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The Dirt on the Bird 

Years of collaboration went into the current plans to protect the Greater sage-grouse. Under the new administration, those plans could now face a roll-back.

To those tuned into the happenings on the great sagebrush sea, certain words warrant no further explanation. For them, "the bird" isn't referring to the Thanksgiving turkey; instead it's referring to the Greater sage-grouse.

Similarly, "a listing" isn't referring to some vapid Top 10 meme; instead it's a reference to the threat of the bird being added to the Endangered Species list.

Those phrases remain top of mind to many in the natural resources sphere—especially now, when recent moves by the Secretary of the Interior could signal changes to the extensive work aimed at helping "the bird" in Oregon and beyond. This month, I attended the SageCon Summit, a collaborative partnership among Oregon stakeholders concerned with sage-grouse habitat and population declines. In past years, the summit has centered largely around efforts to help "the bird." This year, however, there was also an element of doom around what changes the Secretary might make to those long-laid plans.

Sage-grouse: A marker of ecosystem health

"The bird" and the "listing" were key phrases in 2010, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the habitat, and in turn, populations for sage-grouse had declined significantly enough to warrant consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act. As the Bureau of Land Management's "Greater Sage Grouse" web page still describes it today: "their habitat has been damaged or lost to development, invasive weeds and wildfire."

"A listing" would have numerous implications. Most importantly for some, sage-grouse are seen as an "umbrella species"—meaning when its populations are in peril, so too are more than 350 other species that share their habitat. In other words, when "the bird" is threatened, it's a signal the entire ecosystem is threatened too.

The other implication of a listing: it could put numerous burdens on landowners and ranchers, and on public agencies tasked with carrying out the tenets of those protections. In some areas, it could bar grazing, farming, mining or other activities altogether. With those implications in mind, a broad, bipartisan group of stakeholders—including conservation groups, ranching groups and federal and state agencies—worked together over the course of several years, and by 2015 had created a series of Sage-Grouse Action Plans in 10 western states. Under the plans, ranchers would receive funding and support to improve sage-grouse habitat on their lands. Meanwhile, the BLM amended dozens of land-use plans to further enhance habitat for sage-grouse. The BLM's website describes the resulting plans as "a conservation approach built on coordination and partnership"—plans those involved hoped would continue to keep the sage-grouse off the Endangered Species list. Many describe it as a win-win. To borrow a phrase from ranching and conservation groups, "what's good for the bird is good for the herd." But now that could all come undone.

Oregon and SageCon

In Oregon, the effort to avoid a listing was especially collaborative. Oregon's governor formed the Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership, or SageCon, inviting various state, federal and local agencies, and private landowners and conservation groups, to participate. The group's first annual summit took place in Bend in 2010.

Part of this year's summit involved the usual report-outs on the results of the plans, including some bright spots indicating the plans are working. In the area around Baker City, for example, where stakeholders have engaged in concentrated efforts to improve sage-grouse habitat, bird numbers increased by slightly less than 1 percent. Oregon-wide, sage-grouse populations declined 8 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, though Sage-Grouse Conservation Coordinator Lee Foster is careful to point out that populations are still up from 2015. Inside the Prineville BLM district, closest to home, populations declined 3.9 percent from 2016 to 2017.

This year's SageCon also involved some hand-wringing centered around the new "what ifs" that have arrived as a result of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke's Secretarial Order 3353, "Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation and Cooperation with Western States." The Department is now seeking public comment on sage-grouse plans, with the possibility of re-opening those long-laid plans. The idea, the Department alleges, is to "improve sage-grouse conservation by strengthening collaboration among states and the federal government." People have until Dec. 1 to submit comments.

At SageCon this month, the general consensus was that the existing plans, so recently adopted, offered something for all involved, and needed time to work.

Yet Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River), representing eastern Oregon—and Bend—in the U.S. House, has applauded the reopening of the comment period. "Oregon's ranchers and landowners have done great cooperative work to improve sage grouse habitat, and this is a chance for their firsthand knowledge to be incorporated into the planning process," wrote Walden in an Oct. 6 release. "The BLM's decision is a step in the right direction towards working with our rural communities in these planning processes, rather than just burdening them with rules from Washington, D.C."

Dan Morse, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, also attended SageCon, and disagrees with Walden's assessment of a top-down hierarchy. "You could not be a rancher in the eastern half of this state in the last five years and not have some knowledge that sage-grouse is declining," Morse told the Source. "There was no shortage of ability or opportunity—whether somebody made that choice [to comment]—well, that's democracy. But it's a false scenario, to say that there were not opportunities."

John O'Keefe, outgoing president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, participated in the sage-grouse planning process and spoke at this month's SageCon summit about past collaboration among ranchers.

"It's obvious, ranchers as individuals take this serious. That's clear," O'Keefe told the group. "Ranchers as a group, speaking with one voice, that's a challenge, but we're here to try and facilitate that.

"The end game is to be sure we don't have a listing, so we can continue to have the flexibility to do the projects that are going to make a difference," O'Keefe said. Still, others in Oregon have found fault with the plans. In December 2016, the Harney Soil and Water Conservation District filed a complaint against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the BLM, alleging that the Oregon resource management plan "imposes regulatory burdens that cause financial and other hardships to 'public lands' ranchers who are residents of Harney County and to Harney SWCD." In April, ONDA filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the United States in that case.

Grazing vs. grouse? Maybe not

In discussions about sage-grouse habitat, the two sides are often painted as "grazing versus grouse"—echoed by the statement from Walden. But at least one recent study shows that ranching isn't the biggest threat.

In study conducted at the University of Montana from 2011 to 2016, "Grazing Management in Perspective: A Compatible Tool for Sage Grouse Conservation," researchers found grazing to be among the lowest of the studied threats to sage-grouse, finding conifer encroachment, wildfires and cultivation to be bigger worries. Even bigger threats were found to be posed by energy and housing. In the study's brief, researchers wrote: "Done sustainably, grazing is a highly compatible land use for maintaining sage grouse populations, and is wholly preferred over habitat-destroying alternatives like cropland cultivation or subdivision development."

The oil and gas industry lobby

While not a huge contributor to the economy in Oregon, the oil and gas industries are big players in other western states where, along with Oregon, stakeholders adopted sage-grouse plans in 2015.

In August, the watchdog group, Western Values Project, released a statement regarding a leaked document involving the oil and gas industry trade group, the Western Energy Alliance. According to WVP, a memo from the WEA acted as the basis for Secretary Zinke's current sage-grouse review. WVP says WEA made 15 recommendations to the Interior Department's sage-grouse review team; 13 of those requests were used in Zinke's report, according to WVP. This summer, WVP filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see correspondence between oil and gas industry representatives and Interior Department staff.

"We're now going on our third month without a response from the Department of Interior," Jayson O'Neill, deputy director of WVP told the Source, noting that WVP has since filed suit for information regarding those emails. "Now as we're winding down our public comment period, the public has really still been kept in the dark about why these amendments and these revisions came forward."

On the Department's appearance of caving to oil and gas lobby pressure, ONDA'S Morse says: "It's a little disappointing frankly, that they're so susceptible to this, and just so unsophisticated to saying yes."

O'Neill says, "We went through 10 years of these discussions and coming to common ground, and then to have them essentially change in such a short time frame without knowing the full motivation behind that has been really troubling for a lot of folks across the West."

Also added to the mix: the Interior Department's October decision to withdraw the application to prevent surface mining in critical sage-grouse habitat areas. Like oil and gas, mining doesn't represent a large portion of Oregon's economy—but in other states, the previously proposed move to prohibit mining in certain sage-grouse areas would have limited opportunities to expand mining operations on BLM lands, as well as private lands. At the SageCon summit this month, a representative from Oregon's mining industry expressed satisfaction at where the sage-grouse plans stand now, as they relate to mining in Oregon.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) takes a different view. "This is a clear signal from the Secretary of the Interior just how willing he is to put mining companies above the needs and wishes of Oregonians, westerners, and the farmers and ranchers he claims to support," Wyden said in an Oct. 6 release.

What's next for sage-grouse?

Will the Secretary of the Interior move to undo years of collaboration around "the bird" and the avoidance of "a listing" in the West? Time will tell.

Says O'Keefe of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association: "If we get a listing we'll all go back to arguing about the terms and conditions of the permits, and it will be so hard to do a project that things will really slow down."

ONDA's Morse says: "If the sage grouse population continues to decline, we have not done our job for that species and that ecosystem. If that ecosystem continues to decline, the way of life—the livelihood, the economy, the people of these landscapes—are going to be hurt. And so that's the job right now, and it's a very hard job, and that's why so many people invest so much time."

Interested in commenting on the sage-grouse management plans?


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About The Author

Nicole Vulcan

Nicole Vulcan has been editor of the Source since 2016. While the pandemic reduced "hobbies" to "aspirations," you can mostly find her raising chickens, walking dogs, riding all the bikes and attempting to turn a high desert scrap of land into a permaculture oasis. (Progress: slow.)

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