The Oregon Fish & Wildlife field office in Ontario. (The Enterprise/File)

ONTARIO – The state fish and game commission will get an on-the-ground briefing on efforts to protect sage grouse in Malheur County and elsewhere Thursday. 

The county-wide tour will be the centerpiece of the commission’s two-day stay in Ontario by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. 

The public is invited to join the seven-member commission on the tour that’s scheduled to begin at the Holiday Inn Express, 212 S.E. 10th St., at 8:15 a.m. Thursday. 

Citizens who join the tour have to provide their own transportation and lunch.

The tour will journey past Vale and go south down Russell Road.

The first stop will be to view an area burned by wildfire in the past and to measure the impact of the blaze on sage grouse habitat. 

“It will be at a random site where one side of the road is burned and they’ve attempted to rehabilitate and on the other side of the road it did not burn. We will discuss the loss of habitat through fire,” said Philip Milburn, district biologist for the Ontario fish and wildlife office. 

After viewing the sage grouse habitat, the tour will then proceed to a site just above the Grassy Mountain mine. 

“That will allow us to look at the Grassy Mountain gold project and discuss the permitting process going on with that,” said Milburn.

The mine project is going through a lengthy state permitting process that includes oversight by the state fish and game department. 

The next stop will be on the lower Owyhee River, just below the Owyhee Dam, where the commission will tour the lower Owyhee River fisheries. 

The final stop on the tour will be a trip to the Ontario wastewater treatment facility.

“There we will talk about a cooperative access program we have with the city and pheasant management in general,” said Milburn. 

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The commission’s formal meeting kicks off at 8 a.m. Friday at Four Rivers Cultural Center.

The tour and the meeting are important, said Adam Baylor, a spokesman for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We take it very seriously. It is definitely part of our governance and it is where the rule makings take place and any changes to regulations,” said Baylor.

Baylor said the commission tries to meet in a different part of Oregon each month. 

The commission will consider increasing hunting and fishing license fees. The cost of annual resident hunting license would climb by $1 and $3 for a fishing license under a proposal the commission will discuss. 

Now, an annual resident hunting license costs $33.50. A resident fishing license is $41 now. 

The commission also will decide whether to modify existing rules regarding “kill permits” for elk that damage crops. 

“That is going to be very important to eastern Oregon. Especially around John Day and that area, and even in Baker County, for land owners dealing with elk coming on to their fields and doing a lot of damage,” said Baylor. 

Baylor said the rule modification is “just another tool in the tool box we can make official so we can help landowners.”

Now, if the agency issues a kill permit for elk that damage crops, a landowner must deliver the harvested elk to a food bank. The commission will consider whether to approve a new rule to allow the landowner to keep the elk. 

Also Friday, the commission is set to approve rules for the conservation and recreation advisory committee and approve expenses from a newly-created conservation and recreation fund. The fund was approved by the 2019 Legislature and is used for conservation efforts for Oregon’s wildlife. 

A public forum will also be held Friday morning for area residents to testify about issues not on the formal meeting agenda.

News tip? Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377. 

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