BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - US rejects protections for sage grouse in 11 Western states despite bird's long-term decline .

The U.S. Interior Department says the greater sage grouse does not need federal protections across its 11-state Western range after some limits were put on energy development and other activities.

Tuesday's announcement signals that the Obama administration believes it has struck a balance to save the widespread, ground-dwelling birds from extinction without crippling the West's economy.

It follows a costly conservation effort, and could help defuse a potential political liability for Democrats heading into the 2016 election.

Federal protections could have brought much more sweeping restrictions on oil and gas drilling, grazing and other human activities from California to the Dakotas.

Republicans have seized on the issue as supposed evidence of wildlife protection laws run amok.

Environmentalists who sued to force Tuesday's decision are certain to challenge it.An aide to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says recent policy changes provide protections for the greater sage grouse on 67 million acres of federal lands. That includes 12 million acres where strict limits on oil and gas drilling will be enforced.

Sarah Greenberger made the comments after the U.S. Interior Department said Tuesday that the bird does not need to be listed as threatened or endangered across its 11-state Western range.

Greenberger says efforts made by the federal and state governments in recent years produced the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history.

The Obama administration says it has struck a balance to save the imperiled ground-dwelling birds from extinction without crippling the West's economy.

The government faced a Sept. 30 court-imposed deadline to decide whether it should list the chicken-sized birds as a threatened or endangered species. Greater sage grouse range from California to the Dakotas.

They've dwindled from millions to no more than 500,000 amid loss of their sagebrush habitat. A listing could have restricted oil and gas development and grazing across much of the West, though Congress has withheld funding to implement any such decision.