science environment

Reopening The Sage Grouse Debate Has Ranchers, Conservationists Weighing Risk And Reward

By Courtney Flatt (OPB)
Baker City, Oregon Nov. 9, 2017 10:40 p.m.
A male great western sage grouse.

A male great western sage grouse.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Interior Department is set on


changing up

an Obama-era plan to protect greater sage grouse. That’s given stakeholders in the high-desert Northwest a lot to reconsider.

For more than 10 years, ranchers, conservationists and government agencies worked on a plan to keep the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list. That hard-fought compromise led to what many hoped would be a new way to protect species on the brink.

But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to take another look at the plans, with an eye toward more mining and drilling on public lands. Many in Oregon who have worked hard to save the birds are worried that any roll back of the Obama-era plans could threaten the work that's been done so far — and lead to the birds' ultimate landing on the endangered species list.

That could mean more land-use restrictions that many ranchers and industry groups involved in the original plans had hoped to avoid.

"If we make any amendments at all to those federal plans, we do not want a federal listing of the species. We are walking somewhat of a fine line here — there's a balance here," said Tom Sharp, a rancher and landowner in Harney County. He was one of several stakeholders in Baker City, Oregon, this week for a gathering called the Sage-Grouse Conservation Partnership -- or SageCon, for short.

Both ranchers and conservationists in Oregon have expressed misgivings about the current plans. Some said the secretarial order to open up public comments on the plans could be an opportunity to address those issues.

“Any plan amendments that we make going forward should follow the science,” Sharp said. “We have an opportunity here, but at the end of the day we don’t want to see a listing of the species.”

Many people said one issue with reworking current sage grouse plans is that there hasn’t been enough time to try them out.

“Bottom line is this plan has not been allowed enough time to work so that we can see if it will work to stop concerning trends,” said Dan Morse, conservation director with the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

Morse’s organization was not initially happy with the plans — it wanted more stringent conservation goals. But the group decided if the current plans were “implemented aggressively it could work,” Morse said.

“We should not turn our backs on this work,” Morse said. “We shouldn’t open Pandora’s Box and expose ourselves to the uncertainty of new plans and more litigation and the possibility of a listing.”

Dave Hunnicutt, with the Eastern Oregon Mining Association, said his organization was originally concerned with initial plans to withdraw 2 million acres of mining land in Oregon. The federal government canceled those plans in October.


“At this point,” Hunnicutt said, “We’re okay with the status quo. If nothing changes, we’re fine with that. We can live with what we have, and that’s good. We’re fine if (the U.S. Bureau of Land Management) wants to reopen discussions, but not if the end result is a listing or if you get a counter reaction from the state saying, ‘Well, we’re reducing standards on federal land. We’re going to tighten them up on state land.’”

There are federal and state plans to manage and protect sage grouse and sagebrush habitat. Many people at the meeting said they liked how the plans currently line up and work together. You need both plans, they said, because sage grouse don’t see land boundaries.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s natural resources director, Jason Minor, said the state is committed to moving forward with its conservation plans.

“The Oregon plan and approach is a solid plan. It’s one that is durable because of stakeholder buy-in,” Minor said.

The hope, said ODFW director Curt Melcher, is to not get stuck.

“We don’t want to get into a perpetual planning mode. We really think that we need to give the plans a chance to work,” Melcher said.

Sage grouse are quirky looking, iconic birds across 11 western states, especially known for their flamboyant mating dances in the spring.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many birds live across its wide habitat, including parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Federal estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000 birds.

Threats to the bird are as wide-ranging as their habitat. It's been said that sagebrush country is facing a "death of 1,000 cuts." In the Northwest, the most prevalent threats include wildfires, invasive grasses, like cheatgrass, and encroaching juniper trees. Less known are threats from corvids and West Nile virus. Elsewhere, the birds have faced habitat fragmentation from energy development and mining.

Oregon’s most recent sage grouse counts, discussed at this week’s SageCon Partnership Summit, showed the state’s population decreased by about 8 percent in 2017, likely because of a normal downswing in the birds’ numbers, biologists said.

Officials estimate there are now around 20,466 sage grouse in Oregon. That number is still above the 2015 population estimates — the decline follows three consecutive years of population growth.

The state department of Fish and Wildlife also reported discovering 23 new leks, or mating grounds, and 12 new lek complexes this year during helicopter and ground surveys. Leks are an important part of sage grouse habitat.

Lee Foster, the ODFW sage grouse conservation coordinator, said this 8 percent decline was “fairly slight” compared to earlier years — and it was much smaller than what other states saw in 2017.

“I’m decently optimistic that this is just a bit of a blip on the radar, and hopefully we’ll be moving back up next year with the good snow conditions we had last winter,” Foster said.

A lot of conservation positives have happened over the past year, but there are still bumps in the road, said Brett Brownscombe, with the National Policy Consensus Center.

“Yeah, we’re having a big policy discussion now. We were having a big policy discussion then. People come. People go. Administrations change. We’ve been through bumps and high pressure times before,” Brownscombe said. “We’re still learning as we go, and we’re still here, despite bumps in the road — maybe to help with the bumps in the road.”