Collaborative Approach to Sage Grouse Conservation Across the States

April 15, 2015

Capital Press published the following story April 6, by Eric Mortenson that tells the story of proactive conservation underway for the sage grouse, with an emphasis on Oregon’s conservation successes for the bird.
Tim Griffiths, national coordinator of the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative in Bozeman, Mont., said the intent is to achieve non-regulatory wildlife conservation while sustaining a working landscape. He said the public-private collaboration has been “nothing short of historic.”
(Photo to right of sage grouse and cattle sharing a lek (breeding area for sage grouse), by Jane Elliott).

States adopt plans as sage grouse listing decision approaches

With an endangered species decision on the horizon, Western landowners and public agencies seek collaborative ways to conserve or improve greater sage grouse habitat.

If greater sage grouse are listed as threatened or endangered later this year, it won’t be for lack of expensive conservation efforts in the 11 Western states where the bird lives.

Since 2010, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service alone has spent nearly $300 million and worked with private landowners to conserve sage grouse habitat on 4.4 million acres. A total of 1,129 ranches have signed on through the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative.

Other public agencies and private partners have spent an additional $128 million in that time, according to an NRCS report, and the 2014 Farm Bill contains $200 million more to continue the work into 2018. All across the West, landowners and management agencies are cutting intrusive conifer trees, marking fences to prevent in-flight collisions and doing other work to protect a bird whose potential Endangered Species Act listing has been described as the “spotted owl on steroids.”

In fact, it was the bitter northern spotted owl legacy of lawsuits, timber sale protests, mill closures and steep reduction in federal timber harvests that prodded private and public collaboration regarding sage grouse.

Tim Griffiths, national coordinator of the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative in Bozeman, Mont., said the intent is to achieve non-regulatory wildlife conservation while sustaining a working landscape. He said the public-private collaboration has been “nothing short of historic.”

Whether it staves off an ESA listing, however, is an open question. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in 2010 that greater sage grouse warranted ESA protection, but held off implementation because other species needed more immediate attention. The service will decide by September 2015 whether to list sage grouse as threatened or endangered.

Western partners must be able to tell USFWS what has changed since it made its initial conclusion, Griffiths said. A March report from the Sage Grouse Initiative documents the work that’s been done:

Oregon, where voluntary conservation agreements on private and public land now cover nearly all critical sage grouse habitat in the state, is seen as a model of inter-agency and landowner cooperation. Ranchers represented by soil and water conservation districts have signed Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances, or CCAA, with the Fish and Wildlife Service. In return for taking basic steps to improve or preserve sage grouse habitat, landowners get 30 years of protection from additional regulation even if the bird is listed.

Meanwhile, the Sage Grouse Initiative has spent $18.4 million helping Oregon landowners remove western junipers and other early-stage conifers, which crowd out sage and grasses, suck up water and provide perches for predators. More than 405,000 acres in the West have been reclaimed by cutting juniper, with nearly half in Oregon. The work has cleared conifers from an estimated 68 percent of the grouse nesting, brood-rearing and winter habitat on private land, according to the SGI.

Griffiths, the SGI coordinator, said voluntary acceptance by ranchers was crucial.

“That would almost be the understatement of the century,” he said. “The ranching community not only opened up their gates and their kitchen tables for us to sit down and discuss this, they opened their pockets and brought their neighbors over,” he said.

One of the early signers, rancher Tom Sharp of Southeast Oregon’s Harney County, coined an expression for the agreements: “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”

Harney County spent three years drawing up conservation agreements on private land, Sharp said. After they’d been approved, seven other Oregon counties adopted similar plans within three months. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown presided over a celebration of the agreements last month in Bend.

Marty Suter Goold, director of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District, was invited to Denver in March to explain the county’s work to officials from the 11 Western states where greater sage grouse live.

“Irregardless of what happens with the listing decision, I feel landowners wanted to demonstrate their dedication to these kind of habitat improvements on private lands,” she said. “We’re pioneering a way of the future that can be modeled to any kind of species.”

Goold said a timber owner who’d been through the endangered species wars told her ranchers were far more organized than the timber industry was when the spotted owl listing hit.

Other states count successes as well. In Nevada, the Department of Interior signed an agreement in late March that allows Barrick Gold of North America to offset any grouse habitat harm caused by expanding its mining operations on public land. The company will accumulate conservation “credits” by improving habitat on a Nevada ranch it owns. The agreement commits Barrick Gold to achieving a net conservation benefit with the work.

In Wyoming, a cattle ranch that was destined for wind energy development will be converted to a conservation “bank” of sage grouse habitat, beginning with 55,000 acres deeded to the Sweetwater Conservancy.

Griffiths, of the SGI, said habitat fragmentation is the bird’s biggest threat, but the causes vary. In Oregon, it’s caused by juniper intrusion, but in Wyoming it’s oil and gas development and in other areas mining or grazing might be the biggest problem.

He said Oregon’s “well rounded” sage grouse conservation plans can spark innovation in other states. “It creates conservation envy,” he said.

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.