Ranchers pack BLM open houses on Sage Grouse

Jan 13, 2014

This week in eastern Oregon, hundreds of ranchers overwhelmed community centers for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sage grouse meetings. At the request of ranchers—and because attendance was so high at the Prineville, Burns and Ontario meetings—BLM changed their meeting format from open houses to seated question-and-answer sessions. While the turnout of roughly 150 in Prineville took some on the BLM team by surprise, it paled in comparison to the next evening’s meeting in Burns.

An estimated 350 members of the public, most of them ranchers, made parking spots scarce and seats in the Senior Center scarcer. In Ontario, the headcount was around 200. Apparently, Oregon’s ranchers have identified BLM’s draft sage grouse regulations as worthy of their attention.

According to those who have read the more than 1,000-page document for Oregon, ranchers have plenty to be concerned about. The changes, designed to prevent a listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act, would affect grazing and all other industries and uses on BLM land. Since these lands account for 50 percent of sage grouse habitat in the West, BLM’s regulatory changes could weigh heavily in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) decision whether or not to list the bird. Meanwhile, Bob Skinner, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s (OCA) Public Lands Committee Chairman, said the agency should be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

“The worst thing a cow can do to a sage grouse is nowhere near as bad as what would happen if ranchers go out of business,” Skinner said. “Habitat fragmentation and wildfire are identified as main threats—and ranchers, by their very existence, guard against both of those.”

Skinner said that some of Oregon ranchers’ top concerns are also shared by other states, such as Nevada and northeastern California. He cited as an example BLM’s proposal to allow permanent permit retirement.

“This will open the floodgates to harassment of ranchers by radical groups who will now have an avenue to rid the landscape of grazing for good,” said Skinner.

Skinner added that another proposal BLM has made in various states is one that would impose “stubble height” requirements on grazing allotments. Many areas would never be able to reach those requirements, he said, and grazing would undoubtedly be curtailed.

“Plus, BLM doesn’t have near the resources it needs to do the kind of monitoring and analysis they’re proposing,” he added.

These topics were among many to come out at the BLM public meetings. Other common themes were questions about whether the agency recognized predation as a major cause of the bird’s downward trend; why grazing was being proposed for removal in some areas when livestock and ranchers had helped make those places good habitat; whether grazing would be considered a “surface disturbance” that would be disallowed in priority habitat; whether the BLM’s analysis of socio-economic impacts truly captured what would happen to a small community if it lost just a few of its local ranching families; how ranchers were going to get power if utility companies were unable to afford the regulations brought on them on BLM lands; and more. Much discussion revolved around the inadequacy of BLM’s maps— both in terms of detail and when it came to the meaning of the different demarcations.

“We see these different shaded areas on the maps and they look like they could be right over out allotments,” one woman said. “We need to know what they mean. It’s going to impact our families, our communities, our schools…It’s scary. It can get a little emotional,” she said.

While the BLM team recognized many of the attendees’ concerns as valid, they constantly reiterated that these comments needed to be officially submitted to BLM by Feb. 20 (in Oregon) to have any weight in the final decision. Joan Suther, BLM’s project manager for sage grouse in Oregon, said that individuals’ unique comments were paramount.

“It’s not a vote,” she said when someone mentioned radical environmental groups’ tactic of soliciting thousands of form letters as comments.

“A specific, well-written comment is better than a thousand form letters,” said Suther.

While Feb. 20 marks the deadline for comments in Oregon, it comes sooner for other states: North Dakota’s deadline is Jan. 13; Montana’s is Jan. 19; Nevada, California, Utah and Idaho share a deadline of Jan. 29; and Wyoming has the last deadline, March 24.

More BLM public meetings are planned for Oregon: in Lakeview Jan. 13; in Jordan Valley Jan. 22; and in Durkee on Jan. 23. For the Idaho document, the remaining meetings are as follows: Jan. 13 in Pocatello; Jan. 14 in Twin Falls; and Jan. 15 in Boise. Wyoming meetings will be held in February, and BLM will announce those details this month.

While the BLM meetings are designed to answer stakeholders’ questions, many ranchers who have attended them report having walked away with more questions than they came with. State cattlemen’s associations are stepping up to help interpret the BLM’s lengthy and complicated documents, and to help individuals prepare comments. They are also encouraging ranchers—members or not—to attend industry meetings that are being organized to inform producers. For information on these meetings and how to comment, the livestock associations are directing people to call them, visit their websites, or visit www. publiclandscouncil.org/sagegrouse.aspx. — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent