Mia Sheppard

This past fall during the opening weekend of the upland bird season, I hunted chukar partridge in southeast Oregon with Walt Van Dyke, retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist for Malheur County, and Pat Wray, author of “The Chukar Hunter’s Companion.” Walt and Pat are avid sportsmen and passionate about conservation of fish and wildlife and southeast Oregon.

The weather was warm, and the heat of the day penetrated our bones. By noon sweat dripped from our brows. Nelly, my shorthair pointer, was unaccustomed to the heat and had drunk almost all the water I was carrying. Rain hadn’t fallen in the desert sagebrush country since July, leaving this rangeland highly vulnerable to fire.

Despite an increasing prevalence of wildfire, the public lands of southeast Oregon continue to provide some of the most unique and valuable fish and wildlife habitat and sporting opportunities in the state.

The semi-arid mountain ranges encompass key habitats for mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, elk and upland birds. Small streams provide habitat for unique native fisheries. These outdoor experiences must be conserved for future generations.

To that end, hunters and anglers are working to safeguard some of the state’s most intact and high-quality wildlife habitat and fisheries through a Bureau of Land Management land-use plan amendment process covering 5.1 million acres in southeast Oregon. These sportsmen — representing the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Oregon Hunters Association, Association of Northwest Steelheaders and the Oregon Division of the Izaak Walton League — are recommending that high-value backcountry BLM areas be conserved as “backcountry conservation areas,” or BCAs, a newly proposed land-use allocation that is being driven from the ground up and speaks to Western values. BCAs maintain existing vehicle access and allow for habitat projects while assuring that backcountry lands are conserved for future generations to enjoy.

Under the BCA allocation, the BLM would uphold traditional uses of public land but allow wildlife managers to restore the rangeland and habitat by enabling vegetation management to control noxious weeds such as medusa head, restore bunchgrass to benefit wildlife and livestock and reduce the risk of wildfire. BCAs also would allow ranchers to maintain agriculture improvements and continue their operations and traditional way of life.

Areas proposed for BCA allocation include Slaughter Gulch and De Armond Mountain, which provide excellent habitat — and hunting — for mule deer, elk and upland birds, in the ODFW Malheur River Wildlife Management Unit. BCA management would conserve these lands, maintain hunting opportunities and sustain the considerable economic boost sportsmen provide the region.

According to Van Dyke, “The BCA concept promotes and protects the primitive, open nature of important fish and wildlife habitats while allowing flexibility in land management activities that will enhance the quality of those habitats — activities that are often necessary to maintain the habitat and ecological values of public lands in today’s world.”

As a sportsman, I want to return to places like Slaughter Gulch and see that the landscape hasn’t changed or has been improved. During our chukar hunt, Van Dyke, Wray and I covered territory that hadn’t seen human footprints in weeks. A breeze was blowing, and the coveys of chukar flushed wild. But hitting a bird is just a bonus compared to the remarkable views and solitude found in southeast Oregon.

Oregon BLM should conserve high-quality backcountry hunting and fishing lands that sustain fish and wildlife populations and uphold multiple-use management with a focus on habitat conservation. If you are interested in protecting sporting opportunities on public lands in southeast Oregon, now is the time to get involved. Join thousands of sportsmen working to conserve our public lands by contacting the state BLM office and promoting BCAs as a land-management tool. Contact the BLM at: 100 Oregon Street Vale, OR 97918; 541-473-3144.