The Trump administration announced plans Friday to lessen protections for sage grouse in Oregon and six other Western states.
The announcement is in line with the administration’s long-stated goal to clear the way for drilling, mining and grazing on public land. The latter of those three has historically gained the most attention in Oregon.
Some in the state are cheering the new rules for easing the burden on ranchers, helping them partner in protecting grouse and their habitat. Others say the new rules put the bosomy bird in more danger and torpedo a collaborative protection plan that hasn’t gotten a fair chance.
The game of regulatory tug of war over the sage grouse has gone on for decades as its population has plummeted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 decided the grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, but did not list it as a protected species under the law.
A coalition that included ranchers, scientists, environmentalists and policymakers struck a deal in 2015 to avoid Endangered Species Act protections for sage grouse. It was a historic compromise that stakeholders felt would save the bird from extinction without gutting and fileting rural Western economies.
“They weren’t perfect,” said Jeremy Austin, policy manager for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, “but they were something that a lot of different stakeholders came together to work on and found a solution, collaboratively, to move conservation forward for sage grouse.”
After President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his first of two Interior Department secretaries, Ryan Zinke, quickly moved to reopen discussion of the deal. Zinke’s successor, former oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, put forth new rules to open up oil and gas drilling on sage grouse habitat across the West. Oregon’s sage grouse acreage was largely spared, but it’s never been much of a target for oil and gas anyway. The rules did, however, also ease restrictions on grazing.
This spring, nearly two dozen of the nation’s top sage grouse scientists wrote a letter to the Bureau of Land Management saying that the proposal “appears to be ignoring current science, which threatens its federal trust responsibility to conserve and manage our natural resources and may have severe consequences for sage-grouse.”
A federal judge rejected those rules and temporarily blocked them from taking effect last year. New rules announced Friday were supposed to address the court’s concerns, but an Associated Press analysis found no significant differences between the two plans.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s annual sage grouse census for 2020 recorded the second-lowest population estimate since monitoring began in 1980.
Austin, with the Oregon Natural Desert Association, said that should be reason enough to give the 2015 deal room to operate.
“Those need to be fully implemented now in order to prevent further decline of the sage grouse population,” he said.
In Oregon, invasive species, wildfire and overgrazing all pose threats to the bird’s habitat. Some ranchers, though, think grazing is part of the solution.
“If you graze well, it’s really not a conflict at all,” said John O’Keeffe, a land owner representative on Gov. Kate Brown’s sage grouse council and former president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
There’s evidence to support that grazing public lands helps ranchers and sage grouse.
If ranches remain economically viable, they’re less likely to be sold off for other development. O’Keeffe also pointed to efforts by private ranchers to slow the encroachment of juniper and the creation of rural fire associations to more thoughtfully manage fire.
Matt McElligott, who chairs the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s public lands board, said conservation can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.
“What may work in Lakeview may not work in Baker,” he said.
Further restrictions on grazing, he added, threaten both sage grouse and rural economies.
“It’s an economic driver for small rural communities and even large communities,” McElligott said. “Without ranching, without grazing, we don’t have that economic driver to sustain us.”
The new rules extend far beyond grazing, though. More drilling and mining on public lands may not pose as much of a threat to grouse in Oregon, but it could splinter habitat in other states included in the plan.
Friday’s announcement leaves room for the new rules to go into effect before Trump leaves office, but they’re hardly the end of the discussion — especially with the Joe Biden administration incoming. The rules may also be subject to further litigation.
For now, the announcement could signal another environmental rollback in a long line of rollbacks in this lame duck session.
Sage grouse are known for their unique, chesty mating ritual, which “Oregon Field Guide” documented in 2014. Watch below.