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

Oregon Stand Off Trial Verdicts Are In

The verdicts are in this afternoon for the seven defendants on trial in Portland for their roles in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year.  The verdicts are as follows:

Ammon Bundy, not guilty on all counts

Ryan Bundy, not guilty on conspiracy charge, not guilty on firearms charge, no verdict on theft of property charge.

Jeff Banta, not guilty on all charges

Shawna Cox, not guilty

Ken Medenbach, not guilty on all charges

David Fry, not guilty on all charges

Neil Wampler, not guilty

After Questions of Bias Arise, Juror Dismissed in Oregon Stand Off Trial

Yesterday in the trial of seven defendants accused of conspiring to impede federal employees from doing their jobs after the January 2, 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlfe Refuge, the jury sent questions to the judge.  One of those questions, hand written in all capital letters, was:

“Can a juror, a former employee of the Bureau of Land Management, who opens their remarks in deliberations by stating, ‘I am very biased…’ be considered an impartial judge in this case?”

The defense asked for the juror to be dismissed.  Judge Anna Brown met with the juror and the attorneys and decided she would not immediately dismiss the juror.  She gave the attorneys until 9am today to present case law to support the argument to dismiss the juror.  This is an unusual development, and has resulted in a flurry of discussion and speculation from all sides on how it will effect the trial.

Ammon Bundy’s defense lawyer, Marcus Mumford, filed a motion  to dismiss the juror this morning.  Many reporters in the court room tweeted that Judge Brown stated, “there is not a way forward that is not fraught with risk.”  Judge Brown asked that all parties agree to dismiss the juror on ‘good cause’ and she had a replacement juror chosen from a cup in preparation.  She said if the prosecution did not agree to dismiss the juror, she would hear oral arguments on the motion to dismiss.

Meanwhile, the jury continued to deliberate.  Judge Brown said if they reached a verdict while the court was deciding whether or not to dismiss the juror it would be yet another problem.

Finally, the prosecution agreed to dismiss the juror. The judge informed the jury that she had determined that juror 11 needs to be excused in the interest of justice, and that everyone would be back in court tomorrow morning for another round of jury instructions.  She told the jury they will have to set aside the conclusions they had already come to and start over.

 

While the Pentagon Wastes Billions of Dollars, Soldiers Are Forced to Repay Re-enlistment Bonuses

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and other countries) have dragged on for more than a decade, maintaining an all volunteer military force has become increasingly challenging.  The Department of Defense has relied on large cash incentives to keep the ranks filled, offering re-enlistment bonuses for soldiers in jobs that are in high demand.  (A former Air Force service member in the drone program told me about a re-enlistment, tax free, bonus of $72 thousand!)  Unfortunately, those bonuses were not always given to personnel that qualified for them.

Yesterday, it was reported by David S. Cloud in the Los Angeles Times that “nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses–and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse–after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade.”  According to Cloud, these “bonus overpayments occurred in every state at the height of the two wars.”

Cloud goes on to discuss several soldiers now faced with repaying these bonuses they had no idea they didn’t qualify for when they received them.  These are veterans who deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them wounded while serving.  While some have attempted to appeal the decision, that has proven to be a long and difficult process.  Meanwhile, the interest on the amount owed continues to accrue.

One soldier, Bryan Strother, faced with a total of $25,010.32 owed “for mistaken bonuses and student loans,” filed a class action lawsuit in February.  Cloud writes that Strother filed the suit “on behalf of all soldiers who got bonuses, claiming the California Guard ‘conned’ them into reenlisting.”  His lawsuit seeks an injuction to stop further collection, as well as the return of money already re-payed.

Strother was notified in August that the Pentagon would not require him to repay the money he had received in enlistment bonuses, and shortly thereafter, lawyers for the US Attorney “petitioned the court to dismiss Strother’s lawsuit, arguing that it was moot since most of his debt had been waived.”  This motion is set to be decided on by January.  If the case is dismissed, that would take care of the injunction request for all soldiers who received bonuses.

Cloud writes, “even Guard officials concede that taking back the money from military veterans is distasteful.”

“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” said Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard.  “We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts.  We just can’t do that.  We’d be breaking the law.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon remains unaccountable for vast sums of tax payer money.  Scot J. Paltrow wrote in this November 18, 2013 Reuters article, “the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments.  That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for.”

Matthew Gault wrote in his March 31, 2015 War Is Boring article that the Pentagon could not account for $45 billion of the $66 billion that was allocated to the Pentagon for the task of rebuilding Afghanistan.  Gault states, “the Pentagon has a history of wasting billions in the country [Afghanistan] on bad projects, corrupt business partners and disreputable construction companies.”

“It wasted five years and $20 million refurbishing an old Soviet prison that still isn’t finished. The Air Force blew half a billion dollars on transport planes that never flew. It sold the aircraft for $32,000 worth of scrap.”

All that waste, fraud, corruption, bad spending, and lack of accountability for billions of dollars is apparently acceptable.  But when the Pentagon resorts to bribery to maintain its volunteer force (after all, a draft would likely put a stop to these wars pretty quickly), 10,000 soldiers who were mistakenly given bonuses for re-enlisting are forced to repay the money they received.

Sure, that makes sense.

FBI Agent Testifies of Advance Warning of Malheur Wildlife Refuge Takeover Plan

According to testimony given by FBI Agent Chadd Lapp in the ongoing trial of seven defendants charged with conspiring to impede federal officers from fulfilling their duties as a result of their occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that began January 2, 2016, the FBI received advanced warning of the plan on January 1, 2016.  It has been acknowledged during the trial that there were informants at the refuge during the occupation.

On Wednesday, September 28, 2016, Agent Lapp testified that on January 1, one day before the planned rally supporting the Hammonds, FBI agents learned there was a plan to take over the refuge.   Maxine Bernstein wrote in the Oregonian on September 29, 2016:

“Lapp said he heard the information from another agent. Ammon Bundy’s lawyer Marcus Mumford referred to an email sent to the chief regional refuge law enforcement office that he said made mention of ‘intelligence from four people within the militia about a plan to take the refuge.’

‘I remember telling him there was intelligence. It was a potential target,’ Lapp said. ‘It was really basic words…Malheur…wildlife refuge, and there may be a plan to take it.’

Under questioning from Mumford, Lapp said he conveyed the intelligence to several people in his office, but didn’t do anything further with the information.”

That nothing was done to prevent this plan, even with the short notice, is surprising given the testimonies made previously by Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward and Chad Karges, the manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, who both spoke of taking preventative measures prior to the January 2 rally.

Sheriff Ward testified earlier in the trial that after several meetings with Ammon Bundy prior to the January 2 rally and numerous emails, warnings, and his own research into what had happened at Bunkerville, Nevada in 2014, he prepared by moving the inmates from his jail in Burns, Oregon to the next county.  He added that he moved all of the weapons and ammunition to the jail, which could serve as a fortified bunker should something happen during the January 2 rally.

Chad Karges testified that “he made the decision to keep employees away after New Year’s Day because of the ‘continued intimidation and threats towards federal employees,’ ‘type of arms that they had,’ and the ‘type of stand they were taking.'”  Defense Attorney Lisa Maxfield asked Karges why no security was placed at the refuge before the rally, Karges answered, “at that time, federal agencies were being told the threat was towards the BLM, and the refuge hadn’t entered into the conversation.”

If the FBI had received information a day in advance of the takeover of the refuge, as Agent Lapp testified yesterday, why indeed weren’t steps taken to increase security at the refuge?  Clearly law enforcement and federal employees were concerned in the months leading up to the Hammonds returning to prison and the January 2 support rally.  Considering that, and the stand off that had occurred in Nevada nearly two years before, why would such a warning not be taken seriously?

With the well-known presence of the Bundys and the others who joined them in taking the refuge, as well as that of the Pacific Patriots Network and other “militia” groups in Burns, Oregon, for the support rally for the Hammonds, I find it difficult to believe there was a shortage of law enforcement in Harney County on January 1, 2016.  Why then was there no law enforcement presence placed at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on January 2, 2016 after the FBI received warning of the planned occupation?

 

 

 

Newsbud Confronts NBC News in New York City

NBC News Declines to Answer Questions

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Newsbud’s Sibel Edmonds and Spiro Skouras traveled from Oregon to New York to spend several hours outside NBC News Headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City today.  They joined with supporters and journalists from various media outlets to publicly request an apology and retraction from NBC News for the false report made during the July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey that Turkish President Erdogan was seeking asylum in Germany.  NBC News made this report as the attempted coup was taking place, and attributed it to a “senior US military source.”  When this could not be verified, NBC News no longer reported it as fact, but countless media outlets had already disseminated the report, citing NBC News as the source.  NBC News offered no explanation or retraction for their false report.

Newsbud repeatedly contacted NBC News asking for an explanation and retraction of this report, and after receiving no response, Newsbud issued a call to action for supporters and journalists to gather outside NBC News headquarters in New York City.  The Turkish embassy also contacted NBC News to request an explanation and apology, and made their request public via Twitter.

The New York Police Department was notified of the event in advance, and an enclosure was formed with barricades to contain everyone who came to show support for the demand for an explanation from NBC News.  When Edmonds and a small group began to make their way to the main entrance of NBC News Headquarters, they were stopped and told to return to the enclosure to wait while a member of the NYPD went inside to request that NBC News send a representative outside to address the group.  Later, a member of NBC’s security team spoke with Edmonds and stated he would also request that an NBC representative come outside to answer questions.

Edmonds addressed multiple journalists and activists from inside the metal barricades, surrounded by Turkish and American flags, and signs calling for the US to extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey.  Turkish President Erdogan has blamed the attempted coup on Gulen’s network and supporters, and has demanded that the US extradite Gulen to Turkey.

After waiting for hours, Edmonds announced she had received word that NBC News declined to send any representative outside to answer questions.  Edmonds then made a statement requesting that the Turkish government ban all NBC employees and reporters from Turkey, and extended that request to other nations as well.  Also, she stated that Newsbud, along with various media and Turkish organizations, will work towards pursuing a lawsuit against NBC News.  Additionally, she asked all viewers to no longer watch or support NBC News.

You can watch the recording of the livestream of the event here, and continue to follow the story at Newsbud’s temporary home, Boiling Frogs Post.

Attention US Media: There’s a New Watchdog in The House

“Today, on Monday, July 25, 2016, at 1:50 p.m. the Turkish Embassy’s press office responded to Newsbud’s inquiry via email, and indicated that Turkey’s official demand for immediate public apology and retraction had been submitted to the relevant divisions of NBC News at 1:00 p.m. (ET) today-Monday July 25, 2016.”

Click here to watch the video and read more.

The Newsbud  campaign to #ConfrontNBC continues on Twitter, with thousands of tweets calling on NBC News for a response.   Even the Turkish Press Office joined in with this tweet:

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Hopefully NBC News will offer an apology.  We the people need to keep the pressure on them.  We need to continue to hold media accountable by exposing these types of false reports and government information operations.  When we work together, we can be successful!

Top image credit:  Paul Jamiol at Boiling Frogs Post

Author’s Note: I am no longer affiliated with Newsbud and no longer endorse the website.