A draft of a long-awaited federal plan would roll back protections for Oregon’s sage grouse population, but conservation organizations feel that the state may have gotten off with fairly minor changes.

“This (management) plan came through relatively unscathed,” said Dan Morse, conservation director for the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

On Friday, the Bureau of Land Management opened public comment on a draft environmental impact statement for proposed changes to Oregon’s sage grouse management plan.

The Oregon plan is one of six statewide or regional proposals listed on the BLM project’s website.

The Oregon proposal would open about 22,000 acres, which had been designated for research, to livestock grazing, but the document lacks the emphasis on oil and mineral interests that can be found in documents for Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

“The attacks on sage grouse protections were even worse elsewhere,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Idaho.

The greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird famous for elaborate mating rituals in which the males puff out their chests and strut around for females, lives in the sagebrush territory that covers a good chunk of the inland West, including parts of Central and Eastern Oregon. Habitat loss from fire and human development caused sage grouse populations to decline, and the species was considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the species in 2015, and the government has utilized habitat management plans — federal plans established by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell after extensive discussions with state governments and other stakeholders — since.

“They’re not perfect, but they offer the best chance to protect the bird,” Morse said of the management plans.

In 2017, the BLM, under new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, began looking at wholesale changes to the plans. Last October, the BLM began seeking input from the public on potential changes, which would provide states with more flexibility, according to the agency.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Colorado-based organization that represents the oil and gas industry, wrote in an email that the organization is “pleased” with the approach, which she said balances conservation with the need to create jobs and grow the economy.

In Oregon, the biggest proposed change is allowing livestock grazing in 13 Research Natural Areas — ecological areas set aside for research purposes — totaling 21,959 acres. The proposal would not change the terms of grazing permits on federal land, and two research areas, totaling 13,872 acres, would remain closed to grazing.

“The state action plan supports proper livestock grazing and recognizes the BLM’s authority to manage grazing on public lands,” the document reads.

Morse said the loss of the research areas would make it more difficult to study the birds without impacts from outside elements.

Molvar added that adjacent states with more rigorous changes that favor the oil, gas and mineral industries could see population declines, which could ultimately affect Oregon’s resident sage grouse. Down the road, he said this could be a recipe for the birds to end up protected under the Endangered Species Act after all.

“You’re pointing the ship in that direction, that’s for sure,” he said.

Residents will be able to comment on the proposal until Aug. 2. Comments can be submitted in writing to the BLM’s Oregon state office, or electronically on the BLM’s website.

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