BROTHERS, Ore. — The greater sage grouse has Oregon ranchers talking about a different bird.
“I don’t think people are far off saying it is the ‘spotted owl’ of the ranching community,” Runinda “Nin” McCormack, 53, told The Bend Bulletin during a recent drive around her ranch north of Highway 20 near Brothers.
The 1993 listing of the spotted owl as a threatened species hurt the logging industry, and the economies of towns that relied on mills. McCormack and others worry an Endangered Species Act listing for the sage grouse could similarly impact ranching communities.
The sage grouse has been in decline over the past century because of the loss of sagebrush, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 18 months to decide whether it deserves protection.
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, the federal agencies that manage the public land which ranchers lease to graze cattle, are working on revising land management plans to ward off the listing.
Angela Sitz, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Bend, said cattle and sage grouse can coexist, but much depends on how the ranchers manage grazing.
“It all depends on timing, intensity and duration,” Sitz said.
The McCormack ranching operation has about 1,200 cows and covers more than 230 square miles. They own about 33,000 acres. The rest is leased land, with about 58,000 acres leased from the BLM, about 20,000 acres from the Forest Service and about 39,000 from private landowners.
Jeff McCormack said they have already taken steps to improve the habitat for sage grouse, from clearing juniper on 5,000 acres to tapping into more water springs.
“We’ve changed our grazing patterns,” Jeff McCormack told the newspaper. “Some places that we used to winter graze, we now spring graze. We try to rest our public ground; every third year we’ll rest one of those pastures so that it has regrowth and nesting material.”
Dan Morse, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, said there isn’t one specific thing a rancher can do to improve habitat. Restoration, he said, will come through site-specific, science-based work.
He said the conservation group doesn’t have a strong preference for how protections are put into place — as long as the protections work and sage grouse numbers recover.
“I think it is a matter of finding smart management on the landscape that will allow for sage grouse to thrive and ranching to continue,” Morse said.