Sage grouse plan impacts ranchers disproportionately, OCA says
Cattle grazing reductions likely in some areas under proposal
By Mateusz Perkowski
Some Oregon ranchers would be disproportionately harmed by grazing restrictions under a proposed plan to protect sage grouse, according to leaders of a state cattlemen’s group.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management recently offered a draft plan for managing the greater sage grouse, a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The agency’s “preferred alternative” under the plan would prohibit grazing on nearly 118,000 acres in eastern Oregon.
While this represents roughly 1 percent of the 12 million acres of BLM property available for grazing in the region, the closures would be concentrated in “research natural areas,” or RNAs, across the state.
Ranchers with grazing allotments within RNAs may be forced to severely reduce their herd sizes if the preferred alternative is adopted, said leaders of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association who have studied the proposal.
“It would be a huge percentage of their total permit, so we’re concerned about that,” said John O’Keefe, treasurer of the OCA and a rancher from Adel, Ore.
Reducing livestock production in eastern Oregon has an impact beyond the individual ranchers, as it reverberates through to their suppliers and other local businesses, said Bob Skinner, chairman of the group’s public lands committee and a Jordan Valley, Ore., rancher.
“Every time you do that, you affect the economy,” he said.
The RNA designation wasn’t initially supposed to affect grazing, but now it appears that BLM officials have changed their mind, Skinner said.
More grazing land has been added to the RNA category over the years, so it’s inappropriate to terminate the practice now, O’Keefe said.
“They’re meeting their (rangeland health) objectives with cattle on them now,” he said.
The proposal also indicates that grazing curtailments might occur over a much larger land area, if the BLM determines that sage grouse habitat criteria aren’t being met, O’Keefe said.
Under the proposal, grazing can be restricted or disallowed within another type of land designation — area of critical environmental concern, or ACEC — if the conditions fall below certain benchmarks, O’Keefe said.
Oregon has roughly a half-million acres of ACEC land within the sage grouse’s habitat in the state, according to BLM.
O’Keefe said he’s concerned that the BLM will rely on values — like forage density and grass height — to determine the health of habitat, even though these factors vary across different parts of the state.
In other words, some areas are naturally productive and shouldn’t be used to gauge the suitability of less productive areas, he said.
“They don’t occur uniformly through the range,” O’Keefe said. “If it doesn’t occur naturally, it’s not going to occur even under appropriate management.”
Skinner said cattlemen plan “to hold the BLM’s feet to the fire” to ensure that its recommendations actually make sense for the sage grouse’s health.
The biggest threat to the bird’s population is wildfire that destroys its habitat, and grazing can reduce fuel loads to mitigate fire risk, he said.
Even so, opponents of grazing look for arguments to restrict the practice, Skinner said. “Every time they get a situation like the sage grouse, they take full advantage of it.”
The Oregon Natural Desert Association, which has battled against grazing in court, believes the practice contributes to sage grouse habitat fragmentation along with fire and other factors.
Over-utilization of native grasses by cattle can make room for invasive species like cheatgrass that are associated with increased fire risk, said Dan Morse, conservation director for ONDA.
“We need to focus on all those impacts and not just one impact,” he said.