PRAIRIE GROUSE -- Ranchers could get some help in modifying operations to steer sage grouse off a course toward endangered species protections.
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture recently announced it will invest $40 million in FY 2016 to help ranchers and other partners restore and protect sagebrush habitat for greater sage grouse in 11 western states.
The investment in conserving privately-owned land is part of USDA’s four-year, $211 million Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0 through the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership. The WLFW partnership uses seven focus species, including sage grouse, to steer public and private conservation investments that improve struggling landscapes and strengthen agricultural operations.
Here's more background from the Sage Grouse Initiative.
“The decisions of agricultural producers have powerful impacts on wildlife and the long-term health of their own land, and the partnerships formed through our Working Lands for Wildlife initiative have had proven success for bringing back several of America’s native species,” Vilsack said. “By managing ranches with sage grouse and other wildlife in mind, producers also strengthen their own operations, boost resilience and increase agricultural yields.”
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) uses the Sage Grouse Initiative to build on the success of $296.5 million invested with farmers and ranchers in 11 Western States for sage grouse habitat conservation from 2010-2014. The assistance helps ranchers enhance sagebrush habitat by making conservation improvements, like removal of invading conifers and invasive grasses that also improve grazing operations. The partnership also helps ranchers protect other critical habitat, such as wet meadows, by enrolling land into voluntary conservation easements.
Conservation efforts on private lands work. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined in September 2015 that the sage grouse population was healthy enough that it did not warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—the result of the unprecedented collaboration in public and private rangeland restoration.
Since 2010, ranchers and other private conservation partners participating in the Sage Grouse Initiative have restored and improved 4.4 million acres, benefitting not just the sage grouse, but 350 wildlife species that call the sagebrush landscape their home. Recent data show two sagebrush songbirds that share habitat with sage grouse also saw population increases following restoration activities. One of the birds, the green-tailed towhee, experienced an 81 percent population increase.
In addition to the Sage Grouse Initiative, Vilsack also announced more than $10 million available in 2016 to support six other WLFW initiatives for focus species across the country including the New England cottontail, southwestern willow flycatcher, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, bog turtle and lesser prairie-chicken.
In September 2015, FWS also announced ESA protections were not warranted for the New England cottontail, in part because of large-scale restoration of young forests on private lands with NRCS assistance. In Louisiana WLFW has helped landowners restore forested wetlands, the driving force behind the proposed delisting of the Louisiana black bear as an endangered species. In Oregon, stream restoration work on private lands led to the delisting of the Oregon chub, the first fish in the history of the ESA to recover and be delisted.
Funding for WLFW comes from two 2014 Farm Bill programs that accelerate conservation efforts to benefit wildlife populations by conserving entire landscapes, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. The Conservation Stewardship Programprovides additional opportunities for producers wanting to restore sagebrush and prairie habitat for sage grouse and prairie chicken.
By participating in WLFW, land managers also gain greater predictability under the ESA. Once enrolled, they may continue implementing their conservation actions without fear of additional regulations.
NRCS financial assistance covers part of the cost to implement conservation practices. Interested landowners are encouraged to contact their local USDA