Jeanne Stafford/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Harney County cattle ranchers, working through the local Soil and Water Conservation District, will sign an agreement this week that protects greater sage grouse habitat on up to 1 million acres of private rangeland.
In return for agreeing to make some management changes, landowners will be safe from further federal regulation for 30 years, even if the bird is listed as an endangered species next year.
Ranchers, federal regulators and the local soil and water district acknowledge the voluntary agreement, which will be signed Wednesday at Hotel Diamond south of Burns, is a leap of faith. The greater sage grouse, now a “candidate” for protection under the Endangered Species Act, has been called “farmers’ and ranchers’ spotted owl” because its listing potentially would have tremendous impact on cattle grazing and other operations in 11 western states.
Faced with that, rural producers have turned to collaborative efforts that provide habitat protection for the bird while giving them assurance they’ll be able to continue operating as usual. Similar agreements have been signed recently in Idaho and Wyoming.
The Harney County agreement followed three years of negotiations, and ranchers entered the discussions with a “natural scepticism,” said Burns rancher Tom Sharp, who chaired the local committee.
“We began the dance very slowly,” Sharp said.
Within a few months, however, a sense of trust and common purpose emerged, he said.
“What we found as we engaged, we found the agency folks — they got it,” Sharp said. “They realized the stakes were high on this.”
Marty Suter-Goold, manager of the Harney County Soil and Water Conservation District, called the agreement “monumental.” She said 39 ranchers representing 250,000 acres have already indicated they want to take part, and half a dozen other Eastern Oregon counties have asked for information about the project.
“Landowners wanted this to happen and stayed with us all the way through the process,” she said.
Under the agreement, formally called a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA), ranchers agree to manage their lands to reduce threats to greater sage grouse. The work will include such things as removing juniper or invasive grasses, putting reflective material on the top strand of fences to reduce bird strikes, and putting “escape ladders” in water troughs so birds can get out if they fly into one. Ranchers who have a ritual breeding ground on their land, called a lek, will avoid grazing cattle in those areas during the key mating season.
Sharp, the Burns rancher, said the requirements are not onerous. “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” he said.
The conservation district will be the permit holder under the agreement, and the USFW will issue “enhancement of survival” and “incidental take” permits to the district. Landowners who sign on will be sheltered under the district’s permit, and the district will develop site-specific management plans for ranches.
Landowners who carry out the plans in good faith will be exempted from additional regulatory requirements if greater sage grouse are listed as endangered.