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State moving forward with sage-grouse management plan

Oregon will continue plans to monitor its sage grouse populations, improve their sagebrush habitat and rely on voluntary assistance from private landowners to help the embattled bird despite the federal government's plan not to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is moving forward with its sage-grouse management plan, now in its draft form, as part of an 11-state effort to lead the way in sage grouse protection.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday announced that sage grouse do not warrant inclusion as federally threatened or endangered. However, federal biologists report that sage grouse are now limited to 10 percent of their historic range throughout the West.

Oregon is home to nearly 20 percent of the nation's sage grouse habitat, and the ODFW's draft plan outlines what biologists hope will be a coordinated effort to keep sage grouse levels at or above current populations over the next several decades.

We need to have something in place to make sure we have birds 50 years from now, regardless of the ESA, says Christian Hagen, the ODFW's Bend-based sage grouse conservation coordinator.

— These birds are in trouble in some places of their range, Hagen says. We need to be sure we can do what we can so we're not plagued by those same problems.

Sage grouse advocates agree, saying real projects that benefit the birds and their habitat are necessary regardless of the birds' legal standing.

Ben Deeble, sage grouse project coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, says helping recover the bird without the specter of Endangered Species Act enforcement creates the opportunity to do common sense conservation work ' regardless of people's stand on grouse listing.

We're at an important moment for sage grouse because nobody hates sage grouse, Deeble says. They're not a spotted owl. We have this moment where residents of the West, regardless of whether they wear Stetsons or fleece, have a moment to work together on behalf of the bird.

The ODFW is now taking public comment on its draft management plan for sage grouse, which is the latest native species to get its own management plan through the ODFW.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to adopt some form of the plan in May.

Sage grouse are one of Oregon's more unique birds, occupying primarily the sagebrush habitat of Eastern Oregon. The large birds are best known for congregating in large groups, called leks, in spring for mating, during which males inflate their chests and dance to impress the females.

Sage grouse are sprinkled across about 100 million acres of habitat in 11 western states, and Oregon is home to about 18 million of those acres.

Sage grouse's populations are between 250,000 and 500,000, Deeble says.

Oregon's draft plan calls for improving eastern Oregon habitat for sage grouse through a combination of habitat improvement projects and voluntary landowner assistance over the next decade.

The target is to keep bird populations at 2003 levels over the next 50 years while maintaining the current range and distribution of sagebrush habitat.

Other aspects of the draft include using fire to curb juniper encroachment in high-elevation habitat, while stepping up protection of low-elevation sage grouse habitat from wildfires that can decimate bird habitat for years.

The draft recommends that off-road vehicle use be kept at least two miles away from leks during the breeding season, and keeping vehicles on roads or trails during the nesting season.

The draft states that the ODFW's current limited hunting of sage grouse is appropriate.

Various state, federal and private interests have worked in drafting the state plan.

The ODFW in the late 1990s joined 11 western states and two Canadian provinces in a formal agreement that state agencies will lead the recovery effort, and the states have either adopted or are working on similar management plans, Hagen says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail