Federal plans to allow grazing on nearly 22,000 acres of protected sage grouse habitat in Oregon took another step forward on Thursday, to the chagrin of environmental groups in Oregon and beyond.

The Bureau of Land Management released a series of proposed state-level management plans that alter rules on how sage grouse are managed across 10 Western states. The plans, which would allow more freedom for individual states to determine how the vulnerable birds are managed, have largely been cheered by representatives from the oil, gas and ranching industries.

“Unlike with the previous plans, companies that enact rigorous protections for the species will be able to move forward with development,” wrote Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Colorado-based Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil and gas industry in the region.

Oregon’s plan lacks the focus on oil and gas interests found in the plans from other Western states, but offered a victory for ranchers in the state. The plan calls for 21,959 acres, which had been set aside under the state’s current plan for research on human impacts, to be opened up to grazing.

In part because of that, environmental groups criticized the new plans, which they claim undo hard-fought protections for the bird and leave it vulnerable to more habitat loss.

“The plan that came out today is clearly the result of political pressure from stakeholder groups,” said Jeremy Austin, coordinator for the Greater Hart-Sheldon Region of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

The greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird about the size of a chicken that’s known for its unique and elaborate mating rituals, was once common throughout the sage-lands spread across the inland West. However, habitat loss caused by wildfire, human development and other factors caused populations to decline, according to Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Idaho.

“There’s nobody alive today who’s actually seen a healthy sage grouse population,” Molvar said.

The species was considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list it in 2015. In its place, the federal government has used habitat management plans, federal plans established by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell through coordination with state governments and other stakeholders, to govern the species.

In 2017, the Bureau of Land Management, under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, began looking at rolling back some of the prior administration’s rules preventing development in sensitive areas. Sgamma praised the federal agency for including more flexibility and better reflecting the conditions seen on the ground in each state.

However, Austin said the research areas are designed to provide a baseline showing how human activity in other parts of the region impact sage grouse. Without it, researchers lose the ability to demonstrate how the birds are affected by people.

Molvar noted that opening up more land for grazing, as Oregon’s plan proposes, will reduce the cover provided by tall grasses and other plants that sage grouse use to stay safe from predators such as eagles, hawks and foxes.

“Their survival strategy is to be sneaky and to hide,” he said.

Molvar said he was concerned that the loss of habitat, combined with changing standards on how much habitat must be preserved, could cause already unsustainable populations of the birds to decline even further in some parts of the country.

Following one final comment period, the Department of the Interior is expected to finalize the management plans in 2019.

“This whole process seems to be on a fast track to a predetermined outcome,” Molvar said.

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

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