The list of animals and habitat protected from development in Deschutes County may soon be reviewed in response to concerns from environmental groups.
For decades, the county has used a wildlife inventory to help protect animals, such as elk and deer, from development pressure. The inventory outlines what habitat needs to be protected, what can and can’t be allowed on lands that have these habitats, and what property developers have to do to make sure the habitat is protected.
But that inventory hasn’t been updated in almost 25 years. That matters, environmental groups argue, because in many cases, the most accurate information about sensitive habitats and the species that live on them is not being considered in land use decisions — a reality that groups like Central Oregon LandWatch say has contributed to a larger legacy of development encroaching on rural lands.
“Our statewide land use system is sometimes depicted as overly restrictive,” said Nathan Hovekamp, the wildlife program director for Central Oregon LandWatch. “In Deschutes County, we see a consistent and dramatic pattern of rural development that has impacted habitat loss.”
Take mule deer, for example. Without updated information, the county could be inadvertently approving development that disturbs migration patterns, said Joy Vaughan, a land use and waterway alterations coordinator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“ODFW may say this is an important corridor for a species, but it may not have to be considered (by the county) because it’s not an acknowledged species,” Vaughan said.
The old inventory came to the forefront after it became a point of contention in a handful of county proposals that would change zoning rules around farm, forest and flood plan lands.
A partial solution could come Monday, when the County Commission is expected to decide whether to apply for a $75,000 state grant that would help pay for consultants and staff to take another look at it. The grant would help the county develop strategies to address housing issues, mitigate wildfire risk and study wastewater solutions in Terrebonne.
“We are seeing so much growth in the county that has an impact on wildlife, and it’s often a point of contention in our land use hearings, that when a state agency says that they have updated information, it at least warrants a conversation to understand what those inventories look like,” said Zechariah Heck, a planner with Deschutes County.
Deschutes County is not alone. Outdated wildlife inventories are a statewide issue, Vaughan said.
Most counties designed these kinds of plans in the 1980s and early 1990s in conjunction with the wildlife department, Vaughan said. But many haven’t updated them because there is no state requirement for local governments to do so.
But since then, data has been collected to better understand what habitat needs to support certain animals that are now considered sensitive species. Think of bats, whose populations have been declining, or certain birds that rely on rimrock as their habitat, Vaughan said.
But because that kind of information isn’t included in the county’s inventory, that puts entities like the department of fish and wildlife in the position to advocate for certain animals or areas that aren’t necessarily protected from development pressure on the county’s books.
“There’s new data, but the county is just looking at their acknowledged plan,” Vaughan said. “They’re not considered in land use decisions. That’s the impact.”
In Central Oregon, the impact can be seen in the mule deer population, which is 70% lower than what the department says it should be, said Sara Gregory, a biologist with the fish and wildlife department.
While a home here or there may not appear to be harmful to animals, collectively they have an impact, Gregory said.
“There are a lot of different factors, but habitat loss and fragmentation are up there on the list,” Gregory said.
Peter Gutowsky, the planning manager for Deschutes County, said updating the inventory hasn’t “risen to the top” of priorities, but has been on the county’s radar.
“It’s not as if county’s staff or board of commissioners weren’t aware of inventories,” Gutowsky said. “But we have limited resources, and we had direction to take on other noteworthy protects.”
He added the county has updated other regulations, like sage grouse habitat and wetland protections, which aren’t directly related to the wildlife inventory as a whole but do their part to balance development and ecological needs.
But as the county continues to grow, Gutowsky said he feels like it’s a good time to have the conversation with the community.
“It just seemed really logical,” Gutowsky said.
Recipients of the grant should be announced in December.
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, email@example.com