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The greater sage grouse, known for its mating dance, is in decline across the West. The United States Bureau of Land Managementís preliminary blueprint is designed to prevent the sage grouse from securing protective status under the mandates of the Federal Endangered Species Act.
One critical implication of a recent spate of meetings about the future of sage grouse in Oregon is that ranchers and farmers must be attuned to potential regulatory initiatives, the chairman of a key Oregon Cattlemen Associations committee said.
Burns rancher Tom Sharp, the chairman of the OCA’s Endangered Species Committee said the flurry of meetings sponsored by the United States Bureau of Land Management earlier in the month remain an excellent forum to generate a viable dialogue between officials and agriculturists across the region.
“The meetings should be a catalyst for people to think about what the impacts could be,” he said.
Sharp attended BLM sessions in Burns, Ontario and Baker City regarding that agency’s draft environmental impact statement regarding the sage grouse. The BLM’s preliminary blueprint is designed to prevent the sage grouse from securing protective status under the mandates of the Federal Endangered Species Act. At issue for many regional ranchers is the potential impact the BLM’s draft proposal — or an Endangered Species Act listing — may produce on their capability to utilize public land currently open to cattle grazing.
The agency that will actually make the final decision on protective status for the sage grouse — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — must render a judgment by the end of 2015.
Sharp said most ranchers are wary regarding the prospect of more federal mandates.
“We believe this is enough regulation in our lives,” he said. “And there is evidence of conservation plans already working.”
The draft BLM plan includes six management plans — or alternatives — designed to help sage grouse populations centered in the region. Five of the alternatives produce some type of change to the existing mandates on ranchers and grazing. A sixth alternative simply leaves current procedures in place.
The rub, Sharp said, are the five plans that offer new management methods.
“They all introduce new regulator concepts the rancher will have to deal with. The very best outcome would be to avoid a listing without BLM regulatory procedures,” he said.
That probably isn’t going to happen, according to the BLM’s Joan Suther. Suther is the BLM project manager for the greater Sage Grouse sub-region. She spearheads the federal agency’s town-hall like meetings across the region and said the likely outcome of the BLM effort will be the introduction of some changes to current sage grouse management techniques. Yet because the entire BLM management blueprint is in its preliminary stages — and subject to more input from area residents — Suther said it is difficult to access what the modifications may be.
“I can’t tell you how formidable the changes will be,” she said.
Once the BLM creates a management plan — based on a number of factors, including citizen input — and then employs it, the clock will begin to tick regarding whether the sage grouse will be pushed under the Endangered Species Act umbrella.
“It’s the implementation of the plan that will allow Fish and Wildlife to see. A decision on a listing will be made after BLM has implemented the plan,” Suther said.
Sharp said the sage grouse issue is just one of a number of potential challenges for regional ranchers and farmers.
“We are talking about sage grouse now but there are other species out there. There are currently seven candidate’s species for ESA listings,” he said.
Sharp said part of the frustration revolves around the fact that ranchers and farmers already carry a vested interest in ensuring ranges — and their natural habitats — are managed correctly.
“Ranchers use natural resources and they are good stewards. The have the motivation to be. They are totally motivated to protect and enhance natural resources,” he said.
Sage Grouse are a critical element to the overall health of the high desert ecosystem and need protection, Bren Fenty, the executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association said.
“This is a species that is incredibly important to the environment. It is important that we address the decline of the species,” he said.
If there is one, single theme that unifies all of the different special interest groups on the Sage Grouse issue it is the fact that no one wants to see the Sage Grouse placed on the Endangered Species Act.
Fenty said the Oregon Natural Desert Association doesn’t want to see the Sage Grouse placed on the Endangered Species Act and Sharp said he doesn’t either. Suther said the BLM wants to find a better alternative. The BLM effort is designed – in part – to develop a suitable plan to provide appropriate protections without more heavy-handed federal influence.
“We don’t want to see it listed. We think we can have a set of actions that can protect the Sage Grouse that do not require it to be listed,” Suther said.
Sharp said the Sage Grouse issue is really just one key point of a larger question about the nation’s food supply.
“What I’d like to see, is this country have a conversation about the importance of our food supply. If we lose our ability to protect the agriculture industry, the food we take for granted will be less available and higher priced,” he said.