Douglas County is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and with people who appreciate those resources and who work diligently to protect them. Our primary resource is the vast expanse of valuable agricultural lands. Equally important are the farmers and land managers who nurture and protect the land and provide the engine that drives the county’s economy.
However, circumstances have developed that may severely impact the ability to utilize those resources. Conditions are now that will most likely lead to the declaration by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the Greater Sage Grouse in Douglas County is endangered. This listing process will start in the summer of 2014. This is both a potential calamity and also an opportunity to benefit all.
For thousands of years sage grouse have existed in Douglas County, at times developing into vast flocks numbering into the tens of thousands with a network of mating and dancing areas (leks) as well as extensive nesting areas around those leks. Over the past half of a century their numbers have fallen dramatically to now number a little more than 700. Most of the historic leks are currently unoccupied and nesting sites have nearly vanished. If nothing is done to effect this trend, sage grouse will most likely cease to exist in Douglas County.
The citizens of Douglas County are not going to allow that to happen. Farmers and ranchers in Douglas County have been living with and protecting sage grouse (as well as other species) for generations and have come to view them as part of their heritage and responsibility. Unlike most counties in central Washington from Klickitat to Canada where sage grouse existed at one time and are now gone, Douglas County still has a viable population due entirely to the actions of the farmers and ranchers. To formalize these actions, a group of forward thinking farmers and ranchers started to develop a plan in 1999 that eventually became the Douglas County Multiple Species General Conservation Plan designed to preserve and enhance grouse habitat while at the same time preserving farmers and farming for the future.
Working cooperatively with the USFWS, Foster Creek Conservation District developed an agreement whereby the Service will allow the district to administer the Section 10 permit (Incidental Take Permit) process in the county. Pursuant to Section 10 of the ESA, private landowners whose farming or ranching activities could result in the “take” of a federally-listed species may enter into a Habitat Conservation Plan. “Take” is defined as an attempt to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” The Section 10 permit would allow farmers and ranchers to accidentally “take” a species during the normal course of their operations without the worry of prosecution.
This will ensure local control over the rules that the service would normally promulgate to protect the species. Typical protection actions involve converting large portions of the landscape into habitat and excluding other uses. Idling large tracts of public land would devastate agriculture in north central Washington. The agricultural industry has accommodated these species for so long, that farmers and ranchers have acquired the intimate knowledge of how to farm in harmony with the species and still maintain a viable industry. They have the knowledge that no outside group or agency could possess.
In this agreement, the USFWS will allow the district to develop and approve farm plans, assist with permit acquisition, monitor implementation and amend plan elements as needed. USFWS has also indicated that if the HCP is accepted and implemented prior to listing efforts that it will figure significantly into the decision to list and may forestall listing altogether.
The road will not be easy – Foster Creek Conservation District will be required to constantly monitor and track the listed species, file reports, monitor compliance to farm plans, and even meet and coordinate with state and federal agencies every 90 days. But it will be worth it. FCCD has learned from other events such as the spotted owl calamity and expensive salmon recovery efforts that we are much better served by addressing imminent issues proactively rather than trying to catch up under sometimes burdensome and onerous regulations.
We have a very good working relationship with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and we want to build on that association. It is vital we maintain local control over actions that effect the economic well-being of the county and the preservation of our natural heritage and life-style. Actions to protect the species coming from within the agriculture community will be much more effective and will accomplish more than measures taken through fear generated from outside regulation.
Foster Creek Conservation District Board and Staff.