Sage Grouse Initiative Workshop Attracts Top Leadership to Lakeview, Oregon
Sage Grouse Initiative Press Release
In the immense Warner Mountains of southeast Oregon, an equally expansive public-private partnership to restore sage grouse habitat attracted top policy leaders to a Sage Grouse Initiative workshop on Monday. More than 80 people from the west and nationally gathered to share science, policy and tour a major juniper removal project this week in Lakeview. Many of the participants work for the Initiative in rural areas across the west to help ranchers conserve sage grouse habitat.
The Initiative, launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2010, has accelerated efforts across 11 western states to conserve the bird’s strongholds and potentially avoid a need for listing the species under the Endangered Species Act, a decision slated for 2015.
“What the NRCS has done to advance sage grouse conservation is ahead of its time,” said Brett Brownscombe, Oregon Governor Kitzhaber’s Natural Resource Policy Advisor.
Unlike prior endangered species challenges, a new proactive approach is gathering unparalleled momentum, with all partners stepping up to be part of a winning team, Brownscombe said.
Ron Alvarado, NRCS State Conservationist, agreed. “Working together in order to get conservation on the ground is the only way to succeed.”
Roy Elicker, director of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said there’s a clear reason why so many leaders made room in their busy schedules to drive to Lakeview for the event.
“I’ve been involved in wildlife conservation since the 1970s and have never seen an effort like this that goes across state lines, agency lines, and with such public and private partnerships,” he said.
Also on the policy panel were representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Idaho NRCS. Saving the sage grouse requires unprecedented conservation, the speakers concurred, because it’s a large landscape bird that depends on one of most endangered ecosystems in the U.S., the sagebrush-steppe. Once covering some 150 million acres, the sagebrush lands have dwindled by half and face major threats that range from energy development to wildfire, subdivision, invasive weeds, plowing, and the spread of conifers.
The Lakeview project is a showcase of a targeted, science-based approach with strong community support to conserve sage grouse and the hundreds of species that also rely on the sagebrush-steppe.
One of the keys to restoration lies in removing thousands of acres of junipers that have invaded former sagebrush-steppe, in the wake of suppressing fires over the past 120 years. The goal is to return the lands to sagebrush, native bunchgrasses, and wildflowers. Sage grouse and trees simply don’t mix.
“We’re dealing with a wildlife species that has a huge home range, so to be successful we have to work as partners across boundaries,” explained Brandi St. Clair, the Lakeview Sage Grouse Initiative habitat biologist who has helped to enroll the major landowners on the South Warner project.
To take a big project area and prescribe juniper removal on more than 46,000 acres of BLM and private lands took a local team working hard for several years to build trust and gain acceptance from all fronts. Here, ranchers and environmental groups are all on the same page.
The field tour on Wednesday gave the participants an opportunity to see how the project is benefiting sage grouse, songbirds, mule deer and providing better forage for cattle. They listened to John O’Keeffe, a rancher from Adel, Oregon, who signed on early to the project and takes pride in managing his lands to retain native bunchgrasses and sagebrush for grouse and livestock alike.
“My neighbors have all been getting on board one by one, now that they are seeing how well it’s working,” O’Keeffe said on the tour, looking across rangelands dotted with the red-needled limbs of cut junipers.
For generations, his family has witnessed the slow advance of junipers, he said. The funds from the Sage Grouse Initiative and the BLM’s efforts together are now turning the tide and giving him hope.
“It’s been great to see and it’s set us up to leave this land in a lot better shape than we found it and to pass that on to the next generation,” said O’Keeffe.