The federal government is stepping up with $9 million to Eastern Oregon landowners who volunteer to protect greater sage-grouse habitat on their property.

Funding comes from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, or RCPP, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The program, part of the 2014 Farm Bill, paid out $22.2 million Wednesday for six locally designed conservation projects across Oregon, including a proposal dubbed the Oregon Model to Protect Sage-Grouse.

The basis for that model comes from a 30-year agreement reached last year between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Harney County Soil & Water Conservation District. Known as a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, or CCAA, ranchers voluntarily manage their lands to benefit the greater sage-grouse, and in return are given a promise they will not face additional regulations should the birds be listed as endangered species.

A final determination for listing greater sage-grouse will be made in 2016. Until then, the CCAA is meant for ranchers to do conservation work up front and avoid tighter restrictions down the road.

“Really, the sage-grouse across the West is going to be another spotted owl,” said Marty Suter-Goold, district manager of the Harney Soil & Water Conservation District. “Our model is to work with those private landowners so they receive protections through their soil and water conservation district.”

Districts in seven other counties are working to develop their own CCAAs within the range of sage-grouse, Suter-Goold said. They are: Deschutes, Crook, Lake, Grant, Malheur, Baker and Union.

The project has a goal to reach 40 percent of producers in those areas. Each conservation district will work with landowners to develop site-specific plans for their property, with RCPP dollars available to help pay for work on the ground.

“Anything that’s needed for that bird to flourish, we would put together a plan for that landowner,” Suter-Goold said. “Landowners will be able to submit proposals to the NRCS in their respective county offices for cost-sharing.”

Ranching is a way of life in rural Eastern Oregon, Suter-Goold said, and having these CCAAs in place provides a mechanism to demonstrate the sage-grouse can be protected without a federal ESA listing.

“Ultimately ... landowners would rather work with their local folks than for the federal government to come in and regulate,” she said.

Other conservation projects receiving RCPP dollars include:

• North Slope Ochoco Holistic Restoration, $5 million

• Klamath-Rogue Oak Woodland Health and Habitat Conservation, $3 million

• White River Irrigation Efficiency and Stream Flow Restoration, $2 million

• North Willamette Valley Upland Oak Restoration, $2.2 million

• Unlocking Carbon Markets for NIPF Landowners in the Pacific Northwest, $1 million

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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