ESA changes could help protect sage grouse on private land


In an increasingly subdivided and trailblazed West, southeastern Oregon’s Harney County is a place that can still make you feel small. From the empty blacktop two-lane highways 78 and 20, broad grasslands rise to sagebrush-studded mesas and hills that crest and break to the blue horizons like the landlocked waves of a parched sea. Drive-fast-with-your-windows-down country; 0.7-people-and-ten-times-as-many-cows-per-square-mile country; and, as it happens, excellent greater sage grouse country.

A male greater sage grouse struts his stuff in Harney County, Oregon.

The chicken-sized ground-nesting bird, best known for elaborate mating dances and stubborn loyalty to ancestral mating grounds called leks, occupies massive swaths of 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces. And it has lately been figuratively looming over the region like a gigantic, balloon-chested, strutting Godzilla: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make a court-ordered decision whether to formally protect it under the Endangered Species Act by 2015, potentially ushering in what many believe would be economically devastating land-use restrictions. Grouse numbers have declined by 90 percent, and habitat by about half, over the last century. In 2010, Fish and Wildlife found that an ESA listing was warranted, but that other species more urgently needed protection. That bought time for federal and state agencies, ranchers, conservationists, energy companies and others to mount massive recovery efforts in hopes of staving off the need for listing altogether.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Harney County’s Soil and Water Conservation District will finalize one such project -- a collaboratively-developed private land conservation plan called a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, or CCAA, that will cover Harney’s million-plus acres of private land. Landowners who sign on agree not to fragment habitat with subdivision or development and will apply conservation measures tailored to their properties, such as removing encroaching junipers that crowd the birds out, tagging fences to reduce lethal collisions, and altering grazing to improve forage and nest cover. In exchange, they’ll avoid further regulation should the bird be listed.

More than 30 landowners have already committed, covering 250,000 acres. Oregon's seven other sage grouse counties will likely follow Harney’s model, meaning all the state's habitat on private land would be covered by a CCAA before the listing decision, according to Fish and Wildlife’s Oregon State Supervisor Paul Henson, though what impact that has depends on how many people sign up.

“Private landowners often view endangered species on their property as a risk. We want them to be seen as an asset,” Henson says. That’s a major advantage of voluntary agreements, since they foster the trust and buy-in necessary to get proactive habitat improvements on private lands, where federal authorities otherwise don’t have much control beyond telling landowners what not to do.