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Ranchers, Government Agree To Expand Sage Grouse Conservation in Oregon

<p>A male sage grouse inflates the air sac in his chest as part of a mating dance.</p>

A male sage grouse inflates the air sac in his chest as part of a mating dance.

Sage grouse used to roam all over Central and Eastern Oregon.

“It made its home in a variety of different areas, and flew across these landscapes sometimes so thick that it darkened the sky,” said U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Jewell, along with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, visited Bend, Oregon, Friday to announce a plan to help bring greater sage grouse numbers back to the state's sagebrush landscape.

The federal government signed on to Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances with local ranchers that would protect virtually all of Oregon’s sage grouse habitat. The agreements would also give assurances that ranchers who sign on won’t face harsher restrictions down the road if the sage grouse is listed as an endangered species.

The agreement covers all eight counties in Eastern and Central Oregon with sage grouse habitat. That could eventually conserve 2.3 million acres. The plan calls for landowners to improve habitat for the birds by taking out invasive juniper trees and cheatgrass.

The chicken-sized bird is found in 11 Western states.

“What is at stake is not a bird. It is in fact attributes that define these states, that define not only the lifestyle, but the way of life on these landscapes,” Jewell said.

The sage grouse is being considered for listing in September under the Endangered Species Act. Ranchers and the federal government hope to keep the bird off the list.

Brown acknowledged that the plan could also create jobs. For example, she said, removed juniper trees could be turned into biomass, furniture, or gin.

“I also see opportunities here, not just in jobs tied to habitat work, but in securing an approach that will enhance the resilience of our Oregon communities and advance a path that offers economic opportunities throughout rural Oregon,” Brown said.

Brown said she is advancing more than $4 million in the governor’s budget to help implement these agreements and improve rangeland health.

John O’Keeffe, a rancher and president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said the shrub steppe habitat needs to be improved now for future generations to enjoy.

“We have challenges, but we do have opportunities,” O’Keeffe said.

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Courtney Flatt