Agreement reached in sage-grouse habitat plan

Cattle and Beef Industry News
Jun 30, 2014

The Obama administration has made plans to spend $31 million through 2024 to boost sage-grouse protection by helping ranchers and other landowners to improve habitat along the California-Nevada borders. Stakeholders in the plan are hopeful that this will keep the sage-grouse off the endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates there are only about 5,000 of the birds left.

USDA will provide up to $25.5 million of conservation investments over the next five to 10 years as part of its contribution to delivering the federal, state and local 2012 Bi-State Action Plan, a conservation strategy that will benefit the sage-grouse population in both Nevada and California. The plan, sanctioned by the US- FWS, aims to focus resources on cost effective and efficient solutions that could avert the need to list the bi-state population as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

“With proactive conservation investments, we’re helping farmers and ranchers who are improving habitat through voluntary efforts to stabilize this population of sage-grouse,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Through action such as this, along with the support of our partners, we can help secure this species’ future and maintain our vibrant western economies.”

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will provide $6.5 million over the next 10 years to implement a wide range of priority conservation activities on the public lands it manages to improve sage-grouse habitat. The BLM is coordinating with the U.S. Forest Service to amend resource management plans that will include standards and guidelines designed to conserve and enhance sagegrouse habitat.

“We have made it a high priority to engage in voluntary partnership with ranchers, farmers and other landowners to conserve the wildlife and habitat that are so important to our heritage and way of life,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “I applaud the NRCS, USFS and the BLM for their very significant commitments, which will help provide certainty that important conservation actions in key areas of the bird’s habitat will continue to be implemented. Together, we can make our landscapes work for both agriculture and the bi-state sage-grouse.”

The U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), both USDA agencies, are leading the Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI) and will have the means to fully carry out conservation practices and policy changes agreed upon by the Bi-State Local Area Working Group in its action plan.

The announcement comes at the conclusion of an extended public comment period on the USFWS proposal to federally list the bi-state population of greater sagegrouse as a threatened species. A final decision on the proposal is expected by April 28, 2015.

Last October, USFWS proposed protecting the sagegrouse in a 1.8 million acre area along the Nevada-California line, raising concerns for ranchers not only in the two states, but also surrounding states. While the bi-state population is its own area, the remaining population is also under consideration for protection. USFWS is expected to make a decision in late 2015 on whether greater sage-grouse also warrant protection. This announcement has boosted hope that similar agreements could be reached in the other nine states that the grouse calls home.

Since 2010, USDA has funded $27.5 million of conservation efforts, primarily through working with farmers, ranchers and other land managers in on-the-ground projects that address critical threats identified in the action plan. Conservation easements on private lands are keeping working ranches intact that provide important wetlands for growing sage-grouse broods. Removal of conifers that have invaded sagebrush-steppe is restoring sage-grouse habitat on private and public lands.

The Bi-State Executive Oversight Committee estimates it will cost about $38 million more to fully implement the remaining priority actions identified in the action plan for California and Nevada. The U.S. Forest Service and NRCS will provide over 80 percent of that estimated need under the new agreement with a focus on high impactful projects.

The SGI teams up with partners in 11 western states to achieve wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching. From 2010 to 2013, the initiative enrolled more than 950 ranches and conserved 6,000 square miles through NRCS investments of $247 million that generated $107 million in partners’ matching funds for a total of $354 million of onthe-ground sage-grouse conservation. The findings suggest that Wyoming’s strategy, combined with targeted conservation easements on private lands, could cut anticipated sage-grouse losses by half statewide, and by nearly two thirds within core habitat areas.

“Our study shows that the state’s core area policy combined with $250 million worth of targeted conservation easements can cut anticipated losses by roughly half statewide and nearly 62 percent within sage-grouse core breeding areas,” said Holly Copeland, of The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming and lead author.

University study

In June, the SGI released the third in its Science to Solutions series, this one a partnership project with The Nature Conservancy. The first two focused on fencemarking and conifer removal, based on published science. The last four-page publication took a closer look at published research with high applicability to the future of sage-grouse rangewide, called “Predicting the Outcome of Wyoming’s Sagegrouse Conservation Strategy.”

Wyoming supports nearly 40 percent of the world’s sage-grouse population, yet much of the state’s sagebrush habitat is undergoing rapid transformation for energy and residential development. In 2008, the state enacted a proactive “core area” strategy to balance conservation with development.

Hunters´ role

Over the last 10-15 years, state wildlife agencies have been managing sage-grouse harvest more conservatively, because of what they call a declining population on the open range. Hunters have seen shrinking harvest numbers and complete closures in most states, including in parts of Wyoming and Idaho and all of North and South Dakota.

Ed Arnett, Ph.D., wildlife biologist and Director of the Center for Responsible Energy Development of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, believes hunters also play a role in healthy sage-grouse management.

“If we close hunting seasons, we lose a group of strong advocates for the species and further erode efforts to conserve sage-grouse, pos-

Senior-level buyers from some of the top red meat importers in China and Hong Kong toured the heartland of America with the U.S. Meat sibly moving the bird towards listing under the Endangered Species Act. This in turn would mean the states could lose control of managing the greater sagegrouse as a game bird if it is listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the not so distant future,” Arnett wrote in an op-ed piece in Outdoor Life.

“The path forward is through solid conservation plans developed cooperatively by both the states and federal agencies that will assure effective conservation measures to provide abundant, sustainable populations of sage-grouse while balancing energy, livestock grazing, and other uses of the land. All stakeholders and decision-makers must be part of the solution if we to succeed in conserving sage-grouse, avoiding the need for the bird to be listed, and preserving our western economy and outdoor traditions,” Arnett added.

In Montana, the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission voted on closing or significantly reducing the states fall sage-grouse hunt.

Hunters and conservation groups spoke out against the hunting closure while livestock groups advocated for hunting restrictions. A final decision on the fate of this fall’s season, which was set to open Sept. 1, will be made at the commission’s July meeting.

To view the bi-state letter and detailed implementation plans for bi-state sagegrouse conservation, please visit: http://www.nrcs.usda. gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail full/national/programs/ initiatives/?cid=stelde vb1027671 — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor