There is definitely reason to be concerned about sage-grouse populations in Baker County and across the western United States. Sage-grouse populations have declined significantly in recent decades due to degradation of the sagebrush habitat on which these ground-nesting birds depend by grazing, development, invasive plant species, changing fire regimes and other factors.
In 2015, the Department of the Interior narrowly avoided listing the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act by adopting plans to manage and protect them across 11 western states. Portland Audubon has been actively engaged since 2010 in the Oregon SageCon Partnership, which developed the Oregon portion of this plan.
The 336,000-acre Baker County sage-grouse “priority area for conservation” (PAC) is of particular concern. This population of sage-grouse is at the edge of the species’ range and is geographically isolated from other populations. The population in the Baker PAC has declined 75% since 2005 and now stands at fewer than 250 individuals. Aggressive action needs to be taken, but the agencies have not made the case that killing ravens should be part of that strategy. The strategy is not scientifically supported.
ODFW has not produced adequate science to support killing ravens. In fact, it has not documented a single case of ravens predating sage-grouse nests in Baker County. Instead ODFW relies on a handful of studies conducted in other states that show that reducing densities of ravens in some cases can be correlated with increased sage-grouse nest success. However, these studies also point out the importance of documenting the actual impacts of raven predation, surveying for other predatory species that may also be predating sage-grouse nests, and the importance of instituting non-lethal strategies such as reducing human food sources and manmade perches such as poles and fence lines, which can subsidize raven populations. ODFW is proposing to kill 1,500 ravens based entirely on speculation that they may be having an impact. The strategy is inhumane and will lead to significant mortality of non-target species.
ODFW proposes to kill adult ravens during nesting season using chicken eggs laced with the poison DRC1339. The poison is slow acting, and the birds typically die from renal failure a few days after ingestion. Because ravens often cache their food, ODFW admits that it expects only one out of every four poisoned eggs taken by ravens to actually be consumed by a raven. This means that to reach their target of 500 dead ravens per season, ODFW will need to observe ravens taking at least 2,000 poisoned eggs from bait stations. Of these, they predict 1,500 will be left scattered across the landscape for non-target wildlife to consume.
ODFW also plans to conduct this killing during nesting season, meaning nestling and fledgling ravens whose parents have been poisoned will be left to starve in their nests. ODFW completely fails to account for this inhumane killing in its environmental assessment of the project, which is likely to drive the number of dead ravens well beyond the 500 per season for which ODFW is seeking permits.
The agencies are not adequately addressing the primary causes of sage-grouse decline.
The proposal to kill ravens in Baker County comes at a time when the Trump administration is rolling back critical sage-grouse habitat protections established in the 2015 sage-grouse plans, in order to allow more cattle grazing and oil and gas drilling across the west. It also comes at a time when the agencies are turning a blind eye to more obvious threats to sage-grouse in Baker County. For example, some of the most significant sage-grouse population declines in Baker County have occurred in and around the nearly 5,000 acre Virtue Flats Off Highway Vehicle Area located on publicly owned Bureau of Land Management property. While the agencies appear willing to kill up to 1,500 ravens based entirely on speculation, they have taken a far less aggressive approach to Virtue Flats, relying entirely on voluntary signage that is somehow supposed to reduce impacts to sage-grouse as ORVs drive through their habitat.
The proposal to kill ravens comes as the public is just becoming fully aware of the tragic impacts of another misguided lethal control program. Between 2015 and 2017, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ignored and in some cases suppressed science and, under permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, killed more than 5,500 Double-crested Cormorants and destroyed more than 6,000 active cormorant nests at East Sand Island in the Columbia River Estuary in the name of protecting federally listed salmon. The lethal control activity, which cost taxpayers more than $5.5 million, eventually caused the collapse of the largest Doublecrested Cormorant colony in the world, representing 40% of the entire western population. Recent press reports have revealed that many of the cormorants that fled East Sand Island moved farther up the Columbia River, where they now are consuming larger quantities of salmon than if they had been left alone on their former nesting grounds. The tragic case of East Sand Island should give the agencies pause before they venture into another scientifically unsupported lethal control program.
There are rare times when Portland Audubon will support lethal control actions to protect an imperiled species. However, those programs need to be rigorously scientifically supported and narrowly confined to specific threats. The primary factors underlying the species’ decline need to be fully addressed. Unfortunately, our wildlife agencies have a long history of using lethal control as a diversion and a distraction while inadequately addressing the primary causes for the decline of a species. That is what is now being proposed in Baker County.
We greatly appreciate everybody who wrote to USFWS opposing this action. Portland Audubon members generated over 1,877 comments in opposition. We also submitted extensive technical / legal comments on the proposal that were supported by 13 other organizations. We will be closely tracking this process as USFWS moves toward a final decision, and we will respond accordingly.