Oregon’s sage grouse population was down 10 percent in 2018, which reflects unfavorable weather conditions rather than the efficacy of recovery efforts, according to state wildlife regulators.
Aerial and ground surveys of breeding sites, or leks, conducted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife pegged the number of sage grouse at 18,421, down from 20,510 the previous year.
The change in populations wasn’t uniform across the state, ranging from a 6 percent increase in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville District in Central Oregon to a 14 percent decline in the Vale District in Eastern Oregon.
The greater sage grouse was long a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, which ranchers fear would lead to further grazing restrictions, but the federal government decided against listing the bird in 2015 partly due to habitat conservation agreements by the livestock industry.
Reproductive success was lower than average due to dry weather, with such fluctuations not unusual in the sage grouse population, testified Kevin Blakely, ODFW’s wildlife division deputy administrator, before the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources on Dec. 12.
Specifically, soil moisture must be recharged during winter and spring rains must ensure the growth of forbs that attract insects, which the sage grouse eats, Blakely said.
Drought in 2017 caused fewer chicks to survive and reduced the bird’s population this year, he said.
Blakely’s presentation was part of an update for lawmakers on the status of sage grouse recovery efforts, but a partnership dedicated to the bird’s conservation, SageCon, also plans to seek more than $1 million in additional state funds for preservation activities next year.
One of the main strategies of sage grouse conservation — rangeland wildfire suppression — was successful in 2018, with 20,000 acres of the bird’s habitat burned compared to 100,000 acres in 2017, Blakely said.
Rural fire protection associations, which are operated by ranchers and other volunteers across 16 million acres in Oregon, were instrumental in limiting the spread of rangeland fires, testified John O’Keefe, a Lake County rancher and past president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
Despite having the same number of fire ignitions in 2018, fewer acres burned due to the diligence of RFPAs, whose volunteers are familiar with local terrain, fire fuel sources and travel routes, O’Keefe said.
“These are a significant force,” he said. “These are the things that can make an ignition a small event.”
SageCon, a partnership of industry, environmental and other groups, will be asking lawmakers for $400,000 to buy and maintain equipment for RFPAs during the 2019 legislative session, as well as $50,000 for a liaison position that would coordinate with federal fire fighters. The federal government would match $50,000 for the position.
“They do tend to operate on some very small budgets. It’s volunteer-based,” said Bruce Taylor, partnership coordinator with the Intermountain West Joint Venture, a member of the partnership.
Another $200,000 would go toward a coordinator position for the Burns/Lakeview “local implementation team,” which is intended to plan and carry out habitat conservation projects.
Such local implementation teams were seen as critical to Oregon’s “action plan” for the sage grouse, but they’ve languished due to a dearth of organizers, said Taylor. “It’s generally recognized as one of the bottlenecks in the implementation of the state’s plan.”
SageCon is also supporting Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s budget request for $500,000 to pay the state’s portion of various sage grouse coordination efforts.