A Game-Changing Approach to Conservation in the West

February 2, 2016

John O’Keeffe, a rancher in Oregon, discusses how conservation benefits his land.

In the vast and tranquil Warner Mountains, the O’Keeffe family has made its living for generations. They move cattle from summer to winter ranges, and keep an eye on the range to make sure the bunchgrasses and sagebrush are doing well. But they have had a harder time tackling the advance of junipers into historic range, a problem for livestock grazing as well as sage grouse. Now, John is seeing a turnaround, thanks to SGI dollars and to the cooperative efforts of the BLM.

“My neighbors have all been getting on board one by one, now that they are seeing how well it’s working,” O’Keeffe said. ”It’s been great to see and it’s set us up to leave this land in a lot better shape than we found it and to pass that on to the next generation,” said O’Keeffe.

The following opinion piece by John O’Keeffe appeared Jan. 7, 2016 in The Hill.

Encroaching conifers decrease forage for livestock and reduce habitat for sage grouse.

Encroaching conifers decrease forage for livestock and reduce habitat for sage grouse.

Since its inception in 2010, I have worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sage Grouse Initiative on my ranch in Adel. Here in southern Oregon, we have seen a dramatic increase in junipers across sagebrush rangelands, which have come to dominate the landscape, reducing the amount of sagebrush steppe vegetation. These changes not only have a negative impact on sage grouse, they also reduce rangeland productivity for livestock and habitat for other sagebrush wildlife species.

The cost-sharing programs funded through SGI helped prepare my ranch for both wildlife and livestock. We have cut 4,500 acres of junipers on my ranch, and the treatment of the adjacent Bureau of Land Management lands ensures the aggressive conifers won’t return. A recent report on sage grouse population trends by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies says that active groups of male sage grouse, or “leks,” counted in Oregon have increased from 163 in 2011 to 243 in 2015.

Through SGI, with other state and federal agencies and private landowners, there has been a significant investment in improving western rangelands. Projects have included juniper removal, including the nearly 200,000 acres cleared here in Oregon, as well as implementing sustainable grazing systems, permanently conserving working ranches and more.

sgi 2.0To date, 1,129 ranches across the West have enrolled 4.4 million acres in these conservation efforts, which will continue with “SGI 2.0,” NRCS’ continued commitment funding and support for sage grouse – and sagebrush – conservation for another four years. This has clearly been a win-win-win situation for sage grouse, for ranchers and our livestock, and for all the wildlife that depends on the sagebrush ecosystem. By proactively protecting working landscapes, we can sustain important fish and wildlife populations. Kudos to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and NRCS Chief Jason Weller for their partnership in Washington, and on the ground.

Unfortunately, the final decision to not list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act will undoubtedly be challenged. The key is to ensure that the conservation actions of federal and state agencies, ranchers and other private landowners do not come to a grinding halt.

It is ultimately up to us ranchers, along with Chief Weller and federal land management agencies, to continue the actions on our private lands and to bring along our neighbors to expand these conservation efforts. The actions of landowners and land managers on both private and public lands, with the support of federal and state conservation agencies, can and did make a difference. This collaborative approach to conservation is a game-changer for the West.

O’Keeffe, a third generation rancher in southeast Oregon, is president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. He ranches with his son, and the fifth generation has been added since the first of the year.

Read more success stories from SGI-enrolled ranchers.

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.