Oregon Sage Grouse - When Ranchers Are the Conservationists


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As a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act, the greater sage-grouse has been ruffling feathers for years. Landowners are growing nervous as the Sept. 2015 listing deadline creeps closer, and the conflict that often arises between private and federal interests over controversial species remains a possibility.

But a number of private landowners in eastern Oregon have been working toward a cooperative agreement with the federal government to head off potential conflicts. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entered into a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances alongside the Harney County Soil and Water Conservation District. This CCAA will operate within the borders of Oregon’s largest geographic county to cover more than one million acres of private rangelands.

CCAs and CCAAs are nothing new, although Oregon is the third state to implement them for sage-grouse habitat. Under a CCAA, landowners voluntarily agree to manage their lands to remove or reduce threats to a species. In return the federal government guarantees that landowners will not be subject to additional regulations should that species become listed under the ESA.
Many landowners are starting to explore alternatives to ESA regulations on their property, particularly in the wake of hot button issues like the northern spotted owl ESA listing that turned the timber industry upside down in the Pacific Northwest.

“We felt the impacts and the hardships that the ESA listing of a species could cause to communities, to economies, to individual families’ ability to make a living,” said Tom Sharp, chair of the Harney County Sage-Grouse CCAA Steering Committee and chair of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s ESA Committee. “Now the sage-grouse is the farmer/rancher’s spotted owl of today. But there’s a difference. The sage-grouse issue is the spotted owl on steroids.”

Sage-grouse rely on open lands populated by sagebrush, bunch grasses, and leafy plants. Threats to that environment include wildfire, invasive grasses, juniper trees, fences, habitat fragmentation, and human development. Eastern Oregon is home to some of the best remaining grouse habitat in the Great Basin. Those same arid sagebrush plains also support vast ranching operations, which play a vital role in Oregon’s economy. For instance, cattle and calves were ranked as Oregon’s third most valuable commodity in 2011 with an estimated value of $609 million.