Oregon ranchers in deal with federal government to protect sage grouse

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Oregon ranchers have reached a deal with the federal government aimed at conserving the greater sage grouse and its habitat while ensuring landowners won’t face more restrictions if the bird is listed under the Endangered Species Act, officials said on Friday.

The deal, signed by eight eastern and central Oregon counties, allows landowners to enroll their property in a voluntary conservation program. Officials say the deal, along with other conservation agreements across Oregon, could protect over 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of sage grouse habitat.

“The agreements in Oregon are more evidence that we can work together to provide regulatory certainty for ranchers and other westerners who rely on sagebrush habitat for their livelihoods, and also take important steps to protect the hundreds of species that rely on these landscapes,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who was in Bend to mark the deal, said in a statement.

The greater sage grouse, a chicken-like bird, has deteriorated in the U.S. west, losing more than half of its habitat because of fire, invasive species and development, officials said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency will decide by September if the sage grouse should be listed as endangered.

The Oregon deal means landowners can volunteer to take steps to protect the sage grouse now, such as removing invasive grasses and marking barbed wire fences, in return for assurance that they won’t have to follow additional regulations, officials said.

Federal officials have been working for years to create partnerships in western states aimed at conserving sage grouse habitat. The Interior Department also announced this week an agreement with Barrick Gold of North America and The Nature Conservancy to provide credit for greater sage grouse habitat improvements in Nevada, officials said.

Oregon counties that signed the deal include: Deschutes, Baker, Crook, Lake, Grant, Harney, Malheur and a small portion of southern Union County, said Angela Sitz, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon.

Lake County rancher and president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association John O’Keefe applauded the agreement, saying it would allow ranchers to take part in helping the bird while also protecting their own livelihoods.

Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Sandra Maler