Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett is cautiously optimistic about the federal government’s pending review of sage grouse management plans.

He’s not yet sure, though, whether he’s more optimistic than he is cautious about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s announcement Wednesday.

For several years Bennett has led the county’s efforts to avoid having the chicken-size bird listed as a threatened or endangered species, a designation that potentially could significantly curtail livestock grazing, mining and off-road vehicle travel on public lands in the county.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in September 2015 to not list the sage grouse, despite arguments from conservation groups that the bird needs federal protection across its 11-state range in the West.

Although the federal government didn’t list the sage grouse, the Obama administration did enact a series of guidelines intended to protect the bird and its habitat.

Zinke announced Wednesday that the Interior Department will conduct a 60-day review of those guidelines.

Bennett, who owns a ranch in southern Baker County that includes sage grouse habitat, said he welcomes the review in one sense.

“I’m happy that they’re going to consider input from state and local governments, because we’re the ones that are impacted,” Bennett said.

His concern about the review stems from the possibility that the process might prompt federal officials to relax or eliminate sage grouse protections.

That, Bennett said, could give conservation groups an impetus to renew their efforts to add sage grouse to the list of threatened or endangered species.

Indeed, several groups chastised Zinke for ordering the review of sage grouse protections.

“This review is not a good use of the (BLM’s) time or taxpayer dollars, but it is likely that the sage grouse will be the biggest loser,” Steve Holmer, vice president of policy for the American Bird Conservancy, said in a press release.

Baker County’s position is particularly precarious, Bennett said, because surveys show the county’s sage grouse population has declined by about 73 percent over the past decade or so.

So far Baker County’s sage grouse population, which accounts for less than 10 percent of Oregon’s total, has not been deemed a distinct subpopulation. That’s beneficial for Baker County, Bennett said, because it means the federal government won’t impose stricter regulations just within the county.

But if the review that Zinke ordered were to result in a new legal challenge to the government’s decision to not list sage grouse as threatened or endangered, the threat to the county’s economy would be severe, Bennett said.

If the bird is listed, whether by the federal or the state government, it could lead to significant restrictions on land use in places, such as Baker County, where the sage grouse population has declined sharply.

“Baker County is potentially in a really vulnerable spot,” Bennett said.

He said Baker County will compile comments to submit to the Interior Department regarding the review.

Bennett also represents Eastern Oregon on a statewide sage grouse panel, which he expects will meet soon to discuss Zinke’s announcement and its ramifications.

See more in the June 9, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.