For most of the year, one might not notice the sage-grouse with grand tail feathers and chest plumage as they burrow into the more than 18 million acres of sagebrush found in the “outback” of Eastern Oregon. However, when these birds do emerge on their mating grounds, or leks, they are musicians and dancers of a striking display. Tribes from the Intermountain West celebrate the sage-grouse in traditional dances. The Wasco people also have passed down a tale of a sage-grouse leader who bestowed the gift of the birds’ song and dance on a woman in mourning to help her overcome grief.
Just as notable as the sage-grouse’s mating ritual and their cultural importance is their significance to the billions of acres of landscape they inhabit across 11 different states. Before Europeans settled the area, around 17.7 million acres made up the state’s portion of sagebrush habitat – the Oregon sage-grouse population has since declined more than 80 percent down to just 30,000 birds. This dramatic decrease reflects the fragmentation of the land the birds inhabit. As an umbrella species of the sagebrush, the protection of today’s sage-grouse leads to the safekeeping of a landscape that many other species rely on.
The Joint Reliance on a Healthy Landscape
Declining sage-grouse rangeland health undermines the historic foundations of the rural economy in this part of Oregon. Ranchers in Central and Eastern Oregon also greatly depend on the health of the sagebrush ecosystem. Thus, the wildfires and invasive species that have drastically reduced the habitat for sage-grouse also pose threats to ranching operations that depend on healthy native rangelands for livestock forage.
In 2010, threats to the sage-grouse and the “sagebrush sea” became so great that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered listing the sage-grouse as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. A sage-grouse listing would have had an enormous financial impact on the local economy involving an estimated billions in dollars of lost economic development opportunities. As this threat loomed, the ranching community and environmental groups chose to work collaboratively with other stakeholders to find a lasting, on-the-ground solution to save the sage-grouse and their habitat.
Saving the Sage-Grouse and Preserving Healthy Rangelands
The Sage-Grouse Conservation (SageCon) Partnership was first formed in 2012 with the goal of cultivating a space where a diverse group of stakeholders from vastly different cultures could engage in productive activity. The group was facilitated by the National Policy Consensus Center and consisted of federal and state agencies, the Oregon Governor’s Office, local governments and county commissioners, tribes, private landowners, ranchers and environmental groups. Members of the SageCon Partnership aimed to voluntarily commit to actions that would be compelling enough so that everyone – especially U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – would be confident that the sagebrush landscape and sage-grouse could be protected.
In this partnership, Oregon ranchers stepped forward to ensure that their stewardship of the sagebrush worked to meet the goal to ensure a healthy sage-grouse habitat. The conservation actions of these private landowners included a huge menu of measures, from taking into account the season and timing of grazing to the type and count of livestock. Actions also included removing high-risk fences that were no longer necessary and monitoring sage-grouse for the presence of West Nile Virus.
Following the formation of the SageCon Partnership, more than two million acres of sage-grouse habitat in private ownership have been enrolled in agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide private landowners an opportunity to voluntarily agree to management goals. These goals reduce threats to sage-grouse and assure ranchers no additional regulatory requirements should an endangered species listing occur. Private landowners have also brought similar conservation activities to 2.1 million acres of public grazing allotments with The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) through additional agreements. Such activities help to maintain important food and vegetation cover for sage-grouse while also helping control invasives and improve the health of the sagebrush landscape.
Come What May
In September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that an endangered species listing wasn’t necessary for the sage-grouse. The steps for ranchers outlined by the state’s plan had successfully convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the sage-grouse and its habitat would be protected, thanks in part to Oregon’s leadership in its collaborative work and the quality of the commitments made by SageCon partners.
In the next stages of the partnership, The National Policy Consensus Center will work to analyze the elements that led to both the success of the collaboration and glean lessons for future conservation efforts with similar working lands stakeholders. The “all lands, all threats” approach that the SageCon partnership adopted fostered a collaborative forum for a diverse set of stakeholders to come together to balance flexibility with structure. This, when combined with the presence of high level leaders and the scientific credibility of field data from state and federal agencies and conservation groups, was critical in building trust among the various groups within the partnership.
At the beginning of the partnership one member expressed that “it felt like [they] were using wild yeast to make beer.” And yet, as various groups with differing cultural backgrounds came to the table, all worked to build “muscle memory” in the relationships and collaborative process the participants developed over the course of five years.