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Oregon sage grouse map to help steer development

A male sage grouse that had been captured in Oregon is released before sunrise with 24 others into their new home in the sage lands of Lincoln County, Wash., in this file photo. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman Review)
A male sage grouse that had been captured in Oregon is released before sunrise with 24 others into their new home in the sage lands of Lincoln County, Wash., in this file photo. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman Review)

BEND, Ore. - A new map illustrating key sage grouse breeding habitat across the West is designed to help land managers make decisions about where to allow developments like wind power facilities or transmission lines, and where to focus conservation efforts.

“The goal now is to lend some consistency to the whole program, so that we can benefit the sage grouse and its habitat,” said Melodie Lloyd, spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management, which drafted the map.

Last spring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that, although sage grouse populations are in enough trouble to warrant protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, there are other species that are a higher priority and so the chicken-like birds would not be listed for now.

At the same time, the BLM announced new policies on how it planned to help protect the bird’s sagebrush habitat, Lloyd said. The policies also aim to help prevent sage grouse from being added to the endangered species list, according to the BLM. If the grouse are listed, it could result in stringent rules for energy projects, grazing, development and other activities in the High Desert and other sage grouse habitat.

Those policies include rerouting planned electric transmission lines around priority sage grouse habitat, and warning developers looking to build wind facilities in or near priority habitat that their applications could be denied or come with restrictions.

Developing the breeding habitat map is one step in identifying that priority habitat, Lloyd said.

“Just like with driving, you need to know where you’re going,” she said. “And a map or GIS, these days is important in providing knowledge and understanding of where you’re at and where you need to get to.”

The map itself identifies areas where the highest density of breeding grounds, or leks, are located including in areas east of Bend and in Southern Oregon. Future maps will identify where important habitats are for the birds in different seasons and where they migrate to, she said.

“That’s now a starting point for going out and getting additional data,” she said.

The maps are a tool local land managers and decision-makers can use to determine whether human activities are appropriate for that site, she said.

That could include uses like grazing or building new trails.

“It’s strengthening the guidance that we have,” she said. “It’s finding a balance in conserving the sage grouse while still allowing for public uses.”

The mapping efforts have been collaborative with state and other federal agencies, Lloyd said, and the hope is that other agencies will use the resulting information as well.

The Oregon section of the BLM map comes from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife information, said Christian Hagen, sage grouse coordinator for the state wildlife agency. And the BLM adopting the map gets the federal agency and the state on the same general page, he said.

The state Fish and Wildlife Commission will be considering a revised Oregon plan for sage grouse at a meeting in Portland, Hagen said. The state could have a plan in the next four to six months that would outline its recommendations for conserving sage grouse and the sagebrush ecosystems, he said.

The ODFW and BLM maps are based on solid science and give a good picture of where sage grouse live, said Matt Little, conservation director with the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

“The big question is what the agencies are going to do with the maps,” he said. And the maps should also identify areas to protect that would allow sage grouse to move between breeding sites, Little said.

The next step is for the BLM to determine things like how it will restrict development in and around sage grouse habitat as well as what kind of a buffer is necessary around key habitat.

“Now we know the places where they live and where they breed,” Little said. “What we’re waiting to see is what the agencies say is going to be allowed in those areas.”

Information from: The Bulletin.