NRCS provides sage grouse habitat funding

News
Mar 26, 2010
by WLJ
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Colorado landowners within several Western Slope counties are encouraged to visit with their local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field office and inquire about developing a conservation plan that when implemented will help reduce the threats to the sage grouse. USDA’s NRCS is now accepting applications until April 23, 2010, into the new sage grouse initiative. NRCS will utilize its Environmental Quality Incentive’s Program (EQIP) and Wildlife Habitat Incentive’s Program (WHIP) to implement the initiative and although a conservation plan isn’t required for enrollment, all applications which include an NRCS approved conservation plan will receive priority status for enrollment consideration.

This national initiative affords landowners the specific opportunity to help mitigate invasive species and the deterioration of the sage grouse habitat by targeting specific conservation practices including upland wildlife habitat management. This is the implementation of a grazing system that maintains feed and forage for livestock while protecting the sage grouse.

Other practices include water and spring developments or wet area—these areas attract forbs and insects that are critical to sage grouse “chick” growth and development—as well as the installation of fences with increased visibility to the grouse, water facilities complete with escape ramps, and brush management to help control pinion juniper encroachment ontosage brush grassland.

Colorado is one of the 11 states slated for an allocation of the more than $16 million recently made available by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and landowners within the following Colorado counties are eligible for enrollment: Moffat, Delta, Eagle, Garfield, Mesa, Gunnison, Grand, Summit, Rio Blanco, Montrose, Routt, Jackson, Saguache, San Miguel, and Dolores.

“This initiative has numerous benefits,” states Tim Carney, NRCS assistant state conservationist for programs, Lakewood, CO. “In addition to the increased funding to help protect some of our greatest natural resources, nationally, this initiative was developed in a collaborative fashion between USDA and the Department of Interior (DOI). We will also implement the initiative in partnership with state and local entities such as Colorado’s Division of Wildlife and Colorado’s local Conservation Districts. This can only strengthen the opportunity for the initiative’s success.”

The sage grouse is a ground-dwelling bird native to the sagebrush steppe ecosystem of the American West. They are found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to over 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food.

Over the decades, they have experienced a significant decline in population and habitat, yet due to other overwhelming priorities, DOI has yet to announce it as an endangered species.

“DOI recognizes that the greater sage grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA); however, it will not be listed because of the need to focus on other higher priority species,” states Terri Sage, NRCS state biologist, Lakewood, CO. “That’s why the communication and partnership between the two departments, state wildlife agencies and local entities is critical. We all must adhere to our individual priorities, but that does not prevent us from working together to get other things done that need our attention.”

Other benefits of this initiative lie within its proactive nature. Because of the DOI decision not to currently list the sage grouse, landowners will have time to be responsive by taking specific actions to protect the species. This will prove quite beneficial if DOI eventually decides to list the sage grouse as an endangered species. USDA will work with 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 ESA in the future.

“This initiative by no means marks the beginning of our work to conserve sage grouse habitat in Colorado,” Sage goes on to say. “We have been working to that end for a number of years now. NRCS in Colorado has been working at the local and state levels with landowners who voluntary conserve sage grouse habitat and this effort will only intensify our ongoing voluntary conservation activities.”

NRCS’ WHIP program is a voluntary conservation program for people who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat on private lands.

It provides both technical and financial assistance to help establish and improve wildlife habitat. EQIP is a voluntary conservation program which offers farmers and ranchers a tool to address natural resource concerns while achieving the environmental benefits which also provide both technical and financial assistance to help landowners reach natural resources goals.

For additional information about the sage grouse initiative and how to apply, please visit www.co.nrcs. usda.gov. — WLJ

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