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The Politicking of the Greater Sage-Grouse 

Decades of bipartisan effort between public and private entities has led to effective protection for the Greater sage-grouse. But proposed legislation at the federal level could change that.

In some ways, this spring will be like any other for the Greater sage-grouse. Hundreds of thousands of the iconic birds will soon gather at their leks, or breeding grounds, across the West, including south and east of Bend.

As the sun rises over the sagebrush, males will engage in their famously flamboyant displays, wooing females by strutting about, fanning their spiky tail feathers and forcing a gallon of air out of twin yellow air sacs to generate a so-called "booming display." Actually, the sound is more like a loud pop.

But this year, even as the sage-grouse come together to carry out their ancient mating ritual, the political environment that surrounds the bird is shifting fast. The results could dramatically alter the future of the sage-grouse and the vast "sagebrush sea" on which its life depends.

History of the sage-grouse

The Audubon Society estimates that the Greater sage-grouse has lived in the western U.S. for about 40 million years. Before European settlement, the species numbered well into the millions and occupied more than 295 million acres of the "sagebrush steppe," in what's now 13 states and three Canadian provinces.

During the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800s, the explorers first observed the sage-grouse in Montana and later wrote that they found the bird "in great abundance" from the Snake River to the Deschutes River (which they called "Clark's river"). Likewise, in 1824 David Douglas recounted seeing "flocks of several hundreds" of the birds along the Columbia River.

As late as the mid-1960s, native Bendite Dave Stowe recalls seeing sage-grouse "at least every hour" when he and his grandfather would visit an area east of Bend near Horse Ridge. "I was out there many, many times, and I don't remember ever not seeing sage-grouse," he says.

Stowe laughs as he recalls the impression the 7-pound birds made on him. "They looked like Boeing 747s to me when I was a kid," he says. "They'd fly right up in my face and just about give me a heart attack."

Now, Stowe—an experienced animal tracker who serves on the executive committee of the local chapter of the Sierra Club—says he never sees the birds or their tracks near Bend. That makes sense, given the sage-grouse's dramatic population decline.

The once-abundant species has lost about half of its habitat over the past 150 years. Current population estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000 total birds, with only about 16,000 left in Oregon. The decline of the sage-grouse is especially worrisome because the species is considered an umbrella species. If it's struggling, so are about 350 other species, from pronghorn to pygmy rabbits, also dependent on the sagebrush steppe.

In fact, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service describes the sagebrush steppe as "one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America" and argues that it has been suffering a "death by a thousand cuts" since the late 1800s, with disturbances ranging from wildfire to improper grazing to invasive plants such as cheatgrass.

Collaborative efforts

In 2010, population declines, as well as related habitat loss and fragmentation, led the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to declare that the sage-grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, the agency delayed taking any action to focus on higher priorities — and that opened the door to what became a historic, bipartisan, multiyear effort to avoid the listing.

From 2010 to late 2015, western states, federal agencies and public and private partners worked together to protect, restore and enhance sage-grouse habitat. Ranchers and other landowners received incentives to protect sage-grouse habitat on their private lands, and the Bureau of Land Management amended 98 land-use plans across 10 states to conserve habitat on federal lands. At the same time, states including Oregon developed management plans for state-owned lands.

Oregon's efforts to develop management plans for the sage-grouse were especially collaborative, according to Brett Brownscomb, project manager for Oregon's Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership, or SageCon. "The planning process involved a lot of people putting in a lot of time over a lot of years to address really challenging issues that span private, state and federal public land."

Oregon Natural Desert Association Conservation Director Dan Morse says, "I think a lot of people in Central and Eastern Oregon understand that having a healthy sagebrush-steppe ecosystem is important not only for the sage-grouse but for ranching, tourism, fishing, hunting and other activities. Not having a healthy ecosystem would be to the detriment of everything going on in our high desert."

The Oregon Sage-Grouse Action Plan lists seven pages of stakeholders that represent state and federal agencies, county and state government, ranchers, environmental groups, Indian tribes, industry groups and more.

According to Deschutes County Planning Manager Peter Gutowsky, Oregon was on strong footing from the start because of its firm land-use laws that protect farmland and limit urban sprawl. "That's one reason we have so much sage-grouse habitat to begin with," he says. "Oregon has been effective in maintaining farms and forestland while also protecting critical habitat for the sage-grouse."

Gutowski adds, "There's been a rich culture in Deschutes County for 25 to 30 years of collaboration and partnerships with federal agencies, whether it's how to understand issues around sage-grouse or how to collectively address wildfire. That spirit of collaboration is something residents should be really proud of."

Because of the collaborative efforts across the West, in 2015 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided not to list the sage-grouse as endangered, noting that the "scope, scale and complexity of the state, federal and private conservation efforts ... are unequaled in the history of wildlife conservation in the United States."

Shifting politics, an uncertain future

In late 2015, when former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell hailed the "epic conservation effort" that had staved off the Endangered Species listing for the sage-grouse, she was flanked by four western governors — two Democrats and two Republicans. It was an unusual show of bipartisan unity on environmental issues in the West.

Now, Ryan Zinke, a vocal critic of the federal sage-grouse plans, has replaced Jewell as Secretary of the Interior, leading to a great deal of uncertainty. Brownscomb says, "With the new administration, everybody is trying to read the tea leaves and looking over their shoulders to see how the world might keep changing."

Two recently introduced bills illustrate the types of changes that could alter the future of sage-grouse protections. H.R. 527, filed by House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), and S. 273, introduced by Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), would give governors the authority to bar any provisions in federal sage-grouse plans that do not align with state plans.

John O' Keeffe, president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, says his group generally favors Oregon's state plan over the BLM plan for Oregon because he believes the latter does not give ranchers enough flexibility to reduce fuel loads to prevent uncharacteristic wildfires.

"We're managing sage-grouse and managing livestock, and I think we can do both, but some of these planning efforts can get overly restrictive," he says. "The state plan might be a little better designed and give us more flexibility."

Morse paints a different picture, however. If either bill passes, he is concerned that the review process to determine how the state and federal plans differ could be time-consuming and costly, and might lead to a reversion to pre-existing BLM resource management plans, which do not include the latest protections for sage-grouse. "It could lead to having to redo entirely the very long and arduous planning effort that went into formulating the state and BLM plans for sage-grouse in Oregon," he says.

In addition, Morse believes that state plans would provide less consistency across state lines, and therefore would fail to give the sage-grouse the ecosystem-scale management they need. He says, "Sage-grouse don't know the difference between Oregon and Nevada or Idaho. They require large, intact, unfragmented landscapes throughout their range to survive and thrive."

Another potential issue is that Oregon's state plan was not designed to address management issues that arise on federal lands. For instance, the BLM recently proposed to "withdraw," or prohibit, new mining claims on about 10 million acres in areas deemed critical to the sage-grouse. Two of the areas are in Oregon and the rest are spread across five other states. Oregon and other states lack the regulatory authority that exists in the BLM sage-grouse plans to prevent new mining claims in important sage-grouse habitat.

The proposed bills would also delay any potential review of the need for an Endangered Species listing for the sage-grouse until 2027 — seven years later than current plans. Morse says, "That sort of unscientific abeyance of a wildlife decision is counter to the purposes of the Endangered Species Act and the sage-grouse plans themselves."

It remains unclear whether the proposed legislation or other federal efforts will disrupt the decades-long public and private collaborations that have resulted in current sage-grouse protections. For now, there's only one certainty: That in one of the surest signs of spring in the high desert, greater sage-grouse will soon gather in the pre-dawn hours, standing tall and seemingly proud amid the sagebrush-covered lands they've depended upon for tens of millions of years.

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