Farmers call for change to plan that protects frogs, fish

August 16, 2021
Farmers call for change to plan that protects frogs, fish

Backlash against habitat conservation grows amid historic drought

As farms run out of water in Jefferson County, calls are growing among the farming community to amend an environmental plan designed to protect the Oregon spotted frog, bull trout and other threatened species.

Farmers who oppose the plan are hosting a meeting Tuesday at the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center to build support for their case.

The group says changes are needed for the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, which mandates higher river flows for aquatic wildlife. Farmers say any available water is needed this year as they grapple with historic drought conditions that are leaving tens of thousands of acres of farmland fallow. As of Monday, Wickiup Reservoir was just 2% full and slated to curtail water releases by the middle of this week.

Biologists say the plan is necessary to protect threatened species, such as the Oregon spotted frog, from becoming extinct in the Deschutes River and other parts of the Deschutes Basin.

Some farmers bemoan that the extra water released in winter to support wildlife habitat puts their farms at risk. Without water to plant a full crop, vast areas of Jefferson County lay fallow, pushing some farms towards bankruptcy.

JoHanna Symons, owner of the Symons Beef Co. near Madras, organized the Tuesday meeting to inform the public about upcoming options.

“There needs to be some amending or Crook, Jefferson, and Deschutes county will be in a horrific situation this time next year if this drought continues,” said Symons.

Symons has enlisted a legal team to look into options for changing the conservation plan.

The group includes Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Fallen, who worked with the Trump administration on environmental plans, and Dave Duquette, founder of Western Justice, a nonprofit conservative movement that defends “Western lifestyles.”

Budd-Fallen said the goal of the Tuesday meeting is to discuss details of the Endangered Species Act and the Habitat Conservation Plan.

“From talking to various folks in the area, it seems like there is some misunderstanding about what the ESA is and how it works, so I am hoping to describe my interpretation of the Act and regulations and answer any questions,” said Budd-Fallen.

The group was initially calling for the cancellation of the Habitat Conservation Plan, said Marty Richards, a North Unit Irrigation District board member, but he has since worked with them to soften their position.

“The real problem was the drought,” said Richards. “I became proactive, met with and educated the leaders, and they began to understand that (canceling the conservation plan) was not the best path.”

“NUID’s attorney has had conversations with their attorney, and they now understand the best way forward is to work with the HCP,” Richards added.

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The goal for the irrigation districts is to lock in funding to build infrastructure to save water for farmers while also adhering to the Habitat Conservation Plan obligations, said Richards.

Making changes to a plan that has already been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t easy, said Richards, but there are mechanisms that allow for changes in extreme circumstances, such as drought.

North Unit is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address the drought and help farmers, said Richards.

“We believe that what we are proposing is reasonable and so far they are being well received,” he said.

Gail Snyder, founder of Coalition for the Deschutes, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection of the Deschutes River, said the drought has created an unprecedented challenge for farmers. But fixing the problem can most easily occur by modifying water laws so that water can be shared more equitably and easily between irrigators.

“Pipes and sprinklers are a much-needed part of the solution, but we cannot just build our way out of this problem,” said Snyder. “In addition to long-term hard infrastructure improvements, change in water management policy at the state and local levels is urgently needed.”

Bridget Moran, the field representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bend, said the government intends to stick with the Habitat Conservation Plan.

The goal is to “work our way collaboratively through this severe drought, learn from it in any way we can, and keep moving forward on (the habitat conservation plan) implementation during the next three decades,” said Moran. “Although it can be difficult when times are as tough as they are now, we must not lose sight of this long-term goal.”

The Deschutes Basin Board of Control, which includes Central Oregon’s eight irrigation districts and the city of Prineville, issued a statement Thursday confirming its commitment to the conservation plan in the face of the backlash from farmers.

The statement addressed the growing controversy over the plan, stating that “national” groups are making “intentionally inaccurate and inflammatory statements” to fuel fear and generate discontent to further personal agendas.

“We do not intend to allow those sentiments to influence or undermine our resolve,” the statement read in part. “Despite what detractors and late-comers may attempt to suggest, the districts remain firmly convinced that the HCP strikes the right balance between the diverse interests in the basin and that implementation should continue.”

Symons, the Madras farmer, tamps down suggestions of extremism.

“We are not wanting to go on a frog-killing spree,” she said. “We don’t want to get rid of flows for the frog, but there has got to be a balance because it has been completely thrown off.”

The Tuesday meeting at the fairgrounds is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in the South Sisters Building. It is open to the public.

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