By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
George Keister snugs the olive-drab binoculars to his eyes and peers through the dawn's murky light at a little bird that could cause big problems for Eastern Oregon ranchers.
The bird is a sage grouse.
On this 30-degree March morning at Virtue Flat, about seven miles east of Baker City, Keister is watching a male grouse.
The bird is so intent on seducing some nearby hens with his stylish courtship strut that he either didn't notice, or ignored, both the soft rumble of the V-8 engine in Keister's pickup truck and the thump as Keister closed the driver's side door.
andquot;When the females are around, the males get so excited they could be right in the middle of the road and you'd have to stop to avoid running over them,andquot; said Keister, the district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Baker City office.
To improve his view, he climbs nimbly into the truck's bed and then steps up to the cow dog's customary perch atop the tool box.
His concentration seems as unflappable as the bird's.
Keister narrates as he pans the binoculars across the sage, but all his words involve sage grouse. Not once does he mention the beauty that spreads across the landscape as the sun erupts from the horizon and drapes pink rays across the white shoulders of the Wallowas and the Elkhorns.
But Keister didn't drive through the dark desert so he could marvel at a sunrise.
He came to count sage grouse, a task he and his colleagues undertake three times each spring.
To scientists the sage grouse is a subject to study.
But to ranchers this bird is no faceless statistic represented by numbers scrawled in a biologist's notebook.
When ranchers think of sage grouse they are reminded of another diminutive bird that casts a much longer shadow than its modest size would suggest.
That other bird is the spotted owl.
And what the owl did to the logging industry in old-growth forests west of the Cascade Mountains, the sage grouse could duplicate in the rangelands east of the mountains where hundreds of ranchers graze tens of thousands of head of cattle.
andquot;Potentially it could be huge,andquot; said Jay Carr, an Oregon State University Extension Service agent in Baker County.
Lynn Shumway, a Bridgeport rancher, agrees.
andquot;It's an issue that we really need to keep on top of,andquot; Shumway said.
To list or not to list
The issue is whether the federal government should protect the sage grouse by declaring the bird an endangered species.
A coalition of 21 environmental groups contends that the bird needs that protection.
In December the coalition asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the sage grouse as an endangered species throughout its range in the West, which includes Oregon and 10 other states.
FWS officials will decide by March 29 whether to accept or deny the coalition's petition, or whether the agency needs another year to study the merits of the petition.
andquot;We're looking forward to the service's reply,andquot; said Mark Salvo of the American Lands Alliance, a member of the coalition. andquot;We petitioned to list the bird because we believe it deserves protection.andquot;
Here's the rub for ranchers:
If federal officials agree with the coalition, then the U.S. Bureau of Land Management might have to limit, or even ban, livestock grazing on millions of acres of public land across the West including Baker County.
Listing the sage grouse as endangered also could affect other uses of public land, including driving off-road vehicles at places such as Virtue Flat, prospecting for oil and natural gas, and replacing sagebrush with grass to feed livestock.
Keister said Baker County constitutes the northern fringe of Oregon's prime sage grouse habitat.
According to a 1993 study Keister co-wrote, the county contains about 6 percent of the state's sage grouse habitat an estimated 1,062 square miles, or one-third of the county's total area.
Most of Oregon's grouse habitat about 14,054 square miles, or 83 percent is spread over the vast southeastern counties of Lake, Malheur and Harney.
But because livestock graze on almost every acre of Baker County's sage grouse habitat, an endangered species listing could dramatically affect the county's beef cattle business.
And beef is the biggest business here. Last year the county's estimated 115,000 cattle brought in $35.6 million 69 percent of the county's agricultural income.
Do cattle compete with sage grouse?
To anyone who has crossed the sagebrush seas of Eastern Oregon, the very idea that a sage-dependent bird could be in trouble might seem silly.
This side of the state isn't facing a sagebrush shortage, after all.
But the situation is not so simple.
Although sage grouse can't live without sagebrush (it's their main food source during winter), they also need other plants such as grasses and forbs, said Mike Gregg, a biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is writing his doctoral dissertation on sage grouse.
The birds eat some of those plants, and they depend on others especially grass to hide nests and chicks, Gregg said.
But cattle like to eat those plants, too, he said.
The harder matter to pin down, Gregg said, is whether cattle eat enough of those plants to harm grouse habitat.
Members of the coalition that petitioned the FWS to protect the sage grouse contend that any amount of grazing is detrimental.
andquot;Livestock grazing affects every part of the sage grouse's habitat and the sage grouse's life cycle,andquot; Salvo said.
Keister acknowledges that excessive grazing can harm sage grouse and their habitat.
But he thinks such cases of overgrazing are rare on the public lands where Eastern Oregon cattle roam from spring through early fall.
Keister contends that as long as livestock are moved before they overgraze a pasture, the cattle can live in relative harmony with sage grouse.
andquot;I don't think we're going to see a big increase in sage grouse if we do away with grazing,andquot; he said. andquot;Overgrazing can be a problem, but I don't see, personally, where proper grazing is in conflict with sage grouse.andquot;
Gregg said definitive answers don't exist.
andquot;We know sage grouse need grasses and forbs,andquot; he said. andquot;But it's hard to say what constitutes overgrazing. You can't say that they need 18 inches of grass cover. It's just not that simple.andquot;
The Hart Mountain question
To bolster their claims, both Keister and Salvo cite the same sage grouse studies from the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Lake County.
But their conclusions are quite different.
The studies provide a compelling test case because the FWS, which manages the refuge, banned livestock grazing there in the early 1990s.
Since then, sage grouse populations have increased, Salvo said.
But Keister points out that bird numbers also are growing at nearby Beattys Butte, where livestock continue to graze.
Both Salvo and Keister are right, said Gregg, who worked at Hart Mountain from 1989 until this winter, when he transferred to the Hanford Reach National Monument in Southeastern Washington.
The bottom line, Gregg said, is that the Hart Mountain data do not prove that livestock grazing reduces grouse populations, nor do they prove that getting rid of cattle boosts bird numbers.
andquot;We can't show any cause-and-effect now,andquot; Gregg said.
That might be possible after another decade of studies, he said.
Gregg will say, and with confidence, that grouse populations have always fluctuated, regardless of whether they shared habitat with livestock.
Climate, predator populations and probably other factors affect grouse, too, he said.
For example, Gregg said grouse numbers at Hart Mountain declined for the first four years after cattle were removed, bottoming out in 1996. Populations have risen since then, but Gregg expects that trend will reverse soon, even if FWS continues to exclude cattle from the refuge.
Livestock not the only threat
Keister said factors other than livestock grazing have ruined sage grouse habitat in Baker County over the past century.
At Virtue Flat, for example, the routing of Highway 86 and Ruckles Creek Road drove grouse away from several andquot;leksandquot; the open areas amidst the sagebrush where males gather each spring to strut for hens.
And later, after the roads were built, the BLM's creation of the Virtue Flat off-highway vehicle area and construction of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center rendered more acres unfit for sage grouse, Keister said.
So did the opening of a rifle range, and the conversion of sagebrush to irrigated crop fields.
Yet those areas constitute a tiny fraction of Baker County's sage grouse habitat, Keister said.
He said the abundance of healthy habitat elsewhere at Virtue Flat allowed grouse to establish new leks to replace the ones they lost.
Over the past decade, sage grouse populations in Baker County have either stayed steady or declined slightly, Keister said.
He doesn't expect any dramatic changes in the future, either.
Sagebrush seems likely to remain the main shrub on the county's rangelands.
And federal environmental laws make it unlikely that the number of livestock grazing on those lands will increase much, if at all.
Keister won't predict what federal officials will decide on the coalition's petition.
But he knows how he would vote.
andquot;There's too many acres of habitat left to warrant listing (the sage grouse as endangered),andquot; Keister said.