Oregon ranchers to engage in Sage Grouse planning

Dec 16, 2013

Paisley, OR, may not be considered a geographical center to most Oregon residents, but on Dec. 2, all roads in Lake County led to the Paisley community center. Some 60 ranchers filled the hall, many of them hearing for the first time what BLM’s draft sage grouse plan could do to their businesses. While Adel rancher John O’Keeffe hit the proposal’s high points—such as immediately terminating grazing on 118,000 acres—ranchers scribbled their emails on a sign-up sheet for help preparing comments.

“The last thing the agency should be doing is punishing ranchers for generations of good management,” said O’Keeffe, President-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) and Chairman of the national Public Lands Council’s (PLC) sage grouse committee. “But that’s exactly what they propose to do on these 118,000 acres of ‘research natural areas.’ ” The draft proposal is unprecedented in the impact it could have on ranchers, he told the crowd. “While BLM says it affects only 1 percent of grazing in Oregon, that could mean 80 percent for one rancher. We’re not ones to throw anybody under the bus. We all need to push back—we all need to comment.”

Besides, he said, if the proposal goes forward as it is, the grazing losses will continue over time, chipping away at the ranching industry that is the core of eastern Oregon’s communities.

Collective gasps could be heard as O’Keeffe laid out elements of the proposed plan, which is part of an effort by BLM to prevent a listing of the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Under BLM’s draft proposal for Oregon, grazing permit relinquishment retirements would be implemented.

“This is very troubling language that we feel is on questionable legal footing,” said O’Keeffe. “That said, allowing permit retirements is not a good idea any way you slice it. It will invite harassment by environmental groups who will know they have an avenue to permanently eliminate grazing on public lands.”

He went on to describe other aspects of BLM’s draft plan. Stringent new range health standards would be applied to some 500,000 acres of “priority” sage grouse habitat—with no consideration of regional variability.

Said O’Keeffe, “With or without grazing, the conditions they’re looking for don’t exist naturally in much of the Great Basin. But when standards aren’t met, they’ll likely reduce livestock grazing anyway.”

Discussion in the Paisley meeting turned to sage grouse numbers on the Hart Mountain refuge, where grazing was removed in the early 1990s. Since then, no statistical difference in sage grouse numbers has been shown between those lands and nearby grazed lands.

“If there’s no difference, why are they proposing to remove grazing?” asked a rancher in the crowd.

While no one attempted an answer, the ranchers in the room recognized the need for industry to come out in force in response to the BLM’s draft proposal. There at the Paisley meeting, ranchers agreed on a voluntary, AUM-based assessment for the Lakeview District, to go toward professional help in preparing comments on the legal, environmental, and socio-economic implications of BLM’s draft proposal. O’Keeffe promised that, in addition to preparing those comments, PLC and OCA would help ranchers prepare individual comments for the Feb. 20 deadline.

Lake County Commissioner Ken Kestner sat in the front row at the meeting. He said he intended to submit comments on the proposal, which could have devastating effects in his rural county. O’Keeffe said OCA is also encouraging other counties throughout the planning region to submit comments, with particular focus on the potential socio-economic impacts.

O’Keeffe said that comments should reflect the positive aspects of BLM’s draft proposal. “You can be sure that environmental groups will be pushing to get anything that’s positive for grazing out of the final decision. The proposal recognizes the importance of ranching to sage grouse habitat, and—at least in some cases—the value of making locally-based decisions versus one-size-fitsall.”

The Paisley gathering was just one in a series of sage grouse-focused rancher get-togethers last week. By the time OCA members gathered in Bend, OR, for their annual convention, the sage grouse issue had drawn a sizeable crowd. On Thursday evening, a 7 p.m. roundtable lasted well over three hours and drew double the crowd that had attended the Paisley meeting. Oregon BLM officials fielded questions, such as why the agency is proposing to remove livestock while it fails to do its statutory duty of proper feral horse management, and why they would reduce grazing when wildfire and invasive plants are the top threats to sage grouse.

Bob Skinner, chairman of OCA’s public lands committee, recognized that as ominous as BLM’s draft proposal may look to the grazing industry, a listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act would be far worse.

“A timber man affected by the spotted owl listing once told me, ‘Imagine the worst you can think of, and then multiply it times two.’ The sage grouse listing would mean biological opinions for every federal action—including authorizing public land grazing,” Skinner said to WLJ in an interview. “It would add process to process, burden to burden, and before you know it there will either be direct grazing closures, or people just won’t be able to go on. I almost hate to say that out loud, because it’s music to the ears of the radical anti-grazing groups. That’s why we have to weigh in here—because those groups certainly will.”

Skinner said that despite the imbalance of the BLM’s focus—two of the agency’s six proposed action plans were brought by radical anti-grazing groups—the livestock industry should focus on making the final action plan positive, instead of “blowing up” the whole process.

“If we do that, we’ll put this (BLM planning process) into a holding pattern—and it’s what’s standing between us and a listing. We don’t want to blow past the courtordered listing date,” he said, referring to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) September, 2015, deadline for a listing decision. “Plus, the science shows that what’s good for grazing is good for the sage grouse. If we can get this concept implemented on the ground, we will be in good shape,” Skinner said.

Skinner said that in their comments, ranchers should do more than cite science that shows grazing is good for the grouse. They should also mention the proactive actions they are taking to conserve the bird’s habitat, he said.

For example, at the Friday OCA public lands committee meeting, about a third of the attendees raised their hands when asked if they volunteer as part of Rangeland Fire Protection Associations. And, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, about 120,000 private acres in Oregon are in sage grouse conservation agreements with that agency. Many of these are lands owned by ranchers who also graze on public lands. In the event the bird is listed, ranchers can be protected from additional regulation by participating in these conservation agreements now, before a listing decision is made.

However, there are concerns that participation in such programs could put ranchers at risk of litigation by anti-grazing groups, who would challenge ranchers’ compliance with the agreements—and quite possibly put them out of business. In Friday’s meeting, state legislator Cliff Bentz addressed this threat, offering to introduce legislation to protect producers’ information if they enter conservation agreements. He also presented ideas for funding measures for sage grouse conservation efforts in the state. While the method has not been settled on, O’Keeffe said that securing such a funding measure would give FWS further reason not to list the bird.

While efforts to protect both the bird and ranchers are ongoing, Skinner and O’Keeffe encouraged ranchers not just to comment, but to attend BLM’s educational public meetings. This will show BLM the ranching community is engaged, they said.

Meetings will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Prineville (Jan. 6 at Crook County Library); Burns (Jan. 7 at Harney County Senior Center); Ontario (Jan. 8 at Four Rivers Cultural Center); Baker (Jan. 9 at Baker County Events Center); Lakeview (Jan. 13 at Lakeview Interagency Office); Jordan Valley (Jan. 22 at Lion’s Club); and Durkee (Jan. 23 at Old Durkee School).

“Try to make these meetings, and remember OCA and PLC are happy to help you with comments by February 20—just get in touch with us,” said O’Keeffe. “We need a groundswell of informed, motivated individuals to comment.”

In an interview with WLJ, Skinner emphasized the importance of the sage grouse issue not just to the ranching community, but to the nation as a whole.

“This is about more than our rural communities,” Skinner said. “It’s about a secure food supply—you keep adding pressures on our industry like this, and we could be running pretty close to the edge. Cattle numbers in our country are at their lowest levels since World War II. Our government seems oblivious to the fact that our food supply could be in trouble someday. Everybody needs to take this seriously and comment—if not for yourself, then for your neighbor.” — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent