Sage grouse could change Central Oregon range

Video: Ranchers describe impact to ranching of ESA protection

BROTHERS — Federal protection for the greater sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird found on the rangeland east of Bend, could put restrictions on ranching, which ranchers say would make doing business difficult.

“I don’t think people are far off saying it is the ‘spotted owl’ of the ranching community,” Runinda “Nin” McCormack, 53, said Thursday during a drive around her ranch north of Highway 20 near Brothers.

The 1993 listing of the spotted owl as a threatened species crippled the logging industry in Oregon, and the economies of towns that relied on mills. Now McCormack, like many other Central Oregon ranchers, is worried an Endangered Species Act listing for the sage grouse could have a similar impact on ranching communities, including businesses such as feed stores and Western wear shops.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, following a court order, has until September 2015 to decide whether the sage grouse deserves protection. The bird, found in 11 Western states, has been in decline over the past century because of the loss of sagebrush, according to the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, the federal agencies that manage the public land which ranchers lease to graze cattle, are working on revising land management plans in an effort to ward off the listing. Ranchers are keeping close watch on the revisions. In early January the BLM held a sage grouse meeting in Prineville the same night of the college football national championship game. It drew 150 people, among them Nin McCormack, and her husband, Jeff McCormack, 54.

Jeff McCormack is a third-generation rancher and he shares his wife’s concern about what might happen if the sage grouse is listed as endangered. Their business is a family one. There are no hired hands working the ranch, just their two adult children, Jeff’s brother and both of their fathers — who are in their 80s. The ranch produces beef for a cooperative that is probably familiar to shoppers in Bend; the meat is available at Newport Market and Whole Foods.

The McCormacks’ ranching operations cover about 150,000 acres, over 230 square miles. They own about 33,000 acres. The rest is leased land, with about 58,000 acres leased from the BLM, about 20,000 acres from the Forest Service and about 39,000 from private landowners. The ranch is between Brothers and Prineville, with terrain going from sagebrush-covered high desert plateaus to juniper-dotted ridge tops and pine forest in the Maury Mountains. They have about 1,200 cows.

Jeff McCormack said they’ve already done much on the land to improve the situation for sage grouse, from clearing juniper on 5,000 acres to tapping into more water springs.

“We’ve changed our grazing patterns,” said Jeff McCormack, who drove the pickup on the loop through the ranch Thursday. “Some places that we used to winter graze, we now spring graze. We try to rest our public ground; every third year we’ll rest one of those pastures so that it has regrowth and nesting material.”

Nin McCormack said they’ve been addressing sage grouse habitat concerns since the 1990s, even before the bird was a “hot topic.”

The McCormacks wonder whether they’ve done enough to help the sage grouse and thus prevent a federal listing.

Kirk Winebarger, 65, of Paulina, manager at the Gutierrez Cattle Company, also wonders how an Endangered Species listing for the sage grouse could change ranching. Like the McCormacks, Winebarger brought up the spotted owl when talking about sage grouse and the change he saw the owl bring to Central Oregon. Bend and Prineville were timber towns before the spotted owl listing. He doesn’t want to see ranching go away, too.

“(Ranchers) don’t want to become extinct and we don’t want anything out there to become extinct,” Winebarger, who is district vice president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said Friday.

The ranch he manages encompasses about 70,000 acres, over 100 square miles. Gutierrez Cattle has about 25,000 acres of its own and leases another 25,000 from the BLM and 20,000 from the U.S. Forest Service, Winebarger said. The company typically has about 1,500 to 2,000 head of cattle.

Ranching is not just Winebarger’s livelihood, it’s the crux of his life. He’s been a rancher for 30 years and his wife, Paige Winebarger, helps him manage the cattle company.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and a sage grouse protection advocate give hope that a balance can be found between raising cattle and restoring sage grouse.

Cattle and sage grouse can coexist on the range, said Angela Sitz, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Bend. How the sage grouse does depends on how the ranchers manage the grazing of the cattle.

“It all depends on timing, intensity and duration,” Sitz said.

The agency has been working with ranchers in Harney County on managing the range for the betterment of sage grouse while keeping cattle on it, she said. Similar plans could eventually be crafted for Central Oregon counties.

Long a proponent for protecting sage grouse, Dan Morse, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, said there isn’t one thing a rancher can do to improve habitat for the bird. Instead restoration will come through site-specific work, which he said will need to be based on science.

He said his Bend-based conservation group doesn’t have a strong preference for how protections are put into place for the sage grouse — ESA listing or other options — as long as the protections work.

“We’ve got to see sage grouse numbers recovering,” he said.

And Morse said it can occur while ranching continues.

“I think it is a matter of finding smart management on the landscape that will allow for sage grouse to thrive and ranching to continue,” Morse said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,