New reform encourages wildlife habitat conservations
A new partnership and agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) allows farmers, ranchers and forest owners who abide by wildlife conservation practices to protect their land and operations from government interference.
The announcement builds upon NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) initiative in which land owners voluntarily implement proven conservation practices to protect certain threatened wildlife species, including several species found in Colorado, such as the greater sage grouse, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, and the lesser prairie-chicken.
Through this new agreement, private landowners who sign contracts to improve habitat for these species will now be given 30 years of assurance that, provided they live up to the provisions outlined in the contract, they will not have to change their operations, even if FWS scientists later decide listing one of those species under the Endangered Species Act is warranted.
“This change is a huge victory for private landowners in rural Colorado who are worried that, despite their best efforts to conserve certain species today, the federal government might come in and ask them to change or curtail their operations in the future,” Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said. “This reform removes that concern and gives Colorado farmers and ranchers the peace of mind they deserve.”
NRCS Chief Dave White and FWS Director Dan Ashe announced the original WLFW initiative mid-September. That agreement also provides long-term regulatory predictability for up to 30 years to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners participating in the program.
Participants voluntarily implement proven conservation practices designed to protect wildlife habitat, including several at risk species and vulnerable game species on private lands.
“This agreement will change the way we manage at-risk species on private lands,” White said. “It will provide landowners with a mechanism to keep working lands in production while complying with the Endangered Species Act, and will facilitate restoration of habitat for at-risk species. It also will help farmers, ranchers and forest landowners rest a little easier knowing their operations are protected for the long term and that they are contributing to conserving vital natural resources.”
The agreement builds on a $33 million investment NRCS announced last spring dedicated toward producers who develop and implement conservation plans to manage and restore high-priority habitats for seven specific wildlife species across the country. The species are greater sage-grouse, New England cottontail, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, lesser prairie-chicken and the Southwestern willow flycatcher. NRCS, FWS and numerous state and local entities are partnering to implement WLFW.
“This important partnership underscores the outstanding conservation stewardship provided by America’s farmers and ranchers across the country,” Ashe said. “It is a clear example of the compatibility of working landscapes and species conservation. We are pleased to be able to support this creative partnership that provides predictability to landowners who volunteer to implement conservation practices that benefit wildlife.”
Under the WLFW partnership, federal, state and wildlife experts jointly identified at-risk or listed species that would benefit from targeted habitat restoration investments on private lands. Using the best available science, these wildlife experts prioritized restoration actions on a large regional scale to focus assistance most cost effectively. The federal government will grant farmers, ranchers and forest landowners regulatory predictability in return for voluntarily making wildlife habitat improvements on their private agricultural and forest lands. Participating producers must adhere to the requirements of each conservation practice during the term of their contract, which can last from one to 15 years. If landowners would like to receive regulatory predictability for up to 30 years, they must maintain the conservation practices as outlined in the NRCS and FWS agreement.
Currently, Colorado producers across the state have enrolled 114,000 acres in conservation programs that stand to benefit from this agreement. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor