DIAMOND, Ore. — Standing at a makeshift table on the sage-covered north slope of revered Steens Mountain, federal officials and representatives of Harney County cattle ranchers signed agreements May 21 that will protect greater sage-grouse habitat on federal grazing allotments and 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 when it comes up for renewed consideration in 2015.
The agreements come after three years of work by a steering committee made up of ranchers, federal and state agency representatives and others.
Marty Suter-Goold, manager of the Harney County Soil and Water Conservation District, 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.
“This is a monumental moment for the West,” she said during the ceremony. “ We must remember what brought us to this mountain: relationships and trust.”
Burns-area rancher Tom Sharp, who chaired the steering committee, praised the members for sticking together.
“We took the time to do something right that has value beyond Harney County,” Sharp said.
About two-dozen people attended the signing ceremony, then gathered for a celebratory dinner at nearby Hotel Diamond.
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.
Under such conservation agreements, ranchers agree to remove or reduce threats to greater sage grouse. The work can include such things as cutting or burning 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.