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Sage grouse plan update sparks controversy


Environmentalists claim state's plan falls short, lacks oversight

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is considering adopting an updated conservation plan for the greater sage grouse that could head off an Endangered Species Act listing.

Miel Corbett, assistant state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the state's draft plan, aired at a commission meeting last fall, has some shortcomings. But, she said, the plan is scientifically sound and could help prevent future Endangered Species Act listings of the sage grouse in Oregon.

The USFWS last year determined the sage grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, but it declined to list the bird because it did not have adequate resources to administer the listing, Corbett said.

The agency placed the bird on its candidate species list and gave the bird a listing priority number of eight, with one being the highest priority and 12 the lowest.

Currently, 188 of 251 candidate species have a higher priority than the sage grouse, Corbett said.

The service annually updates the candidate species list, she said, and takes new factors into account when doing so.

Two areas of concern Corbett identified in Oregon's draft conservation plan are an inability to prevent fragmentation or loss of habitat, and an inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms to protect the bird.

Corbett said Oregon's voluntary approach to managing sage grouse habitat offers no assurances that habitat conservation will be implemented.

"We would value some specificity with regard to the regulatory mechanism," she said.

Also, Oregon's strategy is deficient on providing mitigation for when habitat losses are unavoidable, she said. Unavoidable habitat losses include losses to fire, climate change and invasive weeds.

But Corbett said she liked several parts of the plan.

The updated Oregon draft plan deviates from the original plan, adopted in 2005, in its utilization of a "core areas" approach. The approach is designed to protect certain sensitive areas from development.

Corbett characterized it as "a very sound, scientific approach to the conservation of the sage grouse." The approach is being used in several other western states, she said.

The objective of the approach, according to the plan's language, "is to avoid, minimize or mitigate for impacts on sage-grouse habitats from energy development ... or other large-scale industrial-commercial developments."

In the plan, 13 million acres of an estimated 18.5 million acres of sage-grouse habitat in Oregon are in core areas.

The plan allows most livestock grazing in core areas -- a provision environmentalists have said they oppose.

"This plan recognizes that livestock ranching operations, which manage for sustainable native rangelands, is compatible with sage-grouse conservation," the plan states.

The plan also allows limited hunting of the sage grouse -- another provision environmentalists oppose.

The department uses the controlled hunts to gather biological information about the bird, upland game bird coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Dave Budeau said.

Hunters are provided envelopes to submit wings and other sampling materials of harvested birds, which the department uses to determine biological features and to test for West Nile virus.

Budeau said the state allows limited hunts in 12 of the 21 Oregon wildlife management units where sage grouse are present and restricts harvest to no more than 5 percent of the bird's population, Budeau said.

Federal biologists have determined that the hunting authorized by the state does not pose a threat to the bird's population, Budeau said.

Marilyn Miller, a bird watcher and wildlife photographer, testified at the fall commission meeting that the state's plan falls short of protecting sage grouse, in part because it doesn't provide ODFW oversight of sage grouse habitat on private and federal lands. As such, she said, the state has no way to ensure leks -- sage grouse breeding areas -- are protected from energy facility sitings and other threats to the core areas' habitat.

"The plan needs to allow ODFW to have a way to implement the recommendations and a strategy to allow ODFW to work with the counties," she said.

Budeau acknowledged that ODFW has little authority outside state lands except when it comes to regulating hunting. But, he said, the department likely would weigh in on land-use or development proposals that could potentially harm the bird's breeding sites.

Corbett said it is unclear if and when the federal government will seek to list the sage grouse for ESA protections.

Environmental groups last year sued to force a listing.

That suit, as well as suits challenging the legality of the candidate list and the length of time species spend on it could impact future USFWS listing decisions, Corbett said.

Doing nothing, however, almost ensures the bird will be listed, she said.

"Barring conservation efforts being implemented, when the service gets the resources, this (the sage grouse) is likely to move toward a listed species," she said.

To comment

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's greater sage grouse conservation draft plan is available for review and public comment.

To review the plan, go to: www.dfw.state.or.us/wildlife/
sagegrouse

Comments can be mailed to ODFW headquarters, 3406 Cherry Ave. NE, Salem, OR 97303, or e-mailed to sage.grouse@state.or.us



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