By Lauren Dake

The Bulletin

Bill: House Bill 4093

Sponsor: Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario

Summary: Carves out an exemption from the state’s public records law for the purpose of sage grouse habitat protection when reports and agreements are voluntarily submitted to Department of Agriculture, Department of Forestry or a soil and water conservation district.

Status: Approved by Senate; heads to House

Online: B-Engrossed

SALEM — The state must avoid strict regulations that would come with designating the sage grouse an endangered species, an Oregon lawmaker told his colleagues Wednesday.

The listing, Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, said, could decimate the Eastern Oregon economy, much like the listing of the “spotted owl had on Western Oregon timberlands.”

Senators approved House Bill 4093 on Wednesday, 24 to 5, which aims to persuade landowners to participate in voluntary sage grouse conservation plans; in return, private information about the ranchers could not be disclosed.

The brown and white bird, which resides in sagebrush, has dwindled in numbers across the West for several years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until 2015 to decide whether to designate the bird as endangered, and such a listing could affect ranchers’ abilities to allow their cattle to graze on rangeland.

“Everyone from Bend to those in John Day should be worried about this — not just ranchers,” said Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, who pushed the legislation.

The designation would affect a vast area, he said, and “recreationists, four-wheelers, hunters,” should all be wary of such a designation.

One way to avoid such a listing is if landowners enter into contracts with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to work together on sage grouse conservation plans. But landowners are hesitant to do so out of fear their personal information would be available to the public.

“Ranchers and landowners wouldn’t want the public or every hunter to know where their gates are, their roads, the number of cattle they have on their property,” Bentz said.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have been working to amend their land management plans in areas where the bird is threatened to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing.

Sage grouse are found in 11 states. In addition to Oregon, they are in parts of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, was one of the votes against the provision.

A former reporter, Burdick said she has a very high bar when it comes to exempting records from the state’s public records laws. Those opposed to the measure said it’s dangerous to create more exemptions to public access.

“I’m a strong supporter of public records laws and I set a high bar, and this doesn’t meet my standards,” she said.

The measure now goes back to the House, which already approved the provision, but must agree to tweaks the Senate made.

— Reporter, 541-554-1162,