Federal partnerships with private landowners across the West have resulted in protecting millions of acres of greater sage grouse habitat, according to a new report that underscores the critical role ranchers play in ongoing efforts to save the imperiled bird.
The report released today by the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service shows that since 2010, NRCS has spent $296 million on programs partnering with ranchers and other private landowners that have resulted in restoring 4.4 million acres of sage grouse habitat.
USDA also announced today that it plans to spend an additional $200 million over the next four years through conservation programs funded by the farm bill to expand restoration partnerships with working ranches and farms covering hundreds of thousands of acres across the grouse’s 11-state Western range.
"We’re working with ranchers who are taking proactive steps to improve habitat for sage grouse while improving the sustainability of their agricultural operations," Robert Bonnie, USDA’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said today in a statement.
"Thanks to the interest from ranchers and support of our conservation partners, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is working to secure this species’ future while maintaining our vibrant western economies," Bonnie said, adding that the 4.4 million acres of grouse habitat that have been restored on private land are equivalent to "an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park."
While the NRCS report highlights some notable successes, it comes at a time of uncertainty over the eventual fate of the greater sage grouse and amid much debate over how best to protect the bird.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently evaluating the status of the bird and plans to decide this year whether to propose listing it for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
But GOP leaders in Congress attached a rider to the fiscal 2015 spending bill that includes language forbidding Fish and Wildlife from using money to "write or issue" listing rules for the greater sage grouse.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has said the agency will continue to push forward with sage grouse conservation plans. That includes, she has said, the Bureau of Land Management’s work this summer to complete amendments to dozens of BLM resource management plans and Forest Service land-use plans covering millions of acres to include sage grouse conservation measures.
FWS Director Dan Ashe has advised BLM and the Forest Service to impose the most stringent protections on roughly 16.5 million acres of high-value sage grouse habitat (Greenwire, Feb. 10).
The report notes that the Sage Grouse Initiative — a partnership led by NRCS that includes ranchers, academicians and representatives from state and federal agencies — has secured an additional $128 million from private landowners and other partnerships, underscoring the commitment to keeping the bird off the ESA list.
Tim Griffiths, NRCS’s coordinator for the Sage Grouse Initiative, said that money has been used to purchase conservation easements on private lands covering 451,884 acres, according to the report. More than a third of those easements are in Wyoming, which is home to nearly half the remaining grouse population.
The money also has been used for numerous projects, such as removing conifer trees that can harm sagebrush steppe and attract grouse predators. In Oregon, for example, NRCS has invested $18.4 million through the Sage Grouse Initiative to help more than 100 ranchers remove conifers from 200,000 acres of key nesting and wintering habitats.
This effort, according to the report, addressed 68 percent of the conifer threat to Oregon’s sage grouse population on private land.
"By removing trees and saving vulnerable grasslands, we’re expanding the footprint of prime sage-grouse habitat while supporting sustainable ranching and working lands," Griffiths said.
But some have raised fears that the effort may not be enough. They point to the Gunnison sage grouse, which Fish and Wildlife in November 2014 listed as threatened under ESA.
The state of Colorado this week filed a federal lawsuit against the service, arguing the listing was not needed because the state and private landowners had partnered on habitat restoration that has resulted in increases to Gunnison grouse populations (see related story).
In the case of the greater sage grouse, however, the partnerships are working to save the bird, said Brian Rutledge, vice president and policy adviser for Audubon Rockies.
For one, Rutledge said that ranchers understand that protecting sage grouse helps to "ensure protection of the entire sagebrush ecosystem and the livelihoods of the folks who depend on it."
Bonnie echoed that sentiment in his statement.
"American ranchers are working with us to help sage grouse because they know they are helping an at-risk bird while also improving the food available for their livestock," he said. "As the saying goes, ‘What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.’"