GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Hoping to keep sage grouse from the endangered species list, ranchers in Eastern Oregon are working on a first-in-the-nation deal that would lay out voluntary steps to reduce the harm to sage grouse on 10 million acres of federal grazing lands.
"The livestock industry knows this is an important issue, and wants to be in position to somewhat control our destiny," said John O'Keefe, a Warner Valley rancher and sage grouse coordinator for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.
The Oregon Cattlemen's Association was supposed to sign the conservation agreement last Tuesday with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon that would be the first in the nation covering sage grouse, sometimes called the spotted owl of the range because of its potential to force cutbacks in grazing and energy development.
However, some ranchers asked for more time to consider details, postponing the signing. BLM spokesman Jeff Clark said they hope to have it worked out in two or three weeks. Though BLM has conservation agreements for other species, this would be the first for sage grouse, Clark said.
"Our goal is to not have (the bird) get listed," BLM biologist Glenn Frederick said. "There are measures the rancher can do above and beyond regulatory measures that can help the bird. That is what this is about."
It is anyone's guess how many Oregon ranchers sign up once the agreement goes into effect.
The BLM has run into trouble for turning a blind eye to sage grouse in favor of ranchers. In Idaho, a federal judge ruled last year that BLM violated its primary range management law by allowing grazing on five allotments in Owyhee County without first assessing the harm to sage grouse.
The greater sage grouse is a large ground-dwelling bird, standing up to two feet tall and weighing up to seven pounds. They are known for elaborate mating dances at regular gathering places, called leks. Populations have fallen 90 percent in the past century, and habitat has declined 50 percent. The birds face threats from grazing, energy development, wildfire, and encroachment of juniper trees.
As the result of a lawsuit settlement, the sage grouse is one of nearly 200 species that Fish and Wildlife has declared deserve protection, but must wait their turns to be formally considered. The sage grouse's turn comes in 2015, by which time states and federal agencies hope they will have done enough to make that step unnecessary.
Details of the Oregon agreement have not been made public, but Frederick said it includes measures to keep people and livestock away from leks and nesting areas where sage grouse gather at crucial times, and to reduce the numbers of birds killed or injured from flying into wire fences by putting white plastic markers on them.
Brent Fenty of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a conservation group, said they have not been allowed to see the agreement, but hoped it would help sage grouse.
Fenty added that it was unlikely to include one of the most important steps for protecting the bird, taking cattle off range that has been overgrazed.
Last August, Fish and Wildlife issued a report spelling out how sage brush should be managed in 11 Western states to avoid listing them under the Endangered Species Act.
"Federal land grazing is one big part of the picture for sage grouse," said Paul Henson, Oregon director for Fish and Wildlife. "If you get to the point of actually having to list something, it means you've failed at addressing those threats, if you have the opportunity to do it."
Governors in several states have named taskforces to promote sage brush conservation.
However, populations have been robust enough in some places that Oregon and several other states still allow hunting.
That gives O'Keefe hope that if enough ranchers step up and sign the agreement, they can avoid even tougher limits in the future.
"We feel this is a better vehicle to ready ourselves, hopefully, to prevent the need for a listing, but in the absence of that, provide some management certainty in the event of a listing," he said.