RENO - Conservationists pushing protection of the sage grouse say the bird dubbed the ''spotted owl of the desert'' is the perfect poster child for sagebrush ecosystems endangered throughout the West.
Leaders of the American Lands Alliance say they will petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in coming months to use the Endangered Species Act to protect the northern sage grouse in several Western states.
The move for a federal listing has the potential to disrupt livestock grazing, mining and other activities throughout the bird's entire range including parts of California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas.
In the 150 years since white settlement of the West, the bird's numbers have dropped from an estimated 1.2 million to about 140,000, said Mark Salvo, grasslands advocate for American Lands Sage Grouse Conservation Project in Portland, Ore.
''The science is showing us a listing decision is warranted. What exists today is only about 8 percent of its historic numbers,'' the environmental lawyer said.
Like the owl and the Northwest's old-growth forests, the declining population of sage grouse reflects problems in the bird's overall ecosystem - from the rugged high desert of Nevada to the semi-arid plains of the Dakotas.
''This is a little loved landscape,'' Salvo said during a Monday night meeting at the Bureau of Land Management in Reno with the Nevada Wildlife Federation's Sage Grouse Working Group.
''It does not get near the attention or the money or even the political interest that forests, mountains, streams and fish get,'' he said.
Perhaps the best thing going for advocates of sage grouse protection is the bird itself, which is a little smaller than a turkey. During mating dance rituals, the colorful males fan their peacock-like tails and puff out their brown and white plumage.
''This bird is sexy,'' Salvo said.
''The bird has sales appeal. It is the perfect species to build a campaign around to help save this landscape that has received so little attention,'' he said.
''There are probably 24 or 25 other species that warrant Endangered Species Act protection and live in the same sagebrush habitat,'' he said.
The group hasn't decided how much of the bird's remaining habitat they will ask the government to protect.
Tom Myers of the Reno-based Great Basin Mine Watch said his group intends to back a petition for listing in Nevada.
Al Pfister, assistant field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Reno, said the agency anticipates the petition.
''Now is definitely the time to get on the bandwagon. We'd like to see everybody working together,'' Pfister said.
The BLM, which controls most of the lands with sage grouse in the Great Basin and Intermountain West, wants to gather information from the working group and other citizen organizations as it develops its own management plans, said Dave Pulliam, leader of the BLM's wildlife program in Nevada.
''It's in the agency's best interest to be a partner in something like this,'' he said.
Salvo said the bird is faring best in parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and southeast Oregon. It already is extinct in Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska and British Columbia, he said.
Conservationists earlier petitioned the government for protection of a northern sage grouse variety in Washington state and the gunnison sage grouse in Colorado.
Salvo said the causes of the bird's decline include a range of factors tied to the settlement of the West:
Livestock grazing, mining, herbicides, pesticides, skewed fire cycles, oil and gas drilling, off-road vehicles, even utility poles that raptors use as perches when eyeing the range for a tasty grouse.
BLM officials say the biggest cause of the decline in Nevada is the invasion of non-native cheat grass.
The dry, prickly grass, which crowds out more beneficial growth such as sagebrush, is more susceptible to fires, leaving barren landscapes behind.
About 1.6 million acres of Nevada rangeland - an area almost as large Delaware - burned in lightning-sparked wildfires last summer.
''We need to emphasize the significance of the ecological disaster we face out there,'' Pulliam said.
''The risks are far beyond sage grouse in my mind. The cheat grassfire cycle has the potential to seriously impact our rural economies if we are not able to turn that around.''