Cattlemen back proposed salt tax

Cattle are shown at the Willow Creek home of Chris and Bonnie Christensen. Chris Christensen, president of the Malheur County Cattlemen's Association, says a proposed salt tax that would raise money for greater sage grouse conservation measures, is a controversial one in the state. After about two and a half hours of debate, the Oregon Cattlemen's Association agreed to back the legislation proposed by Rep. Cliff Bentz.

ONTARIO—Malheur County cattle producers and others are being asked to give their support to what is being called a “salt tax” to raise funds for conservation measures for the greater sage grouse and other species that might be listed as endangered.

John O’Keeffe, an Adel rancher and president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, presented the proposal during a meeting Tuesday of county cattle producers held at the OSU Extension Office in Ontario.

“We don’t take this lightly,” O’Keeffe said of the tax proposal, which is being developed to be brought before the Oregon Legislature. “We’ve worked on this for a year.”

Taking the lead on the proposed bill is state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. Bentz also proposed same tax during the 2014 legislative session.

The purpose of the tax would be to establish a dedicated fund to support conservation measures focused on protecting habitat.

Greater safe grouse is before the U.S. Fish and Wild Service for possible listing as an endangered species, a decision which is scheduled for this fall. Its listing, and the subsequent measures that would be implemented to help revive the species, would be problematic for cattle ranchers whose herds graze in prime sage grouse habitat.

The proposed salt tax isn’t the only measure aimed at raising money for conservation efforts. The Audubon Society also is working on a bird seed tax for the same purpose, which would go into the same pot of money as the salt tax, O’Keeffe said.

The suggested salt tax would be 1.75 cents per pound of salt content in animal feeds, raising about $400,000 dollars, he said. Feed for dairy cows would be exempted, he said.

A proposed 5-cent-per-pound tax on bird seed sold would raise an estimated $1 million to $2 million, according to information from the Audubon Society of Portland. Half of those funds would go to sage grouse conservation measures in the legislation being developed, O’Keeffe said.

In the first five years of the tax, funds would be used for sage grouse conservation, and the in second five years, the funds could be used for any species that may be up for listing as endangered, he said. The tax would sunset after 10 years, until it was renewed legislatively.

Setting up a dedicated funding stream for conservation measures would add more weight in showing that greater sage grouse should not be put on the endangered species list, he added.

Under the tax proposal, a seven-member committee would be formed to decide how the funds would be spent, with four members representing soil and water conservation districts and three representing other conservation groups.

“The [Oregon Cattlemen’s Association] has agreed to pursue this,” O’Keeffe said.

That decision didn’t come easily. Chris Christensen, president of Malheur County Cattlemen’s Association, said the statewide association debated the issue for two and a half hours at a recent meeting in Bend before finally reaching a consensus. The issue is still contentious, he said.

Rick Dentinger, of Dentinger Feed & Seed in Vale, said he supports the salt tax in theory.

“I like the idea,” he said.

Dentinger said he is, however, concerned the proposed salt tax would send feed customers across the border into Idaho or Nevada to avoid the tax.

"It couldn’t hit me any harder,” he said.

Listing the sage grouse as endangered species will send shock waves through the whole country, said Bob Skinner, a Jordan Valley-area rancher. He added that federally managed lands won’t be the only properties affected if the bird is listed.

“This is going to affect private lands,” Skinner said. “It really worries me.”

A listing would turn the economies of Malheur, Harney, Grant and Baker counties upside down, he said. Beef cattle are Malheur County’s largest industry; in 2012, there were 175,927 head of cattle accounting for more than $165 million in the county, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

Skinner said the salt tax proposal is gaining support.

“The governor is on our side,” he said. “[Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife] doesn’t want it listed.”

Taking action to prevent sage grouse from being listed as endangered isn’t unique to eastern Oregon.

“All the states are doing something,” O’Keeffe said, adding there are measures being taken at several levels to prevent the listing.

Congress has limited what U.S. Fish and Wildlife can publish toward listing the sage grouse, but officials with that agency have said they still have an obligation to make a decision, O’Keeffe said.

Larry Meyer is a news reporter at The Argus Observer. He can be reached at (541) 823-4813 or by emailing larrym@argusobser-ver.com. To comment on this story, go to www.argusobserver.com.

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