"What's good for the rancher is good for the grouse"


Last spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the greater sage grouse deserved listing under the Endangered Species Act, but declined to extend federal protections because resources were limited and other species were in more peril. At the time, the decision looked like the kind of politically savvy, centrist maneuver that has become an Obama administration hallmark.  State and local governments, ranchers, energy companies and other industry folks were happy because they had avoided the perceived "hammer" of onerous federal ESA regulation over a substantial chunk of the West, including land that has been unoccupied by grouse for some time. Conservationists, though disappointed, were pleased that the birds' plight -- its numbers have dropped 90 percent over the past century -- had finally received formal recognition.

As an added bonus, the FWS's finding that listing was "warranted but precluded" kept the chicken-sized bird on the candidate list for protection, where its case will be reviewed annually. What better way to motivate an aggressive, collaborative approach to bringing the birds' numbers back up to avoid federal "meddling" altogether?

Indeed, that seems to be exactly what's happening. Shortly after the FWS made its decision last March, the USDA announced that its National Resources Conservation Service would oversee a new Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) -- an effort to use existing conservation incentive programs to fund and facilitate sage grouse conservation on private lands, which host some 40 percent of remaining occupied grouse habitat. The program takes a "core areas" approach that sounds a lot like a region-wide version of Wyoming's grouse plan in that it focuses on preventing fragmentation and improving habitat in the approximately 25 percent of occupied grouse range that hosts 75 percent of the remaining population -- an area encompassing more than 50 million total acres in 11 Western states. Meanwhile, unoccupied historic range and places with heavily degraded habitat where there aren't many birds left take a back seat.

Map shows density of breeding grouse populations throughout the bird's occupied range (shown in dark blue). Red areas indicate 25 percent of the population, orange areas, 50 percent, yellow areas, 75 percent, and light blue areas, 100 percent. Courtesy, BLM.

"We're trying to implement enough of the right practices in the right locations to show a population level response," says Bozeman, Mont.-based National Sage Grouse Initiative Coordinator Tim Griffiths. That means relying on conservation measures that have been scientifically demonstrated to help grouse. Along these lines, last year, the agency leveraged some $18.5 million to help ranchers to:

-Improve grazing practices to increase grass and other cover on 640,000 acres to boost nest success, which is expected to increase affected grouse populations 8 to 10 percent.

-Remove or tag 180-miles of high-risk fencing near grouse breeding grounds -- preventing an estimated 800 to 1,000 annual bird collisions.

-Remove some 40,000 acres of encroaching conifers, which are thought to make habitat inhospitable for the birds.

-Reseed 11,000 acres of burned rangeland and marginal cropland to bring back grouse habitat.

This year, the NRCS is directing about $30 million towards such projects (click here to see amounts allocated to specific states). In addition, last week the agency announced it will dole out $23 million for conservation easements in threatened sage grouse core areas in three states. Wyoming will use its $17 million share to protect around 40,000 acres in the western part of the state, Montana plans to direct its $3.5 million chunk towards an easement on 23,000 acres in the northeastern portion of the state and Colorado will use its share to protect some 2,000 acres. The easements head off subdivision and tilling -- major contributors to grouse-habitat fragmentation. Preventing energy development -- another major grouse-habitat muncher -- is tougher, though, since many private parcels are severed from their mineral rights, forcing the agency to be choosy about where it invests.

Conservationists have reasonable reservations about the approach. The Center for Biological Diversity, for example, thinks the plan is a good start, but doesn't go far enough, reports the New York Times

 The sage grouse initiative “is voluntary,” (CBD biologist Noah) Greenwald said. “We hope the promises are kept, but things can fall through the cracks.” Neither, he said, does the plan protect sage grouse habitat on federal land damaged by energy development, and plans to protect the birds in those areas are not nearly as strong as an endangered designation would be. The group has sued to force listing of the bird so it receives full protection under the law.

But with a listing, counters Griffiths, it would be much harder to get buy-in from private landowners -- especially those suspicious of the federal government. Under the current incentive-based approach built around the idea that "what's good for the rancher is good for the grouse," though, "those doors are open." In fact, Griffiths adds, "our biggest criticism we get from ranchers is, 'Why isn't my place one of your critical areas?' "

Ultimately, of course, the proof of success can only be found in actual bumps in grouse population.

Several long-term studies are beginning or underway to monitor SGI's effects, Griffiths notes, but real results won't be available for several  years. Whatever they yield, though, future management efforts will be tailored accordingly, he says. "This is a truly a paradigm shift from reactive to very thoughtful, proactive applied science."

Sarah Gilman is HCN's associate editor

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