Oregon’s high desert is more than just cattle country. It’s also a last stronghold for the greater sage-grouse, an iconic bird of the western grasslands and now a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The high desert grassland, on which ranching cattle and wildlife both depend, is not healthy; a precipitous decline in sage-grouse numbers is just one symptom. Encroachment of juniper trees, increasingly large and frequent wildfires, unmanaged grazing, and aggressive weeds plague the region and dramatically degrade the habitat for both cattle and sage-grouse.
In Harney County, where more than three-quarters of the land is state- or federally owned, most cattle ranchers rely on grazing public lands for part of the year. They move their herds from winter pastures to summer range, often onto allotments they lease from the BLM or U.S. Forest Service. Sage-grouse, too, move across the landscape, using a mix of public and private land for mating, nesting, or wintering.
Harney County is the ninth-largest county in the nation; its 71,000 cattle outnumber its people nearly 10-to-1. As head of the Harney County office of OSU Extension, Dustin Johnson knows most of those people on a first-name basis. So when it came to bringing together a potentially contentious group of ranchers and environmental groups, Johnson had the relationships to do it. He and his colleagues at the station are helping ranchers, land managers, and conservation groups develop immediate plans to protect sage-grouse, improve habitat, and ultimately restore health to the sagebrush grasslands for the benefit of both wildlife and ranch life.