Wildlife on working lands get a leg up


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

Rural landowners in the West, and in several states back East, just got a big incentive to protect seven vulnerable species on their property.

Working Lands for Wildlife, a new partnership between the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was announced last week.

The program aims to dole out $33 million to ranchers, farmers and forest landowners who sign on to restore high-priority habitats for the greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, New England cottontail and Southwestern Willow flycatcher.

The money is being channeled from the Wildlife Habitats Incentives Program, which is offered under the 2008 Farm Bill. There is a total of $2 billion worth of conservation programs in the bill, which is set to expire this fall. The Senate Agriculture Committee is in the midst of hearings on the next farm bill but progress has been slow in confirming which programs will be funded going forward and which ones will get the ax.

Working Lands for Wildlife shares the cost of conservation, offers technical expertise, and assures private landowners who make the effort to protect any of those seven species that they will not be penalized if the actions they take are unsuccessful. They are also promised “regulatory certainty” that no further conservation requirements will be imposed on them, should the species later land on the endangered species list.

This last point is particularly appealing to landowners in Western states who may have flycatchers, prairie chickens or sage grouse on their acreage. The latter two species have been the focus of some legal and political smack-downs in recent years as they inch toward federal protection.

Working lands priority areas map draft courtesy NRCS.

The survival of the greater sage grouse, which lives in 11 Western states, depends upon conserving large, unbroken blocks of sagebrush habitat on private and public land which is also, unfortunately, prime grazing land for stock.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found itself in hot water recently when a federal court in Idaho held that the agency violated environmental laws and policies when it approved status quo grazing. The BLM flouted the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the Fundamentals of Rangeland Health, said the court and, when it comes to the sage grouse, “it is grazing that must yield.” (Similar cases challenging grazing on U.S. Forest Service land are currently pending.)

In an effort, in part, to avoid an Endangered Species Act designation for the grouse, the BLM is in the throes of a landmark planning effort to protect and to recover it. The plan now includes 20 national forests and grasslands and interest in expanding the area has been so strong that the public comment period was extended through March 23.

Launching this program now was wise for several reasons. First, 75 percent of all species federally listed as threatened or endangered exist, at least in part, on privately-owned land. Second, by focusing on working farms and ranches, this appropriation takes some of the momentum out of the popular accusation that conservation oppresses small business owners. It may, for that reason, have a chance of surviving budget cuts.

Third, the initiative is an expansion of a similar effort that was launched last year, targeting the sage grouse in particular, that has been largely successful. Over those 11 states that the grouse dwells, ranchers have used brush management and prescribed grazing to boost cover for nesting birds on 1.3 million acres of sagebrush. Those efforts alone are projected to increase the grouse population by 8 to 10 percent. If Working Lands for Wildlife improves the condition of those seven starter species, the agencies plan to expand it to include others. 

The drawbacks of the plan are two-fold. Focusing on private land may shift the conservation focus away from the incendiary subject of grazing (not to mention energy development) on public land, and how it impacts sensitive wildlife.

The BLM, which lords over roughly 245 million acres of public lands, manages livestock grazing on 157 million acres of that. Nearly 18,000 permits and leases, which are often valid for 10 years, have been sold to ranchers who graze mostly sheep and cattle. By some estimates, livestock grazing overlaps almost exactly (91 percent) with the sage grouse’s current habitat on federal land. And, in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, a quarter of the hen’s habitat lies within a few miles of oil or natural gas development.

The second problem is that federal conservation funds are ever dwindling and, given the magnitude of the threats to species by private use of public land, could those Working Lands for Wildlife funds be better spent? Perhaps buying out permits and leases from livestock and energy developers willing to abandon their claims on public lands would get wildlife more bang for the buck in the long run.

Speaking at the Conference on Conservation last week, where he emphasized the importance of community-driven preservation efforts, President Obama quoted the philosophical environmentalist, Aldo Leopold. “Conservation is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution,” he said. Whatever the right answers are to wildlife preservation, it’s clear at least that the status quo is not working. Instead, minds must open and creative solutions to species decline must be found.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of Southwest Willow flycatcher nest courtesy USGS


Tom Darnell
Tom Darnell Subscriber
Mar 13, 2012 11:19 AM
Why should farmers and ranchers be paid by these programs? Aren't they, in their own words, the "original stewards of the land"? The promise of "regulatory certainty" should be enough incentive for them to do what is right by the land and its resources. If they continue to get these funds they should be required to allow access to public lands.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Mar 13, 2012 11:32 AM
Hi Tom, Heather is out for much of the week so I'll give a bit of a response. While it might be our collective desire that people who own working lands to be the "original stewards," as you say, they also are in many cases attempting to make a living off these lands. And there are varying pressures involved in making a living that may discourage farmers and ranchers from taking the actions that protect species. Sky high agricultural commodity prices, for example, encourage ranchers and farmers to plow up native grassland that might otherwise host species like sage grouse and prairie chicken. And of course they are entitled to do this; it's their land, after all, and their responsibility as a business owner to make a living off that land. As Heather notes, however, a lot of these imperiled species exist on private land, and so this federal program ideally provides an a financial incentive to landowners that counters other economic factors pressuring them to make changes to the land that hurt wildlife rather than benefit them. And, it's targeted in key areas, which seems to indicate the government is trying to spend these taxpayer dollars wisely with maximum benefit. -- Stephanie P Ogburn, online editor.
Tom Darnell
Tom Darnell Subscriber
Mar 13, 2012 11:44 AM
Stephanie-If it wasn't for farm subsidies you wouldn't see wheat fields surrounded by sage brush and prickly pear cactus. Many counties in my state pay our Federal disaster payments one out of two years. Its called "farming the system". I believe grazing leases on public lands should more closely parallel those on private lands.If they did a portion of the funds collected could be used to improve the land. Don't forget that we are paying for CRP and the landowners are able to rent out the land to hunters etc for additional dollars. Do they put some of this additional money back to improve the resources?
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Mar 13, 2012 11:56 AM
Tom, I agree with you that subsidies like crop insurance and disaster payments can work at cross purposes to programs like this. That said, crop insurance and disaster payments and the ethanol mandate and other government policies that encourage plowups or "farming the system" are not going away any time soon. I suppose the question is: Is it worthwhile to spend some taxpayer dollars on programs that counter the damage caused by other government-created incentives? This question is applicable well beyond the farming and ranching community. It is incumbent upon journalists to point out that many times these incentive programs (even in the same Farm Bill, in this case) run at cross purposes (see my latest piece in HCN, which will be released 3/19/12), but even while reporting on what seems like such a silly mashup of policies working against each other, I have not come to the belief that simply because one policy you or I might value works at cross purposes to one you or I do not, that the first policy is not useful. In fact, perhaps it is more useful because it fights against the tide, and in the meantime journalists and others do the work of pointing out the discrepancies in USDA (and other) programs in hopes of bigger picture progress in the long term. - Stephanie
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Mar 13, 2012 02:24 PM
In general, I support the idea of helping working landscapes become better habitat for wildlife, particularly T&E species. In part that's because the paradigm in the U.S. about who 'owns' wildlife is that it is a social good, not a private one. Hence it seems reasonable to help cover the costs incurred by private landowners when they are trying to accomplish a social good.

Certainly we could get off into a discussion about the relative values of social versus private goods when it comes to land management and certainly the ethical standards of land management are important, but many of the activities that directly benefit the T&E species come at a cost to the private landowner. It would only seem fair that society helps pay for what it deems important.

And just as an ending point, this doesn't mean I think all farm subsidies are valuable to society as a whole -- many are the same sorts of bureaucratic payoffs to wealthy donors in Agri-business that we see in the petrochemical industry.
Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye Subscriber
Mar 13, 2012 03:03 PM
Please don't suggest dropping a program that has done a great deal of good. I live in eastern Montana, about 5 miles from a sage-grouse study area. Because of the incentives offered, most ranchers were willing to sign up and make changes in the way they graze and water their cattle (and those changes do cost them real dollars.) The biologists involved in the study are good ambassadors for wildlife, and are helping to change the ranching culture. We can work on improving less desirable programs without throwing out the good ones, can't we?
Tom Darnell
Tom Darnell Subscriber
Mar 14, 2012 06:35 PM
Wendy, It is in the best interest of farmers and ranchers to make changes on their own to protect and improve sage grouse habitat to keep sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). I don't believe though that taxpayers need to foot the bill as taxpayers have not negatively impacted sage grouse populations. What will it cost farmers and ranchers if sage grouse are listed under the ESA? No doubt a lot more than acting proactively. Unfortunately many farmers and ranchers see their Federal payments as an entitlement and can rationalize till the cows come home on why they "deserve" them. Farmers and ranchers have the advantage of being well organized and have access to their US Senators and Representatives on a regular basis. I am relegated to sending emails, regarding the 2010 Farm Bill, to my US Senators and Representative, which they probably never see or read. I usually get a "canned" response, no doubt composed and sent by a staffer. I note that you recommend improving less desirable programs. I believe most should be totally eliminated from the Federal budget. Are you aware that in FY 2011 $864,860,399 from US taxpayers was obligated for EQIP or that from 1995 to 2010 US taxpayers paid out $261.9 billion in farm subsidies? Why should the Cottonwood Hunt Club in Kentucky receive, from 1995 to 2010, $13.2 million from US taxpayers. I doubt that I could hunt there even if I wanted to. With billions of dollars involved come the cheaters, too. These programs are not necessary and we can no long afford to continually pay them, especially when cattle and crop prices are very high. Also are you aware of the county committee and how they operate? The good old boys looking out for the good old boys.