Sage grouse plan: ‘mind-boggling’

By Jayson Jacoby January 06, 2014 09:52 am

Male sage grouse/Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife photo
Male sage grouse/Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife photo

By Jayson Jacoby

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett has devoted the better part of four days to the BLM’s sage grouse study.

To describe his grasp of the document, the tip of the iceberg analogy seems appropriate.

“It’s just mind-boggling,” Bennett said of the 900-page draft environmental impact statement (EIS).

Bennett said he, along with fellow commissioners Fred Warner Jr. and Tim Kerns, and County Planner Holly Kerns, have strived to attain a “conversive grasp of the document, not a deep understanding.”

Bennett understands that his constituents have many questions about this chicken-size bird which has often been compared, in its potential to affect the way public lands are managed, to the spotted owl.

The federal government’s decision to protect the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 contributed to the precipitous decline in logging on public forests west of the Cascades.

The concern locally, Bennett said, is that listing the sage grouse could reduce cattle grazing on BLM land in Eastern Oregon, a source of spring, summer and fall pasture that many ranchers depend on.

But definitive answers about the sage grouse, and what effect it might have on grazing and other uses of BLM land in Baker County, are hard to come by, Bennett said.

One reason is that the BLM’s study is in its draft form — the agency hasn’t decided how it needs to change the way it manages millions of acres of public land in Eastern Oregon to protect the sage grouse and its habitat.

Rather, BLM is studying the potential effects of six different strategies. The agency could choose one of those, or combine aspects of multiple strategies in the final environmental impact statement that’s supposed to be done by the end of 2014.

That deadline will give another federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for managing sage grouse, time to decide, based on the BLM’s new strategy, whether the sage grouse, like the spotted owl, needs legal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

A federal court has ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to make that decision during 2015.

Bennett said one encouraging aspect of the draft EIS is that the BLM’s preferred alternative — alternative D — is the “least onerous” of the options in terms of its potential effect on cattle grazing.

According to the draft EIS, the total area open to grazing would decline by about 100,000 acres, across the BLM land in Eastern Oregon, under Alternative D. That’s a relatively small percentage of the 12.1 million acres of BLM land that’s open to grazing now.

What’s not clear, though, is how many acres of grazing allotments in Baker County could be affected, Bennett said.

Nor is it immediately obvious how sage grouse could affect other uses of public land such as mining and off-road vehicle travel, he said.

One thing is certain, though, and it’s a message Bennett and his fellow commissioners tried to convey to their audience at a work session Friday evening in Baker City.

“If multiple use of public lands is important to you, you have to participate in the public process,” Bennett said.

Two opportunities to do so happen later this month, when BLM has a pair of public meetings in Baker County to introduce the draft EIS.

Those meetings are scheduled for:

• Jan. 9, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Baker County Events Center, 2600 East St. in Baker City.

• Jan. 23, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Durkee Community Center.

The deadline to submit a comment on the draft EIS is Feb. 20. There will be another comment period when the final EIS is released.

A copy of the draft EIS is available for review at the BLM’s Baker Resource Area office, 3285 11th St. in Baker City, or you can read it online at