The similarities between the greater sage grouse and Western ranchers cannot be ignored. Both depend on sagebrush and native grasses found in the wide open spaces of the West. Both have been threatened by the spread of juniper and other invasive plants. And both are in need of protection.
The sage grouse is a candidate for protection under federal Endangered Species Act. Though its range extends across 11 Western states and into Canada, its population during the past century has shrunk as parts of the rural West have been developed.
The Western rancher is endangered in many parts of the region, too. He faces pressure from federal land managers, extremist environmental groups and others concerned about the impact grazing cattle has had on some areas.
Not too long ago, the fact that sage grouse and ranchers existed in many of the same areas would lead to legal battles of massive proportions. Federal land managers would be hounded by environmentalists to give preference to the sage grouse and push ranchers off the land.
To avoid that worst-case scenario, the leaders at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and other county, state and federal agencies have done their homework. They understand that well-managed livestock operations can co-exist with sage grouse without damaging the habitat. They know that a symbiotic relationship can exist between the sage grouse and well-managed ranching operations.
The result has been the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative, which has thus far avoided the legal conflicts of old.
The heart of the initiative is land and wildlife managers, ranchers, environmentalists and soil and water conservation groups sitting down to lay out parameters that benefit both the sage grouse and the ranchers.
The ranchers agree to certain changes in the way they manage their federal land allotments and their private land. That includes keeping cattle away from sage grouse breeding areas and marking fences to stop the birds from flying into them, removing non-native weeds and annual grasses and cutting down junipers to allow sage brush and other native grasses to return, providing more habitat for the birds.
In return, the ranchers are provided with the certainty of knowing what is expected of them even if the sage grouse is ultimately listed as protected under the ESA.
The result is a win-win, for the sage grouse and the ranchers.
In Harney County, Ore., last month, the latest such agreement, facilitated by the local Soil and Water Conservation District, was signed. Two key concerns there are wildfires, which destroy sage brush and other valuable native plants that sage grouse and ranchers both need, and the spread of junipers, which crowd out sage brush and sop up precious ground water.
The Harney County agreement adds 250,000 acres to the 3.8 million acres that 953 ranchers across the West have already enrolled in the Sage Grouse Initiative.
Ranchers in other Oregon counties have also expressed interest in similar agreements. For the sake of the sage grouse and the ranchers, we hope they also come to fruition.
They won’t guarantee that extremist environmental groups won’t try to file suit, but they would demonstrate that there are more effective places to help sage grouse than the courtroom.