U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   09/24/2004
Statement of John O'Keeffe
Vice Chariman
NCBA Federal Lands Committee and Sage Grouse Task Force
Oversight to review state and private programs for sage grouse conservation

Good morning, Chairman Crapo and Distinguished Members of this Subcommittee, my name is John O’Keeffe. I am here to testify about the sage grouse on behalf of the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. I serve as the Chairman of the Public Land Committee for the Oregon Cattleman’s Association, the Vice Chair of the Federal Lands Committee of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), Oregon’s Director to the Public Lands Council (PLC), and Chair the Public Lands Councils’ West-wide task force on Sage Grouse. I also represent private landowners on Oregon’s Sage-grouse and Sage brush habitat working group.

The Public Lands Council (PLC) represents sheep and cattle ranchers in 15 western states whose livelihood and families have depended on federal grazing permits dating back to the beginning of last century. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) is the trade association of America’s cattle farmers and ranchers, and the marketing organization for the largest segment of the nation’s food and fiber industry. Both PLC and the NCBA strive to create a stable regulatory environment in which our members can thrive.

Ranching out west has been part of the landscape, the economy, and the culture for approximately three centuries. About 214 of the 262 million acres managed by BLM are classified as “rangelands,” as are 76 million of the 191 million acres managed by the Forest Service. More than 23,000 permittees, their families, and their employees manage livestock to harvest the annually renewed grass resource grown on this land. Western ranching operations provide important additional benefits to the Nation by helping to preserve open space and reliable waters for wildlife, by serving as recharge areas for groundwater, and by supporting the economic infrastructure for rural communities. Our policy is to support the multiple use and sustained yield of the resources and services from our public lands which we firmly believe brings the greatest benefit to the largest number of Americans.

My family has been ranching in the Warner valley of southeast Oregon since the early 1900s. I am the third generation to ranch there. Part of the fourth generation is attending his first week of college classes as I address this Subcommittee. It is my sincere wish that my family can continue to ranch in the Warner valley far out into the future. That is why I became involved in the Associations that represent the livestock grazing industry.

I believe that ranchers are natural stewards of the land. Government incentive programs can help us do our jobs. At this time I have a Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) Grant proposal being reviewed that would do juniper control and meadow enhancement on 2500 acres of brood rearing habitat that the O’Keeffe Ranch owns adjacent to Sagehen Butte in Lake County, Oregon. The LIP program uses U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dollars funneled through local wildlife agencies to do on the ground conservation projects.

I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to provide some of my experience with sage grouse and public lands grazing to the Committee on behalf of the sheep and cattle rancher members of the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Sage grouse
Environmental groups have filed petitions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) seeking to have the sage grouse listed as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service is currently in the midst of a 12-month status review under which is considering whether the available information warrants listing the bird. A listing decision is expected around the end of the current calendar year.

A principal source of information to be considered by the Service is a conservation assessment of the status of the sage grouse and its habitat by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). The assessment concludes that sage grouse population numbers have “tended to stabilize” since the mid-1980’s. ES-4. In many areas numbers increased between 1995 and 2003, even though there continues to be a decline in numbers in other areas. Id. Sage grouse continue to occupy 668,412 km² of habitat, down from a pre-settlement area of 1,200,483 km². ES-4. A total of 50,566 male sage grouse were counted on leks throughout western North America. Id.

PLC and NCBA recognize that the decline in numbers of sage grouse has led some members of society to become concerned about the long-term viability of the bird. Nevertheless, we believe the WAFWA report supports a conclusion that listing the sage grouse under the ESA is not warranted at this time. The legal issue for listing under the Act is whether a bird is threatened or endangered. A principal criteria for addressing the issue is the extent to which habitat has disappeared. While the numbers of the bird have declined, a substantial population remains. These birds continue to occupy a significant range of habitat. Those who cite the decline in numbers or habitat as evidence of the need to list the bird fail to acknowledge that substantial numbers and habitat remains. The evidence does not support the need to list the bird at this time.

Moreover, there is a reasonable basis to believe that sage grouse numbers and habitat will continue to be stable or even improve because of the unprecedented conservation effort underway. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages more than 50 percent of sage grouse habitat in the United States. The Bureau has collected information on the extensive effort it has already undertaken to conserve sage grouse habitat, and on additional steps it intends to take for this purpose. Each state with habitat has initiated habitat-wide planning efforts involving local working groups composed of stakeholders in the welfare of the species. The Western Governor’s Association has collected information on the conservation effort currently occurring on private lands. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has committed to spending a significant amount of its program dollars on habitat restoration and conservation on private lands. The Senate has stepped up and directed NRCS to make $5 million available for habitat conservation in the next fiscal year. There is no need to fear the imminent demise of the bird under these circumstances.

There is further reason to believe the bird may be safe. The best research shows that sage brush vegetation communities can be treated to produce the right mix of plant types needed to support viable populations. The efforts of BLM, NRCS, and private stakeholders to restore and conserve habitat can potentially make a positive difference. Additionally, PLC and NCBA members have shown their willingness to support the conservation effort by identifying grazing practices that are compatible with sage grouse habitat and transmitting these practices to the Department of the Interior.

In the face of these conservation efforts, FWS would send a powerful signal to society that conservation efforts do not pay off and so there is no reason to try should the Service decide to list the bird at the end of the status review or decide that listing is warranted but precluded at that time. Such a result would be particularly difficult for the grazing industry to accept at a time when sage grouse population numbers are viable (even if less desirable than some would prefer), and in the absence of compelling information showing that grazing practices are correlated to degradation of sage grouse habitat. The WAFWA report states:

“[n]umbers used by agencies . . . do not provide the information on management regime, habitat condition, or kind of livestock that can be used to assess the direct effects of livestock grazing on large regional scales. Indices of seral stage used to relate current conditions to potential climax vegetation may not correlate with current understanding of the state-and-transition dynamics of sagebrush habitats. Over half of the public lands have not been surveyed relative to standards and guidelines established for those lands.”

ES at 2-3. Adapting my grazing operation to government regulation is a burden I carry every day I stay in business. Fairness requires there be a good reason for the U.S. government to impose additional regulations on its citizens. To date, this reason has not emerged in the sage grouse debate.

PLC and NCBA are hopeful that facts will win at the end of the day and the Administration will decide that listing the sage grouse under the ESA is not warranted at this time. We are somewhat concerned that career staff in the FWS be truly neutral as they prepare the documentation and recommendations used by decisionmakers in deciding whether to list the bird under the Act. Regulatory agencies tend to regulate, and there may be an institutional bias towards listing because that is what the FWS tends to do. We urge the Administration to closely manage the preparation of the documents to ensure that career staff is open to and present information that shows listing is not necessary as well as information that suggests listing might be needed. Any help members of this Committee can provide to ensure adequate management takes place would be greatly appreciated.

The FWS bears a tremendous responsibility in making listing decisions. Increasing the costs of doing business by listing the sage grouse under the ESA could force additional ranchers to shut down their operations. Eliminating ranches can threaten the very fabric of rural life in parts of the west. Loss of ranches may have the perverse effect of increasing the threat to sage grouse habitat. When ranches are sold, the land often gets divided for subdivisions. Fragmentation of habitat that comes with the loss of open space and the additional roads and power lines needed to serve the subdivisions would not be far behind. We hope the Administration carefully thinks through all of these factors in deciding whether to list the sage grouse under the ESA.

Finally, we urge the Administration to bear in mind the importance of deferring to state management of wildlife to the greatest extent possible. We recognize that the ESA is a federal statute that imposes duties on the federal government. Additionally, much of sage grouse habitat is on federal land with a corresponding federal responsibility to manage that land. Still, conservation will not succeed in the long run in this country unless the stakeholders who live on the land and make their living from it are involved in the effort. For this reason, PLC/NCBA are strong proponents of putting as much responsibility for wildlife management State action that is adequate to conserve the species should be fully credited tow.

As a practical matter, the FWS is incapable of managing wildlife across the entire west. The Service simply does not have the budget, personnel, or statutory mandate to undertake such a broad responsibility. PLC and NCBA urge the Administration to defer to state plans to the greatest extent possible in formulating its plan for sage grouse management, whether or not the bird is listed under the Act.

Thank you for providing the PLC and NCBA this opportunity to present these remarks. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.