Ask an Expert | Mitch Faulkner, 2020 Rangeland Management Specialist of the Year, Talks Partnerships and More

May 27, 2020

Staff from various agencies and NGOs gather during a mesic restoration workshop and field tour in South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Maestas, NRCS/SGI.

Belle Fourche is considered the geographic center of the U.S. Photo Wikipedia.

Belle Fourche, South Dakota is, and has pretty much always been, a ranching town. Located in west-central South Dakota, it’s also a northern gateway town to the stunning Black Hills. The vast northern plains extend both east and west from Belle Fourche, placing it in some productive, but rugged country.

In places like Belle Fourche, partnerships are as common as spring thunderstorms. Some partnerships are simple, neighbors helping neighbors mend a fence or clear out an irrigation ditch, others are more complicated.

For Mitch Faulkner, the USDA-NRCS’s Rangeland Management Specialist based in Belle Fourche, partnerships have proven key to the successful conservation efforts he has helped implement across the range, efforts that benefit sage grouse and producers.

We sat down with Mitch to learn more about the unique partnerships that have helped make his conservation efforts so successful and helped him win the 2020 NRCS Rangeland Management Specialist of the Year Award, presented at the Society for Range Management’s Annual Conference in Denver.

Will you tell us a bit about the area where you work?

Belle Fourche is in the far western part of South Dakota, just north of the Black Hills and close to both Wyoming and Montana. It’s a rural place where families have managed ranches for generations. There’s a lot of private land but there’s also a fair bit of BLM land and the Black Hills National Forest is about 15 miles south of town. While much of the landscape is working ranches, there’s still a lot of wildlife here, including sage grouse.

You just won the 2020 Rangeland Management Specialist of the Year award. Congratulations. Is there a particular project or set of projects that you’re especially proud of?

Thanks. It was an honor to be sure, but I can’t really take the credit myself. My work is enabled by an incredible set of partners that have been working in this area for a decade or so. If I had to highlight some of our recent work, I would point to the riparian and mesic restoration work we’re working on now; it’s pretty exciting.

Mitch Faulkner, center, accepts the Rangeland Management Specialist of the Year award at the Society for Range Management Conference in Denver. Photo: Jeremy Maestas, NRCS/SGI.

How did the partnerships you mentioned come about? Who are some of the key partners?

It’s a complicated history, but I’ll do my best. When the NRCS first launched the Sage Grouse Initiative in 2010, it gave us a chance to think a bit differently about how we could improve the range to benefit both sage grouse and livestock operations. We started a semi-formal Sage Grouse Working Group that included local ranchers and producers, NRCS, the BLM, South Dakota State University, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Of course, we had worked with each of these groups prior to 2010, but the SGI model really helped us get organized around sage grouse. For the most part, we were first concerned with determining regional threats to sage grouse and figuring out what we could do to address them.

The SGI model really helped us get organized around sage grouse. For the most part, we were first concerned with determining regional threats to sage grouse and figuring out what we could do to address them.

Where did the group go from there?

Well, in 2011 or so, The Nature Conservancy became a partner in the group and that really helped catalyze things for us. Since then, they’ve been a key group that has done a lot of the coordination for a variety of projects across much of western South Dakota. The NRCS office in Belle Fourche also got an SGI partner biologist through Pheasants Forever in 2011 as well. That position combined with the amazing District Conservationists and other staff we’ve had here, really moved the needle.

What have you been able to accomplish together?

One of the biggest challenges in this area is water development. The water table is over 3,000 feet down in some places, so drilling wells and getting water across the range is a major challenge. We knew we needed to address water supplies if we were going to work with ranchers to implement managed grazing practices and our NRCS engineer at the time, Gary Hendrickson, was instrumental in helping solve some of those challenges.

wide open sagebrush with mesic habitat

Mesic, or wet, habitats are critically important to wildlife in sagebrush country. Photo: SGI

We also worked closely with experienced BLM staff in South Dakota and Montana who knew about the resource needs in the area, which habitats sage grouse used, where we could do projects, etc. They also helped to drum up business regarding SGI applicants and projects and provided insight on ideas for conservation practices we could implement. Just communicating regularly in a coordinated way proved really valuable as we started to do more across the range.

It was cool to learn that BLM’s South Dakota Field Office found the partnership helpful too. Staff have expressed their appreciation for the coordination and initiative that we have provided through the SGI and other programs. These projects have allowed us to cooperatively implement planned rotational grazing systems to improve rangeland health on allotments that previously had limited management improvement opportunities because of the lack of reliable livestock water in all pastures. These projects have benefited thousands of acres of BLM-administered public land in South Dakota.

Other ideas and topics started to evolve from the regular and close communications coming from the coordination of the group. We discussed the importance of wildlife-friendly fence on the landscape here, and we were always wondering what our riparian areas should look like.  We didn’t think that the current state of many of the stream systems in the area were even close to their potential and everyone agreed. Unfortunately, evidence and a conclusive resource for evaluation and comparison eluded us.

Staff from the BLM, USDA-NRCS, and TNC survey a mesic area in South Dakota during one of the field tours organized by the partnership. Photo courtesy of Corissa Busse, TNC.

So what did you all do?

We leveraged the partnership and NRCS funded two CCGAs (Conservation Collaboration Grants and Agreements) with TNC that were awarded after discussion and collaboration with partners on the region’s needs. This program (CCGA) has served to further drive the partnership (and actually expand it across the entire state) even more. With the funding, we’ve initiated two projects.

The first was a riparian “manual/guide” for assessing western South Dakota streams, which was funded about two years ago. This type of manual had never existed in South Dakota and both the NRCS and the BLM had long discussed the need for this type of document.

The second, which was funded about six months ago was to implement and evaluate the use of low-tech riparian structures (like beaver-dam analogs and post-assisted log structures) in western South Dakota streams. South Dakota State University, the BLM, the NRCS, and TNC are the primary partners on the ground for this work.  TNC hired a full-time employee to work on this project too, so we’ve added on-the-ground capacity, which is really helpful.  South Dakota State Univerisy is helping with the assessment and evaluation phase.

What’s next for the partnership?

We’re really focusing on mesic restoration. Over the years, the partners have discussed pursuing a Regional Conservation Partnership Program application supported by multiple partners – USFWS, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks, the BLM, the NRCS, local conservation districts, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, Northern Great Plains Joint Venture, and others.  This discussion focused on our resource priorities and we came to the ultimate agreement that riparian and mesic resources were the highest priority due to the consensus that these areas had the most pressing and obvious resource concerns, they are critical to wildlife needs, and have the highest potential for benefit and measurable improvement.

Last summer, Jeremy Maestas, from the NRCS West National Technology Support Center in Portland, Oregon and Shawn Conner from Bio-Logic Inc. came to the area to hold a field tour, training sessions, and meetings all about low-tech mesic restoration. Montana and South Dakota NRCS facilitated the discussion and planned the week and the BLM hosted the indoor meetings. The field tours, trainings and meetings really helped bring everyone’s understanding of our resources and the low-tech riparian practices that can improve them together. We also came together to understand the important concepts in the same ways.

USDA-NRCS, BLM, and others gather during a field tour and mesic restoration workshop sponsored by NRCS South Dakota and Montana. Photo: Jeremy Maestas, NRCS/SGI.

Wow, sounds like a lot of really good things going on. Any final thoughts?

All of this collaboration and focus has totally changed the way we look at the landscape and has changed the scale at which we looked at it. It is really helpful to be able to bounce things off of others. We weren’t sure or confident about making a strong push to actively work in riparian areas here. Being able to get peer support from partners who have been with you the entire time is very helpful. It’s been really gratifying to see this partnership as strong now as it’s ever been and to be really digging into the on-the-ground work that will benefit wildlife and ranchers.

Meet the Expert

How long have you been working for the NRCS? 

Mitch Faulkner on the range in South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Mitch Faulkner.

I have worked for the agency for about 20 years and have spent the last 12 years here in South Dakota.

 What do you like to do when you’re not in the office? 

My wife Angie and I have 3 kids and we love spending time outdoors.  Jack is 13, Maggie is 11, and Libby is 7.  During the summer our family spends a lot of time hiking, camping, and fishing.  We enjoy exploring the South Dakota Black Hills and hanging out anywhere we can in nearby Wyoming, Montana, or Colorado.  In the winter we spend as many days as possible skiing and waiting for spring.  

 Which band have you listened to most recently? 

I have had a little more time to myself than I am used to for music, but it seems I have been splitting time between Jason Isbell and Gregory Alan Isakov.  I think my mood must be driving my musical preferences lately.

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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.