“There’s a real opportunity to showcase the good things about what happened here as a real model for cooperation that could be brought across the American west,” Jewell said in March about local efforts to manage the private land surrounding the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and create a plan to protect the greater sage grouse before its numbers dipped low enough to warrant a listing as an endangered species.
Greater sage grouse, a chicken-like wild bird that anchors the food chain in sagebrush deserts spanning 11 states, are declining mostly due to habitat destruction from devastating wildfires, the proliferation of invasive grasses and infrastructure for energy projects.
The government considered listing the bird as an endangered species – a designation that could have flushed ranchers out of the west. But in 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the designation wouldn’t be necessary, because of an unprecedented agreement where ranchers who collectively own millions of acres of sagebrush desert agreed to alter their grazing and irrigation practices to replenish sage grouse habitat.
Harney Soil and Water Conservation District, a local branch of the government that is responsible for implementing the plan, spearheaded an effort to localize the plan’s sweeping designations.
Over a two-year period, scientists, employees of the Burns Bureau of Land Management, local ranchers and local and state government representatives created the Rural Community Alternative to balance the habitat needs of the greater sage grouse in the ecosystems of southeast Oregon with the economic needs of local ranchers.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, who runs the local government, said that step was important because sage grouse habitat spans such a vast swath of land that contains a complex tangle of local needs.
“The federal plan does the same thing for prairie chickens in Wyoming as it does for sage grouse in Oregon,” Grasty said. “They just did one huge plan and forced it all nationally even though states are so different and counties more so.”
In February 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the rural community alternative and Harney Soil and Water submitted it to the BLM.
Marty Suter, district manager for Harney Soil and Water Conservation, said in an interview that the plan was the result of two years of listening and compromise between groups that, under different circumstances, might be on opposite ends of a lawsuit.
Standing in the tiny lobby of the Harney County Circuit Courthouse in March, Jewell praised the effort.
“Banding together as a community and listening to diverse interests – certainly those who are working off the land and making their living off the land are very important, but also those who are concerned about the long-term environmental condition of the land – if they are in a room together, they’re listening to each other, they are respecting each other, they are understanding that, to quote an Oregon rancher, ‘what’s good for the herd is good for the bird,’ then you don’t end up with the litigation that you might otherwise have. So I think you’ve got a great model here in Harney County.”
But in the end, litigation is exactly where they ended up.
The Department of the Interior ultimately rejected the plan, saying it had to use a “narrow focus” on protecting sage grouse habitat and could not consider the plan’s impact on ranchers.
Harney Soil and Water sued in federal court in Washington D.C. on December 7, arguing that the plan skews too far toward conservation, to the detriment of the local ranching economy. Harney Soil and Water claims the National Environmental Policy Act requires the Department of the Interior and the BLM to design their land use policies with “multiple uses” in mind, including their effect on the human environment.
Suter said the department illegally rushed the process because of a court ruling to get a plan out the door.
“We followed all of the letters of the law to be collaborative and cooperative and we were told they didn’t have time to review our alternative plan,” Suter said. “We had a local solution but they had utter disregard for the local processes. It was 11 western states one size fits all and that’s it.”
Harney Soil and Water says in its lawsuit that the federal plan cuts back too much on grazing. And it says livestock grazing improves bird habitat by reducing the growth of plants that can fuel devastating fires and keeping invasive grasses in check. The government’s plan will also diminish the ranching lifestyle and devalue ranches that are adjacent to BLM land, according to the lawsuit.
But Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Oregon and a strong voice for protecting sage grouse, said the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the birds.
“We felt the protections put in place were not adequate for recovery and that Fish & Wildlife should have just listed the bird,” Sallinger said. “There are a variety of mechanisms under the Endangered Species Act that could have corrected habitat deficiencies and worked as a backstop to ensure sage grouse recovery.”
Sallinger questioned the idea that the court-imposed deadline was the problem.
“You had groups like Audubon that thought sage grouse should be listed as endangered, and groups like Harney Soil and Water that apparently thought sage grouse protections should be weaker,” Sallinger said. “I really don’t know whether taking longer would have improved that.”
The Department of the Interior doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but a spokeswoman said the agency stood by the plan.
“We continue to believe the plans are both balanced and effective – protecting key sage-grouse habitat and providing for sustainable development,” the department said in a statement.
Sallinger said the lawsuit showed weakness in a process Jewell may have been too quick to trumpet as a model she wanted to see emulated throughout the country.
“It rips some of the veneer off the surface of the process,” Sallinger said. “They are litigating while also being held up by the federal government as one of the major success stories of collaboration. But sometimes the government is too concerned with getting to that kumbaya moment.”
Sallinger said the lawsuit illustrates how hard it is to craft collaborative land use agreements that all sides can live with.
“This was a massive process to get done in a couple of years,” Sallinger said. “The federal government was working through a multitude of issues that covered eleven states and ultimately said here is our plan for Oregon – a stakeholder table that had about 100 concerned groups. There were many disagreements that were never resolved. It was portrayed as this incredible collaboration but I think the agreement was less solid than that. True collaboration is difficult. That’s just a reality. Some processes are successful and some are too complex to resolve through the collaborative process.”