- Associated Press - Monday, September 29, 2014

ADEL, Ore. (AP) — Think of yourself as a chicken-size bird standing alone on the desert landscape.

Think about looking up at towering junipers and wondering what’s lurking in them. Think about how that might make you feel.

Getting into a bird’s on-the-ground perspective of a bird is what Todd Forbes, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Lakeview District, hoped Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and about a dozen others would do. Forbes turned and gestured to the trees, explaining that junipers cover about 15 percent of the surrounding landscape. About 11 percent more than the greater sage grouse will tolerate.

The exercise was part of a daylong tour Secretary Jewell scheduled in Lake County last week as a stop on a multi-state tour promoting Department of the Interior priority projects. Jewell was joined by Deputy Secretary Steve Ellis and representatives from several government agencies and nonprofit organizations to tour the BLM’s South Warner Juniper Removal Project southeast of Lakeview.

“We’re trying to reset the clock. We’re trying to take juniper out of places where it’s expanded its range unnaturally and put those back into the habitat types they should be in. Sage grouse is one of the species that benefit from that,” Forbes said.

The southeastern Oregon project is in the Warner Mountains - an 85-mile-long mountain range known for its semi-arid sagebrush steppe habitat. The range, which runs north and south across the Oregon-California border, receives an average of just 8 inches of precipitation a year and is covered with treeless plains, sagebrush and bunchgrasses.

In other words, it’s prime sage grouse habitat.

The Warner Mountains have become just one battleground in the 11 states that could see an increase in more stringent land-use regulations and a steep decline in cattle grazing allotments if the sage grouse is recommended for Endangered Species Act protections next year.

Oregon Cattlemen’s Association President John O’Keeffe, owner of the fourth-generation O’Keeffe Family Ranch in the Warners, is one rancher who doesn’t want to see that happen.

At the tour’s second stop, O’Keeffe explained to Jewell and other stakeholders that sage grouse conservation has to go hand-in-hand with ranching and farming in the West, pointing out half-jokingly that the entire West can’t be put under easements, so the solutions must involve input from private landowners.

“We need workable outcomes for the working ranches,” he said. “A listing for the greater sage grouse would be devastating.”

O’Keeffe grazes cattle on 80,000 acres spread across his ranch, BLM and U.S. Forest Service land. O’Keeffe said he began removing juniper on his 17,000-acre ranch about 30 years ago. Since then, nearly 4,500 acres have been treated, much of it in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Sage Grouse Initiative and mule deer programs.

“It’s been a great opportunity,” O’Keeffe said. “Twenty years ago I was watching my ranch kind of disappear before my eyes, now I’ve got it back. It’s great for the sage grouse and it’s great for a rancher.”

To be successful, he added, grazing has to be sustainable: ranchers have to meet the needs of native bunchgrasses, which it turn will provide forage for livestock and allow other native species to thrive.

“That’s good for ranches; it’s good for sage grouse,” O’Keeffe said.

A common theme throughout the daylong tour was the need for a landscape-scale approach to saving sage grouse and the urgency that should fuel it.

Jewell pointed out that juniper is springing up across the West like never before, and the dramatic ecosystem changes it’s causing are rippling through sage grouse populations, lessening their ability to reproduce and their ability to thrive. Time is of the essence, she said, because the landscapes are changing fast.

“When we think about the sagebrush steppe ecosystem that is so important to this part of Oregon and is such critical to habitat for the greater sage grouse, we really can’t look at it on a state-by-state or county-by-county basis,” Jewell said. “It’s very easy to lose this habitat and very difficult to get it back.”

According to Zola Ryan, district conservationist for the NRCS, it is imperative to manage landscape-scale sage grouse populations across political boundaries. She pointed out that, historically, homesteaders were attracted to areas with water - typically the same wet meadows and springs that attract sage grouse. In Oregon and northern Nevada, more than 80 percent of sage grouse breeding habitat is located on public lands, but more than 80 percent of wet brood-rearing habitat - meadows with nutrient-rich forage for chicks - is now on private land.

“You can’t have breeding habitat but not have brood habitat,” Ryan said. “It’s all critical to get those birds through their life cycle.”

The concept of partnerships and landscape-based conservation is not altogether new, but it’s needed now more than ever, according to Jewell.

“Those landscapes are owned by the private sector - private ranches, farms, and houses - they’re owned by states, in some cases counties or cities, and they are certainly owned by the federal government. We’ve all got to work together,” she said.

As far as sage grouse go, juniper management is a no-regrets issue, according to Forbes. Although juniper is a native species, its prolific reach outside historic territories should not compete with sage grouse, and grouse should not have to compete with ranchers. He said officials have been working with the bird long enough that they know what is needed for its success. Now it’s just a matter of finding the time and money to get the job done.

“The key here is having a lot of different tools in your toolbox, and trying to figure out which tool fits the right location prescription,” he said.

Forbes said a radio telemetry monitoring program managed by the BLM and a host of partners has provided a wealth of baseline data about how sage grouse use the landscape in and around juniper. He said visual observations have revealed some populations move back into treated areas rather quickly and telemetry research has provided anecdotal evidence of the same.

“It has given us a good understanding of where the sage grouse won’t go. They are not going into the dense juniper stands and they are not moving between areas like they should be,” Forbes said.

According to Craig Foster, a district biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, hen sage grouse have strong site fidelity, meaning they will return to the same location to nest every year. He said continual juniper treatments will allow hens to disperse into new nesting sites.

“If she successfully nests under a bush, she’s going to be under that bush next year. We’re going to start to see the benefits of getting the juniper out,” he said.

Foster emphasized that the decisions land managers are making for juniper and sagebrush steppe in the Warners impacts organisms dating back at least 50 or 60 years. Decisions in Wyoming juniper stands reach back at least 100 to 150 years. He said habitat management plans for maintaining the sagebrush community that’s already intact are important to get right the first time because in some cases, they impact landscapes that have taken centuries to develop.

“In the case of the sage grouse, it’s 11 states in the West that are going to need to come together to protect the habitat necessary for this bird to thrive. What’s been done in Oregon, and it’s been done in a relatively short time frame, is something that we know provides a model we know other states can follow,” Jewell said.

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Information from: Herald and News, https://www.heraldandnews.com


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