1,800 Ranchers and Counting!
December 18, 2018
The future is bright for conserving western working landscapes
As 2018 comes to a close, the Sage Grouse Initiative caught up with Tim Griffiths, NRCS’s Western Working Lands for Wildlife Coordinator, for a glance back and a peek ahead. Read on to learn how partners are making sagebrush rangelands more resilient for people and wildlife!
Can you first tell us about your role with the Sage Grouse Initiative?
Sure thing. I work for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and helped NRCS and partners develop and launch SGI back in 2010. Our goal was simple. We wanted to find win-win solutions to threats impacting western rangelands. That meant strategically focusing conservation efforts to benefit sage grouse, other wildlife, and the ranchers who take care of—and depend on—these rangelands.
I served as SGI’s coordinator for six years, and was very fortunate to have a hand in shaping the three prongs of this landscape-scale effort: 1) shared capacity for conservation field staff who work with ranchers, 2) communication strategies that relay the success stories, and 3) co-produced science that helps target investments and track outcomes. I also served on several inter-agency committees to ensure SGI’s resources were leveraging and complementing the work of our partners.
What is your relationship with Working Lands for Wildlife?
About three years ago, I became the western coordinator for Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) and began working with additional partners to help transfer the concepts and lessons learned through SGI to conserve other landscapes.
WLFW has proven very popular with private landowners.Through this cooperative effort, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners protect and improve agricultural lands that are also prime wildlife habitat.
These Farm Bill-funded projects have increased ag productivity and helped many imperiled species rebound and recover—from birds and rabbits to turtles and fish. I’m excited to report that WLFW has been recognized nationally and internationally as a successful model for species conservation.
Today, more than 6,000 producers participate. Together we have conserved 9.2 million acres of working landscapes across all 50 states!
Can you describe how Working Lands for Wildlife looks on the ground?
We work with landowners across the country on everything from establishing sustainable grazing systems, to improving fish passage, to restoring healthy forests.
Although the types of projects developed through WLFW vary, each has a primary goal of conserving working landscapes in a way that meets the needs of both people and wildlife. Or, as we like to say at SGI, the projects provide win-win solutions that “benefit the bird and the herd”.
As one of the longest-running and the largest initiative within WLFW, SGI is often used as the national ‘proof of concept’ to demonstrate the outcomes that can be achieved though voluntary conservation. That’s pretty cool.
What has SGI accomplished over the past 9 years?
Since 2010, SGI has ‘neighbored up’ with more than 1,800 ranchers to conserve over 7 million acres of sagebrush rangelands. To put that in perspective, that’s bigger than the entire state of Vermont. You can literally see the results from space!
Cooperative partnerships are the foundation for SGI’s success on the range—we couldn’t have done all of this without the dedication of hundreds of conservation professionals and thousands of landowners, all rallied around a shared vision of achieving world class wildlife through sustainable agriculture.
We believe that people are key to healthy rangelands and SGI continues to dedicate time and resources to building trust, bringing on new partners, and keeping field staff in rural communities to help conserve America’s vast sagebrush country.
Participation in SGI continues to grow on a very consistent basis. We just enrolled a comparable amount of new acres in 2018 as we did in 2010.
Will SGI continue working to conserve sagebrush country in the future?
Without a doubt! We’re in this for the long haul, and are excited about the opportunities moving forward.
Rangelands are a very large and important component of western landscapes. They provide the lifeblood for many of our rural communities and economies. Simply put, if we want a bright future, we have no choice but to conserve these working landscapes.
As SGI has shown, conservation in the West equals profitable agriculture and productive ecosystems. Increasing rangeland resiliency also makes good sense for the other 350 species that rely on healthy sagebrush habitat.
Through WLFW, SGI will continue to strategically implement Farm Bill resources to deliver effective conservation solutions on these important landscapes. We’re also working with partners on much broader opportunities to conserve additional western rangelands—prairie, grassland, and sagebrush—ensuring that benefits extend across fence lines, entire watersheds, and even span across several states.
What changes are in store for the new year?
We’re in the process of making some exciting staffing changes that will further increase our abilities to conserve rangelands not only in sage grouse range but across the West.
We’re very excited to announce the hiring of Greg Peters as our brand new Western Working Lands for Wildlife Communications Coordinator! Greg will be helping us deliver broader private land conservation success stories by linking several landscape-related WLFW efforts together. He will coordinate communications focused on conserving habitat for sage grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, and the southwestern willow flycatcher. Welcome aboard, Greg!
Brianna Randall, who has done an exceptional job as SGI’s full-time communications lead for the past four years, will transition to a new part-time role as our dedicated WLFW storyteller. Brianna will write about the people and projects making a difference across all western grazing lands. By working closely with Greg and our incredible NRCS public affairs team and partners, these stories will keep working lands conservation featured in the mainstream.
Thad Heater, who has been an awesome SGI coordinator since 2015, is shifting to a slightly broader role within NRCS as he moves to the new Conservation Outcomes branch. Thad will remain heavily involved with SGI, but will also lend a hand with other outcome-based efforts such as the conservation of grazing lands in the southern Great Plains.
My position has also shifted, as I now work in the new Area-Wide Planning branch. Like the others mentioned before, I too will be focused on continuing the great conservation work associated with the broader western WLFW priorities, and I will also reassume day-to-day coordination of SGI.
In addition to staff changes, we also plan to continue rolling out new innovations like the Rangeland Analysis Platform across the entire West. These free online mapping tools provide resource managers and landowners access to cutting-edge information that helps prioritize and plan projects, ensuring we put conservation dollars where they’re needed most.
The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.