USDA funds sage grouse protection

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Sep 13, 2004
by WLJ
USDA recently offered up $2 million to help private land owners, including ranchers, in four Western states protect the habitat of the sage grouse.
The bird, about the size of chicken, has seen its numbers thin as its territory gets crowded by homes, cattle, and oil, and natural gas wells.
The money will be available under the Grassland Reserve Program, which gives ranchers and farmers dollars and technical help in protecting grassland and shrubland. Those areas include the sagebrush where the birds live.
The funding might help protect tens of thousands of acres, said Bruce Knight, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. It's "a small slice of money" but a step in the right direction, Knight said.
USDA said sage grouse numbers had fallen by 90 percent in 20 years. Estimates of the current population vary but generally range from around 140,000 birds to 250,000 or more. Experts say there were as many as two million when in the early 19th century, when Lewis and Clark explored the West.
Environmental groups have asked the Interior Department to place the birds on its endangered species list. Doing so could sharply restrict use of 770,000 square miles in 11 states where the birds live. About 28 percent of possible targeted acres are said to be privately owned.
They were skeptical about how much can be done for the sage grouse with the $500,000 that Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Washington will each get to encourage private voluntary efforts.
"This is going to be a token amount in terms of actually causing change on the ground," said Peter Aengst, an energy policy analyst for The Wilderness Society in Bozeman, MT.
He said stronger government action is needed, such as protecting nesting areas in spring and summer so loud noises from oil and gas wells do not frighten the birds away from their eggs.
However, Jim Sims, a vice president of Partnership for the West, a business group in Denver, praised the program. "Encouraging conservation on private land is a hard thing to do," he said. — WLJ