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'We will help:' Ranchers, Service come together for good of greater sage-grouse

By Paul Henson
Oregon State Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

My feelings were a mix of trepidation, determination, and déjà vu as I stepped down into the Harney County courthouse basement about a year ago.  As the lead U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist charged with implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in Oregon, I was in Burns to meet with a group of eastern Oregonians to discuss how we could work together to conserve the greater sage grouse on private lands.   Sometimes these meetings don’t go so well.

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USFWS Project Leader Paul Henson (right) and rancher Tom Sharp talk with other meeting attendees in Harney County. Photo by Brent Lawrence/USFWS

The room was already full of people: mostly ranchers and local residents, a couple of range scientists and conservationists, and some federal and state biologists.  With an ESA listing decision for the sage grouse looming in September 2015, our common goal was to figure out how to do good things for the bird without hurting the local economy and community.  Ideally, our work could help keep the species off the ESA list.

Although much land in Oregon and other western states is federally owned, private landowners are still key to conserving the sage grouse and many other species.  For example, every spring grouse hens lead their young hatchlings out of the upper sagebrush and down into the food-rich meadows and fields to feed and grow.  The majority of these meadows are private land, which often contain some of the best habitats critical to a species’ survival.

As I took my seat at the table, the déjà vu I was feeling focused on this private lands conundrum: how do we make species like the sage grouse be an asset rather than a liability for landowners?  Part of the answer lies in some advice I got from a former boss who spent the early years of his federal career in eastern Oregon.  His advice: “Well, if you try to force a rancher do something, he’ll fight you.  But, if you ask him for some help, he’ll give you the shirt off his back.”

 We asked, and help is arriving.  On May 21, 2014, we signed an agreement with the Harney County Soil and Water Conservation District opening the door to over a million acres of voluntary conservation on private lands.  

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Ranchers in Harney County join USFWS biologist Nancy Gilbert (center) to sign documents that enable the creation of a CCAA to protect greater sage-grouse. Photo by Brent Lawrence/USFWS

Willing landowners are ready to enroll 250,000 acres and six other counties  are initiating agreements of their own.  The premise of this “Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances,” or CCAA, is simple: a rancher agrees to improve practices on their lands, for example, by modifying grazing patterns during the nesting season.  In return they get an ESA permit that promises they will not be subject to additional regulations should the species later be listed.   In other words, do some conservation upfront and hopefully avoid a listing, but if the species is listed you and your livelihood will not be impacted.   

Predictably, there are critics on both sides of this agreement.  But what was unpredictable – and inspiring –is that a diverse group of stakeholders shrugged off the criticism, put differences aside, and together in that courthouse basement said, “We will help.” 

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USFWS Deputy Regional Director Richard Hannan (center) and biologist Angela Sitz (left) are joined by rancher and Harney County Soil and Water District Chair Carol Dunten to sign documents to finalize the Harney County CCAA. Photo by Brent Lawrence, USFWS

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