More than 100 people attend a BLM forum about the sage grouse
By Pat Caldwell
They brought in the extra chairs even before the meeting began.
Even after the session kicked off Thursday night regarding a proposed management plan for sage grouse on BLM land in Eastern Oregon, people continued to filter into the Baker County Events Center, sending a clear signal that for many the small bird carries the potential to make a big impact on the local economy.
The focus of the meeting revolved around the chicken-size bird that occupies rangeland in 11 Western states, including much of Eastern Oregon, and is now the subject of a proposed federal management plan.
"It is the farmer's and rancher's spotted owl. It is of that magnitude," said Tom Sharp, a Burns-area rancher and chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association's endangered species committee.
Sharp joined more than 100 other area residents and officials at Thursday's meeting, which was put on by the BLM, the federal agency proposing to revise its management plans for about 12 million acres in Eastern Oregon.
That includes several hundred thousand acres in Baker County, mainly east and south of Baker City.
The BLM's draft environmental impact statement is designed to protect the bird to the extent that it doesn't require listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that will make a decision about listing the sage grouse, must do so by the end of 2015.
In the past the agency has determined that sage grouse warrants federal protection but that other species needed help sooner.
For the past week, a team of BLM officials has traveled to meetings across the region to seek input and solicit questions from the public regarding the agency's draft sage grouse management plan.
So far, six viable management plans - dubbed alternatives - are on the table for public debate. The BLM will continue to accept written comments on its draft blueprint through Feb. 20.
"We are six weeks into the comment period," said Joan Suther, the BLM's greater sage grouse sub-regional project manager.
While Suther emphasized the plan is still in a draft form, she said the agency desires as much feedback from residents as possible before the end of the comment period.
"We are asking people to comment in order to make a better decision," she said.
At the heart of the sage grouse issue is the potential impact the BLM's revised management plan might have on regional ranchers and farmers.
Either that plan, or a listing of the sage grouse, could reduce the acreage of public land open to cattle grazing.
Beef cattle produced gross sales of $54 million in Baker County in 2012 - making it by far the most valuable agricultural commodity in the county.
Many people attended Thursday's forum to ask questions and to seek more information about the BLM effort.
Some inquired about the science behind the BLM effort while others wanted to know if the final goal was to sustain the present sage grouse population or to boost the bird's numbers.
According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), sage grouse populations in Baker County have been relatively steady over the past 20 years or so.
Indeed, the agency continues to allow hunters to pursue sage grouse, although the annual hunt is limited to 20 tags in Baker County (10 in the Sumpter unit, 10 in the Lookout Mountain unit).
Sage grouse populations, and the number of hunting tags issued, are much larger in Harney, Malheur and Lake counties.
In 2013, ODFW issued 870 sage grouse tags to hunters.
Several people who attended Thursday's meeting wanted more access to a 900-page hard copy of the draft management plan, and one individual wanted to know who made the final decisions on when the sage grouse reached the proper population total.
"We don't have a set number. If you improve habitat, by association that improves the population," said Nigel Seidel, ODFW's Northeast Oregon energy coordinator.
Since the meetings kicked off in Prineville earlier in the week, the BLM representatives have encountered large crowds at every meeting, Suther said.
"This is important to people who make a living off the land. They are concerned. We've had a higher turnout than I've ever seen for other projects," Suther said.
The BLM road show on the sage grouse issue isn't over, either. The BLM will host another session at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23, at the Durkee Community Center.