By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

SALEM — In an effort to stave off federal intervention that would bring development restrictions to rural Central and Eastern Oregon, state wildlife and conservation officials this month are finishing rules that will govern development in sage grouse habitat.

Two state agencies were slated to finalize new rules for land that’s considered core habitat for the birds whose numbers have declined significantly in the last 50 years throughout the West.

Both agencies seek to limit impact on the disappearing bird in the hopes of preventing its listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Although the rules wouldn’t apply to ranchers or farmers in the region, the proposals have some asking whether the state is moving too fast and adding an unneeded regulatory burden on rural residents.

“Is it worse to have a (federal) listing or is this better? I don’t know anybody that’s looked at that. Which is worse? I don’t know,” said Harney County Judge Steve Grasty.

State officials are working to submit the plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to show it has a calculated, statewide conservation plan in place before the federal government decides by Sept. 30 whether the bird’s declining population warrants more drastic protection.

The counties affected by the new rules are Deschutes, Crook, Malheur, Harney, Baker, Lake and Union, which would follow the rules from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Land Conservation and Development.

The rules will mostly apply to future energy, road and other development projects in Eastern Oregon. Farmers and ranchers in the region are exempt from the rules.

Still, the updated rules will come to an area in Oregon where residents are wary of more oversight, and as ranchers and landowners have entered pacts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect some grazing land from federal intervention for 30 years whether or not sage grouse made the Endangered Species List.

“I think that the state is providing yet an additional layer that I don’t really see the benefit of except from the standpoint that it makes the state’s plan look stronger to the feds,” said Tom Sharp, a former Harney County employee and rancher.

Grasty and other rural county officials asked the state to pause its effort with a one-year moratorium on development affected by the state’s rules, so the state could study the bird and work on conservation measures, and the bird would ideally remain off the Endangered Species List.

After years of negotiations and work to create the proposed plan, a moratorium would be a “disservice” to the collaborative conservation effort, said Dan Morse, conservation director for the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

“Our goal at the outset and all along has been meaningful conservation of sage grouse habitat and the enhancement of sage grouse populations,” Morse said.

Chip Dale, watershed manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state has worked for years on its plan to show it has conservation efforts in place to protect the bird and prevent blanket federal protections that could come with an endangered species listing.

“We’d just as soon not want to have them listed. We don’t want any more regulatory oversight either,” Dale said. “On the other hand … it’s kind of the lesser of two evils.”

Either Oregon puts in place the new restrictions in Central and Eastern Oregon, “or we just turn our backs and the federal government will invoke the regulations,” Dale said.

Dale points to the listing of the endangered bull trout in Central Oregon, which has a strong population. Anglers in Oregon can keep one bull trout larger than 24 inches because the state showed the federal government the Lake Billy Chinook bull trout fishery was healthy and the species often breeds twice before reaching that size.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,