A federal report may change the way Oregon and other Western states manage populations of sage grouse.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s sage grouse review team, a collection of officials from various federal agencies along with 11 state-level representatives, sent a recommendation to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week suggesting changes to a federal plan governing sage grouse habitat.

The recommendations, released Monday, represent the end of a 60-day review that began in June and will dictate how the federal government will manage habitat for the ground-dwelling birds going forward if they’re adopted, with a focus on increasing collaboration with state governments and using population totals as a tool to manage the species.

While ranchers in Oregon praised the decision, citing problems with the existing federal plans, conservationists expressed concern that the new recommendations would undo hard-fought protections for the embattled birds.

“If they’re implemented, they’ll cut the legs out from under sage grouse conservation,” said Dan Morse, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

The sage grouse review team provided a 13-page report on recommendations for better managing the birds, in the short term and the long term. Some of the proposed changes include: establishing population targets for sage grouse, eliminating “sagebrush focal areas” and broadly giving more consideration to economic growth and job creation in sage grouse habitat.

The greater sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird best known for its distinctive mating rituals, occupies large swaths of the sagebrush fields in the Western United States, including those in Central and Eastern Oregon. Fire and human development damaged large portions of sage grouse habitat and the species was considered for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the species in 2015.

Since then, sage grouse management in Oregon has operated under a federal management plan established by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, as well as an executive order signed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in 2015. John O’Keeffe, president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said the federal plan from 2015 leaves residents of Central and Eastern Oregon vulnerable to large wildfires that spread across grasses that comprise sage grouse habitat.

Morse said the federal plan “was not all that we hoped for” but was designed to dovetail with the state-level plan to keep the birds from being added to the endangered species list and requires more time to come to fruition.

“It has to be left to work,” Morse said.

In particular, Morse disagreed with the report’s recommendation to eliminate sagebrush focal areas, swaths of sagebrush owned by the federal government that are set aside as sage grouse habitat. The long-term strategy recommended in the report would remove or modify sagebrush focal areas in certain states, which Morse said could harm sage grouse populations going forward.

“They’re the best of the best for sage grouse conservation in the West,” he said.

Katy Siddall, director of government relations for The Wilderness Society, a nonprofit conservation group, wrote in an email that using population targets to monitor the heath of sage grouse populations leads to a narrow focus that shifts the focus away from comprehensive habitat management.

“It’s disappointing to see that once again the agency seems focused on accommodating the oil and gas industry at the expense of conservation of our public lands and the hard work of so many stakeholders to craft a balanced management approach,” Siddall wrote.

On the other hand, Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said he appreciated that the plan allowed for a greater amount of flexibility for individual states.

“From what we’ve read in the report, it really acknowledged a need for collaboration,” Rosa said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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