Why consider enrolling in the Sage Grouse Initiative? You might ask a neighboring rancher who’s already signed up, visit a ranch, or stop in your local NRCS office to find out more.
The Sage Grouse Initiative applies Farm Bill dollars and certifies conservation projects in the core areas for sage grouse with a dual goal of sustaining rangelands and sage grouse. In addition to directing dollars to private lands where 40 percent of sage grouse live, SGI dollars can be applied on public lands where ranchers have grazing leases.
Often, you’ll hear landowners saying they don’t want the sage grouse to be listed under the ESA, and it’s better to take action now while we have time to avoid costly regulations and limits on activities. They also tell us that they like wildlife and that it’s great to see that the improvements on their ranch are good for grouse, good for rangelands, and help them to keep their operations going, instead of subdividing or developing to make ends meet.
Here are the three main benefits we’ve heard from chatting with some of the landowners involved—more than 700 so far in 11 western states: good for the bottom line, certainty, and leaving a legacy.
ONE: Good for the Bottom Line
There are several ways SGI funds are helping ranchers improve their bottom line. The NRCS and our SGI rangeland conservationists work closely with enrolled ranchers to customize plans that work for them and for wildlife.
When forage is in terrific shape for sage grouse and other wildlife, it’s also great for putting more pounds on livestock that translates into higher prices in the market. How do you do that? Here are two examples.
It’s costly to cut junipers that are invading historic sagebrush-steppe and taking away habitat and good native bunchgrass and shrub lands. SGI dollars are making a huge difference on private and public lands alike.
John O’Keeffe rancher from the tiny community of Adel, Oregon, told us that funds from SGI to cut junipers have made a critical difference in the financial outlook for the ranch. They’re no longer watching their grazing lands dwindle and fighting a losing battle. He tells us, “It’s been great to see and it’s set us up to leave this land in a lot better shape than we found it and to pass that on to the next generation.”
Often, ranchers would like to rest more parts of their ranch from seasonal grazing so the bunchgrasses and shrubs can come back vigorously. However, it takes money to add fencing or to put in a water development to move cattle away from one area to another.
SGI dollars can help pay for the very same things ranchers would like to do in the first place for their bottom line.
Meanwhile, sage grouse win too. Sage grouse hens can be much safer nesting and hiding in sagebrush-steppe with tall grasses left from the last season. When cattle can use water developments in another part of the ranch, there’s more space for grazing and the pressure is taken off of existing wet meadows and riparian areas that are important feeding and water areas for growing sage grouse chicks.
TWO: Predictability (Certainty)
“The certainty agreement of 2012 gives 30 years worth of assurance to producers that they can continue their approved practices. I’ve wanted to see that for a long time. I give the NRCS credit for this historic action.”
– Doug Busselman, executive vice president, Nevada Farm Bureau.
In 2012, the US Fish & Wildlife Service agreed to give 30 years worth of assurance to participating SGI ranchers that they can continue their approved practices for sage grouse conservation, whether the species is listed or not. That’s a relief to ranchers who like to make their own decisions, rather than taking orders from the top.
If your ranch is already following practices that are good for the birds, like resting pastures to have tall residual grasses and sagebrush for nesting, then all you may need to do is to enroll in SGI for a whole ranch inventory and certification. If that inventory shows places where some improvements could be made, then SGI helps to fund them. That means you could get the help you need for removing juniper or adding some fencing to rest a pasture from grazing.
THREE: Leaving a Legacy
“We have a soft spot for our land and keeping it in its natural state. This will help us stay on the land.”
– Lee Cook, Idaho rancher near Carey, Idaho and part of of the Pioneers Alliance, speaking about why conservation easements are helping his family ranch.
Sage grouse and ranchers both need vast, big lands the size of multiple townships to flourish. Both birds and landowners often require private and adjacent public lands to make it financially.
When times are tough and land prices go up, ranchers sometimes have to face a tough decision. Do they sell off pieces of land for subdivision to pay the bills but then lessen their chances of passing on an intact ranch to their children?
Conservation easements, voluntary agreements to restrict development in return for cash or tax incentives, are providing a bright alternative. SGI teams up with local land trusts and other partners to do their part to pass on a legacy.