Of the Baker City Herald

The sage grouse, a desert-dwelling bird that ranchers fear could do to the cattle business in Eastern Oregon what the spotted owl did to the timber industry west of the Cascades, won't join the owl on the endangered species list this year.

But the push to protect the sage grouse is far from extinct.

andquot;There's no question about the adverse effects (livestock) grazing has on sage grouse habitat,andquot; said Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

Marlett's group wants the FWS to designate the sage grouse either as threatened or endangered throughout its range in the West, including Eastern Oregon.

Ranchers fear such a decision would force the federal government to close grazing allotments on public land, decimating their industry much as the spotted owl did the timber business in Western Oregon.

andquot;There are people out there that would like to use this to get rid of livestock grazing,andquot; said Lake County rancher John O'Keeffe, chairman of the public lands committee of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on Friday rejected a petition seeking federal protection for sage grouse in Oregon, Washington, Northern California and parts of Idaho.

But that decision does not mean agency officials have concluded that sage grouse are thriving in those states, said Jeff Dillon, a FWS spokesman in Portland.

In fact, the agency has not come to any conclusion about whether sage grouse actually need federal protection, Dillon said.

Friday's ruling deals only with the narrower topic of whether genetic differences exist between sage grouse in different parts of the West.

The Institute for Wildlife Protection, which filed the petition, claims there are such differences.

But Dillon said FWS officials disagree, and thus they did not pursue the matter of whether sage grouse are eligible for federal protection.

The issue does not end with that decision, however.

Dillon said a new petition already has been filed, calling for federal protection for sage grouse throughout the West.

That petition will trigger a regionwide review by the FWS both of grouse populations and of the condition of the sagebrush steppe habitat the birds depend on.

Dillon said FWS officials have not decided when that review will start.

The federal agency's decision did not surprise George Keister, district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Baker City office.

Keister has tracked Baker County's sage grouse populations for eight years. He also worked for 10 years at the department's Burns office, near Oregon's most productive sage grouse country, in Harney, Malheur and Lake counties.

He agrees with the FWS officials who discounted a 1946 study in which a biologist concluded that there are two main subspecies of sage grouse. Dillon said that biologist designated an eastern and a western subspecies, with the dividing line running through Southeastern Oregon from near Lakeview to near Nyssa.

Dillon said recent tests, including DNA studies, showed no significant differences between sage grouse on either side of that boundary.

But Keister said discussions of DNA and subspecies, although rich fodder for biologists' dinner conversations, do not get to the heart of the matter for either the environmental groups that seek protection for sage grouse, or for the ranchers who fear such protection will drive their cattle off public grazing lands.

The crucial questions, Keister believes, are whether sage grouse truly are in peril in Eastern Oregon; and if they are, whether livestock pose an immediate threat to the birds and their habitat.

Keister's answer to both questions is no.

He believes the region's millions of acres of sagebrush steppe can sustain healthy populations of the birds even if cattle continue to graze on public lands.

andquot;We have lost some of it, but so far we still have so much sagebrush habitat,andquot; he said.

Keister offers a caveat, however.

Allowing larger herds of livestock to graze in sage grouse habitat could dramatically change the current equation.

andquot;It's not to say we shouldn't be concerned about sage grouse, or that we might not end up listing them some day,andquot; he said. andquot;Habitat is being lost.andquot;

That concerns environmentalists such as Marlett.

andquot;The bird is in trouble,andquot; he said. andquot;There are pockets of stability here and there, but this is a bird that needs special attention.andquot;

He acknowledges that sagebrush still grows on millions of acres in Southeastern Oregon alone. But he believes the best parts of that habitat are shrinking.

andquot;The continuity of habitat is being fragmented at an alarming rate,andquot; Marlett said.

Several factors contribute to that trend, he said, including fires and agricultural developments as well as grazing.

But Marlett also contends that ranching and other human activities have harmed sage grouse in ways less obvious than the competition between cows and grouse for the same food.

For example, he said the proliferation of fence posts and power poles across the West affords hawks and other grouse-eating raptors plenty of perches from which to spy sage grouse.

andquot;You can't point to any one factor and say that's the cause,andquot; Marlett said. andquot;It's an incremental effect.andquot;

Keister agrees that overgrazing can harm sage grouse habitat.

Cattle like to eat many of the same plants sage grouse depend on, he said, and if cows are allowed to graze in a particular area long enough, they will munch the valuable vegetation grasses in particular to the ground, he said.

That leaves both mature sage grouse and their nest-bound chicks vulnerable to predators like raptors and coyotes.

But Keister believes cases of egregious overgrazing are rare on the public rangelands where most cattle graze in Eastern Oregon.

andquot;Excessive grazing is detrimental, but with grazing at current levels I'm not worried about a lack of forbs,andquot; he said. andquot;Proper cattle grazing is not inconsistent with sage grouse in my opinion.andquot;

Keister points out that sage grouse populations have not grown substantially at the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge since cattle were banned about a decade ago.

Nor did sage grouse seem to suffer during the 1940s and 1950s, a period when livestock herds were larger than today, but so were sage grouse populations.

andquot;I think it's real clear from the history of the species that sage grouse are compatible with livestock grazing,andquot; O'Keeffe said.