USDA announces initiative to improve sage grouse conservation

Mar 19, 2010
by WLJ

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced a new initiative to protect sage grouse population and habitat in 11 western states using two popular USDA conservation programs—Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP).

“USDA will take bold steps to ensure the enhancement and preservation of sage grouse habitat and the sustainability of working ranches and farms in the western United States,” Vilsack said. “Our targeted approach will seek out projects that offer the highest potential for boosting sage grouse populations and enhancing habitat quality.”

USDA will use up to $16 million through EQIP and WHIP in the 11 states this fiscal year to provide financial assistance to producers to reduce threats to the birds such as disease and invasive species and improve sage grouse habitat. Producers can sign up through April 23 to participate in the first round of rankings for this initiative. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers EQIP and WHIP. Funding enhances the opportunity for USDA to strengthen its conservation commitment with state agencies responsible for managing sage grouse populations. USDA will also work with the Department of Interior (DOI) to provide certainty to landowners who enroll in NRCS programs to benefit sage grouse. This will protect landowners from increased regulation should the bird be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the future.

The sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird native to the sagebrush steppe ecosystem of the American West, has experienced a significant decline in population and habitat over several decades. Greater sage grouse are found in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The birds, found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to more than 9,000 feet, are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food.

USDA’s sage grouse initiative also will help the 11 western states respond proactively to a recent DOI announcement that the greater sage grouse warrants protection under the ESA; however, it will not be listed because of the need to focus on other higher priority species. Because of the DOI decision not to list the sage grouse, landowners will have additional time to be responsive by taking specific actions to protect the species. To that end, USDA has been working at the local, state and national levels on behalf of voluntary sage grouse conservation for many years and will intensify its efforts in the future.

For additional information about EQIP, please visit programs/eqip/ and for WHIP, please visit www. whip/. — WLJ