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


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