Oregon’s Greater sage-grouse management plan is being put to the test in Harney County

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Katie Aguilera

The Harney County Soil and Water Conservation District, or SWCD, won a national Landscape Stewardship Award in 2014 for their efforts in working with ranchers to improve greater sage-grouse habitat in the county.  Now, after the finalization of Oregon’s greater sage-grouse management plan, and months of seeking amendments to the plan, the ranchers and the Harney County SWCD have filed a lawsuit challenging the plan.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service determined in March, 2010, that the greater sage-grouse deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act due to a lack of protections for the bird’s sagebrush habitat.  However, after an unprecedented collaborative effort between various agencies, environmental groups, industry stakeholders, and private landowners to develop a plan that would protect the sage-grouse and its habitat, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined the greater sage-grouse no longer required protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Oregon governor Kate Brown signed an executive order in September 2015, enacting Oregon’s greater sage-grouse management plan.

This collaborative effort to develop a management plan that would protect the sage-grouse population while also protecting the interests of industries such as ranching, mining, and energy development has been celebrated as a model effort for conservation throughout western states, but many are left unhappy with the final result.  Ranchers in Harney County feel as though their efforts have been ignored.

Travis Williams, a fifth-generation Harney County rancher, said, “we collaborated with NRCS, helping with local individuals, put together conservation agreements, the CCAA’s, that were models to the nation, did a bunch of work to save the bird, and they came back to us, didn’t look at our local opinions on how to address this bird.  It was a slap in the face.”

The Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS, an agency of the US Department of Agriculture, started the Sage Grouse Initiative, or SGI, which is a partnership of ranchers, agencies, universities, non-profit groups, and businesses that work to conserve the sage-grouse through sustainable ranching.  The initiative was launched in 2010 and works to fund conservation projects in 11 western states to preserve sage-grouse habitat.

Oregon is home to 6.3% of the known population of male greater sage-grouse range-wide, and holds 10.9% of the bird’s total habitat, according to the Bureau of Land Management.  The Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership, or SageCon, is a collaborative group similar to the SGI that is working in Oregon for the same goals.  One of the ways these groups have made progress is through Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances, or CCAA’s.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a CCAA is a “formal agreement between the Service and one or more parties to address the conservation needs of proposed or candidate species, or species likely to become candidates, before they become listed as endangered or threatened.  Landowners voluntarily commit to conservation actions that will stabilize or restore the species with the goal that listing will become unnecessary.”  These agreements usually offer landowners some protection from future regulations in the event the species does become listed as threatened or endangered.

In Harney County, the SWCD worked as an intermediary between ranchers and the various land and wildlife management agencies to develop a CCAA.  Nearly 40 ranchers were willing to sign onto the CCAA, agreeing to a list of proactive changes to be made on private and public land in exchange for a 30-year delay to further regulations if the sage-grouse is listed as threatened or endangered.

Jeremy Austin, the Hart-Shelton coordinator for Oregon Natural Desert Association, or ONDA, says the Oregon sage-grouse management plan has great potential to reverse the decline of the sage-grouse population.  He said the collaborative effort set the gold standard for sage-grouse management in other areas, but its success will ultimately rely on how the plan is implemented.

Williams describes some of the changes he has made in his operations as being beneficial overall, saying, “what’s good for the cows is good for the wildlife.”  He has had contractors thinning juniper trees to prevent perches for sage-grouse predators, and this also results in more water for grazing forage.  He has been planting crested wheat grass, a non-native species that is more fire-resistant than native grasses, to create fire breaks which also help preserve forage for his cattle.

Williams said, “on our private land, we started fall grazing a lot more, combating invasive weeds and cheat grass, which I believe is working well.”  Invasive plant species are considered one of the greatest threats to sage-grouse due to the increased risk of habitat destruction through wildfire.  Grazing in the fall and winter months targets invasive grasses while most of the native perennial grasses are dormant.

While these changes have been positive over all, the ranchers still have concerns about many of the management plan’s requirements.  Both Austin of ONDA, and the ranchers, highlight the fact that this plan covers a vast amount of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, an agency they agree is hindered by a lack of personnel needed to complete all the necessary monitoring of the sage-grouse population and habitat.   Austin said this is one area where things might go wrong in the implementation of the plan as the BLM is limited in its staff.  The ranchers are concerned this will “provide a target rich environment for groups to challenge public land grazing.”

Harney County ranchers are not alone in their concerns, there are numerous federal court cases challenging the sage-grouse management plans developed in other western states filed by the livestock and mineral industries and by state and local governments.  A case has also been filed by a group of environmental organizations challenging the Idaho plan in federal court, arguing the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the sage-grouse.

Williams said, “we finally have the chance to be on the offensive, and there’s mixed feelings in the county over that.  It’s becoming quite an issue, there’s some hard feelings right now.  But, they are going through with the litigation, the first money has been put out and got the lawyer hired, and it’s been filed in Washington [D.C.].”  He explained that one of the concerns raised against suing, saying, “some of the people that are against this litigation are saying we’re just opening it up for ONDA and these other groups to sue the BLM, but that’s going to happen anyway.”

Austin said the Oregon plan is really good compared to plans in other states, and he doesn’t see any lawsuits against it on ONDA’s horizon.  He added that ONDA will closely watch how the plan is implemented, but at this time he doesn’t see a need for environmental groups to challenge the plan in court.

The ranchers in Harney County believe the BLM violated its own procedures for land and resource management plan development under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, and the National Environmental Policy Act by not considering the local alternative plan for protecting the sage-grouse.  According to Williams, “there are 11 points that should have been part of the decision, and the process, but were not.  They [BLM] are in direct violation of this process, their FLPMA documents state they need to coordinate with the local officials, but they haven’t.”

Oregon’s greater sage-grouse management plan will likely face even more challenges as its implementation takes effect.  The collaborative efforts to create a plan that works for all involved highlights both positive changes in land use, and the deep frustration felt by industries trying to survive under increasing regulations.  Williams expressed this frustration as he described the years of collaborative work.  “We tried to make them meet us in the middle.  With collaboration, you are kind of giving and taking, and we’ve been giving a lot more than we’ve been taking.  For years.”

 

Image courtesy of pixabay.com

Healing On The Range: A Look At Central Oregon Veterans Ranch

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Katie Aguilera

Alison Perry described the 19 acres of land situated between Bend and Redmond, Oregon, as a place of peace while leading a tour of Central Oregon Veterans Ranch on Friday, December 2, 2016. She said the ranch will help veterans find a sense of purpose and meaning, and it is designed to be a community for veterans, built by veterans.  Perry also described a desire to bring attention to the lack of services currently available for Central Oregon veterans in spite of the large number who live in the area.  She pointed out that veterans make up nine to ten percent of the Central Oregon population, numbering around 20,000.

Perry is the executive director of Central Oregon Veterans Ranch.  She has been working with veterans since 2003, including as a trauma therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs.  As she spoke with the group of around twenty-five people gathered for the tour, Perry described a couple of cases she had dealt with that inspired her to found the ranch.  She talked about the efforts that have gone into creating this place of healing, and the plans for its success.  Her determination to help veterans, and her dedication to this project were very apparent as she described her work and the ranch.

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The Central Oregon Veterans Ranch is a working ranch.  Currently it is home to numerous animals; chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, even mini donkeys.  The ranch plans to build a greenhouse for growing produce, and has received donations for this project from Central Oregon rotary groups.  Veterans can volunteer to help on the ranch, and Perry said just the day before the tour, 18 local veterans had come out to work, many of them dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Coming to the ranch, working on projects there, and helping with the animals, is therapeutic.  According to the ranch brochure, “studies and pilot programs prove that veterans engaged in farming and ranching and returning to meaningful forms of service succeed.  Combat veterans struggling to re-engage in their communities after returning from deployment become productive members of their community and beyond after participating in sustainable agriculture and ranching activities.”

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The tour ended with a look at the bright and airy home that will soon be opened as an adult foster care facility serving up to four terminally ill or aged veterans.  The home has been recently remodeled, with money from a private grant, and much of the work has been done by veteran volunteers.  It has been furnished with money donated by the Central Oregon chapter of 100 Women Who Care. There are three bedrooms for the residents, with four beds covered with beautifully made, red, white, and blue quilts.  There is another space for a live-in residential assistant, who is already living at the ranch, and described the job as a dream job.

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Priority will be given to Vietnam veterans suffering from Agent Orange related illnesses, according to Perry, and the cost of the service is based on a sliding scale which will allow the ranch to serve indigent veterans.  The home will provide “an environment that fosters dignity, improves quality of life, and provides specialized care for the unique needs of the Veteran population,” according to the ranch’s website.  Perry pointed out that there are no veterans’ specific senior care facilities currently in Central Oregon, and she said the facility intends to place a lot of focus on healing at end of life from PTSD.

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The ranch is a beautiful place, with a stunning view of the Three Sisters and Broken Top. Perry said she has been told by volunteers that they feel a sense of peace as they cross the cattle guard at the entrance to the property, and she stated, “the property itself is an intervention.”  It is easy to see why it can bring peace and healing to anyone visiting or working there.

The Central Oregon Veterans Ranch continues to raise funds to grow the operation.  Currently they are inviting people to become a part of the First 100 Campaign by being one of the first 100 to make a donation of $1000.00 or more.  Those who do will have their name memorialized in a Peace Garden planned for the ranch.  Donations of any size are welcome, including donations of services, time, and goods, such as the coffee donated by Strictly Organic of Bend that was served during the tour.  Of course, there is also the weekly veterans volunteer day on Thursdays.  The ranch also invites anyone to tour the property.  More information can be obtained by calling 541-706-9062, and by visiting their website at www.centraloregonveteransranch.org.

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