CRESTON, Wash. — Four Eastern Washington ranchers say they’re concerned they will lose their private property rights if they sign a voluntary agreement designed to protect them from legal repercussions if something happens to a sage grouse on their property.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is finalizing a Washington state candidate conservation agreement with assurances — called a CCAA — for ranchers to take measures to protect sage grouse on their property. Consultation and conservation planning division manager Bridget Moran said the agency is negotiating with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington Cattlemen’s Association to finalize the agreement for publication and public comment.

Creston, Wash., rancher Dawn Nelson says she would have to reduce her herd of more than 120 by roughly half if she were to sign up because of a rotational grazing requirement in the CCAA.

“They say it’s voluntary to sign up, but if you don’t sign up and you happen to have a bird die on your place or an accidental take, they can come back and sue you,” Nelson said.

Other sticking points in the draft agreement for Nelson and her neighbors include:

• Avoiding vehicular activity unless essential within 4 miles of occupied “leks,” an area where birds gather during the breeding season to attract mates, between February and July.

• Avoiding harvest within 4 miles of active leks between April and August.

• Limiting activity two hours before sunset and two hours after sunrise within 1.5 miles of an active lek.

• Allowing the department to access the farmer’s land with prior notification.

Nelson said the agreement may work for some ranchers, but she and several neighbors are not inclined to sign up.

“That’s a great idea, but I don’t know how they can enforce that on private landowners,” she said. “I would rather be the owner of my land and not a permittee. Within seven pages of this draft, you become a permittee on your own private ground.”

Moran said the plan uses an example found to be successful in Oregon. The agency has made adjustments to its drafts based on feedback from ranchers, she said.

“Many from the ranching community in other parts of the range have found them to be something they can incorporate into their business practices without tremendous difficulty,” she said. “We’re hoping we’re able to do that here as well.”

Washington Cattlemen’s Association executive vice president Jack Field said the latest draft is an improvement over original drafts and focus more on landowner concerns.

Field said the agreements have to provide enough protection and assurance to justify the expense for ranchers.

“We want to make sure we can create the best possible tool to provide the greatest level of protection not only to landowners but also to the bird,” he said.

Incidental take is a concern if the sage grouse are eventually protected under the Endangered Species Act, Field said.

“‘Take’ doesn’t have to mean a dead bird, take could simply mean adverse modification of habitat,” he said.

Nelson wonders who makes the determination over whether a farmer’s activity within range of a lek is needed.

“They call it ‘unnecessary,’ but who decides what’s unnecessary?” Nelson said.

“What farmer does anything unnecessary?” asked Dennis Jessup, one of Nelson’s neighbors in the Wilbur-Creston area. Jessup runs 200 cows, but said he’s not sure how much he’d have to cut until he knows for sure what the agreement seeks.

“Everybody wants the sage grouse to be around,” neighboring rancher Michele Rosman said. “I think what we know works and what they think works is two completely different things, and we’re not going to bend over for that. If we thought they could manage theirs, that’d be different. But they can’t manage theirs, so what makes them think they can manage ours?”

“I don’t think the cattle is the problem here,” Nelson said, noting there are coyotes, wolves, hawks, owls and eagles all around. “They’re going to have to be able to control the predators and keep these grouse alive. You can’t put this on the cow, because I have never seen a cow eat a sage grouse. Ever.”

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