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A Monumental Accord: Cattle and Conservation on Steens Mountain

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Steens Mountain is a spectacular place -- and the four men who gathered at Roaring Springs Ranch in Harney County during the summer of 2000 would agree. But the men each had different ideas for the future of the mountain. Two hailed from environmental organizations, and two represented ranching interests. Brought together by U.S. Congressional staff, the men were attempting to reach a compromise -- a solution that would protect both the Steens' ecology and its ranching tradition. Clearly, the preservation of the mountain was a priority for each person. But the challenge lay in determining how to do just that.

As President Clinton's last term was drawing to a close, politics brought together a group of Oregonians with very different backgrounds. In 1999, President Clinton sought to leave an environmental legacy, and one way to do so was to create national monuments -- park-like protected areas that encompass landmarks with special national significance. That fall, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt visited Burns, Oregon, and proposed designating Steens Mountain, then a patchwork of public and private lands, as a national monument. However, this suggestion created an uproar in Burns, as citizens contemplated the changes this designation could bring to their land.

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Sage Grouse. (Steve Fairbairn, USFWS)

Greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) were once found in most grassland and sagebrush habitats east of the Cascades in Oregon and ten other western states. The species has markedly declined in numbers and geographic distribution throughout its range and was designated as a candidate species in 2010 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). Its decline is attributed to a number of natural and human threats that have resulted in habitat loss and fragmentation. In Oregon, the major threats are large-scale wildfire, invasive exotic grasses, expansion of juniper into sagebrush steppe habitats, and human-caused conversions of habitat to non-habitat.

The Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership (SageCon) was convened by Governor Kitzhaber’s office, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to address USFWS’s upcoming listing decision in 2015, and to support community sustainability in central and eastern Oregon. By addressing key threats to sagebrush habitat, SageCon is working collaboratively with ranching and farming communities as well as emerging industries such as mining and renewable energy to ensure species protection for sage-grouse protection. The goal for the collaborative effort is to develop an “all lands, all threats” plan for sage-grouse conservation in Oregon.

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