December amid allegations Interior Department managers interfered with the science used in assessing the sage grouse and ordered the agency to conduct another review.

Sharon Rose, a spokeswoman for the wildlife service in Denver, on Thursday said the agency is still gathering and reviewing information and no imminent decision on a listing is expected.

The chicken-sized game bird is found in 11 Western states on sagebrush plains and high desert from Colorado to California and north to the Canadian border. Its population has been declining for decades and it now occupies about half of its original, year-round habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2005 there were 100,000 to 500,000 sage grouse.

A study released in October by an environmental group that advocates federal protection for the bird concluded fourth-fifths of sage grouse habitat is adversely affected by either livestock grazing, natural gas and oil development or invasive weeds. It singled out livestock grazing - permitted on 91 percent of the bird's range - as "the most ubiquitous use of sage grouse habitat on federal public land."

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