The Colorado Springs job market took another big step forward in February, when the area's unemployment rate fell to the lowest level in nearly four years and payroll expansion continued at the fastest rate in six years, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday.

The 8.5 percent jobless rate is the lowest since March 2009 and is down from 8.7 percent in January and 8.9 percent in February 2012. The improvement came as more than 3,300 residents returned to the local job market and the number holding jobs jumped by 3,500. Since November, more than 9,000 residents have returned to the job market and the number holding jobs has increased by more than 10,000.

"These numbers reflect a most robust recovery" in the local job market, said Joe Winter, an economist for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. "What is most notable is that the expansion of the labor force is being absorbed and even reducing" the number of residents looking for work. The number of residents seeking employment has declined by 3,181 since July, when the area's unemployment rate peaked at 9.7 percent.

Local payrolls continued to expand in February, growing 1.7 percent from a year earlier to 254,600, nearly as strong as the 1.9 percent rate in the previous month. The January payroll growth rate was the strongest in 6 1/2 years. Nearly half of the growth has come in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes both hotels and restaurants, while the retail and education and health care industries each added 900 jobs in the past year.

"The local economy looks to be in good shape" unless automatic federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, continue well into the rest of the year, said Fred Crowley, senior economist for the Southern Colorado Economic Forum. The February unemployment and payroll data do not include any impact from the cuts, which began March 1 and could offset some of the private-sector payroll growth in coming months, he said.

Tom Binnings, a senior partner in Summit Economics LLC, a local economic research and consulting firm, said much of the impact from sequestration likely will felt in local income rather than employment numbers. That's because much of the impact from sequestration will come from furloughs scheduled to begin in June for about 9,000 civilian employees at local military installations.

Unemployment rates also declined in five of the six other metropolitan areas in Colorado, with the rate in Greeley remaining unchanged in February from January's rate. Colorado's jobless rate fell from 7.3 percent in January to 7.2 percent in February, a four-year low, while the nation's unemployment rate declined from 7.9 percent in January to 7.7 percent in February.

The U.S. jobless rate dropped to 7.6 percent in March, the lowest in more than four years. Colorado's unemployment rate for March is scheduled to be released April 19, while the local rate for March is expected to be released May 1.