Colorado Conservation Easement Proof that Local Projects Protect Sage Grouse

A recent conservation easement protects this sagebrush plain near Dove Creek in Colorado

March 11, 2015

This article by Jim Mimiaga originally appeared here in the Cortez Journal. 

Sage grouse depend on vast, intact sagebrush-steppe for survival. One of the main reasons grouse numbers have plummeted from the millions to around 200,000 is due to habitat loss and fragmentation of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem.

SGI is working with diverse partners and thousands of landowners to turn the tide for sage grouse survival. One tool to keep the sage intact is the use of conservation easements that help landowners who want to keep their lands together and pass on a viable operation to the next generations.  SGI and our partners use conservation easements to protect the places that harbor the most sage grouse. Grassroots, voluntary easements–like the one described below that benefits Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado–protect the range for people, livestock, grouse, and other wildlife.  Read the full story from the Cortez Journal below.

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The Gunnison sage grouse is a dwindling population found in Colorado.

A new conservation easement northwest of Dove Creek is being touted as an example of a grassroots effort to protect the Gunnison sage grouse.

Landowner Lenore Seltenreich partnered with the Montezuma Land Conservancy to permanently protect her 788-acre property, which abuts the Coalbed Canyon state wildlife area and BLM land.

The land is occupied habitat for the Gunnison Sage Grouse, which was listed last year as a “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Historically, the property was a dryland bean farm operated by Lenore’s father Bud. In recent years, the property has been managed primarily to protect the habitat of the struggling grouse.

“I’m interested in helping save land for the grouse, and I want to keep the land as it is,” Seltenreich said.

Mature sagebrush stands exist on 120 acres of the property, and with help from the Colorado

Parks and Wildlife, sagebrush was replanted on 502 acres in 2011.

In addition to the conservation easement, that land is enrolled in a CPW Conservation Reserve Program specifically designed to protect wildlife species.

“It’s one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of re-established sagebrush,” said Chris Kloster, a CPW biologist and grouse-habitat specialist.

Negotiated conservation-easements protections are in perpetuity and attached to the deed. They provide tax benefits and sometimes direct payments. They are designed to be flexible, for example, allowing a certain amount of building lots and continued agricultural use.

This sagebrush-steppe ecosystem in Colorado is perfect habitat for Gunnison sage grouse, as well as a host of other wildlife.

This sagebrush-steppe ecosystem in Colorado is perfect habitat for Gunnison sage grouse, as well as a host of other wildlife.

On the Seltenreich easement, 502 acres will remain eligible farmland and can one day be returned to dryland farming, continued to be managed for wildlife, or both based on the landowners wishes. A future building site is also part of the agreement.

Listing of the Gunnison sage grouse has been controversial because it triggers on-the-ground federal management within designated critical habitat zones around Dove Creek, including on private property.

But MLC director Jon Leibowitz says that the conservation easement and landowner enrollment in the CPW program, are proof that the Gunnison sage grouse can be protected locally.

“Even with the federal listing on the Endangered Species Act, the real opportunity for making progress on sage grouse conservation is from the ground up, working with landowners on a voluntary basis,” he said.

The partnership includes Dolores County who contributed $3,000 to the closing costs of the Seltenreich conservation easement.

Together with willing landowners, MLC and CPW have protected a 6,000-acre block of land for the sage grouse and other wildlife west of Dove Creek. Another 3,000 acres of MLC easements in the Rim to Canyon Farmlands program protect areas for the bird while remaining productive agricultural businesses.

Colorado is suing U.S. Fish and Wildlife for listing the bird, and Dolores County has filed an intent to sue to stop the listing as well. Plaintiffs claim local protection programs are effective in helping the bird’s survival, and should be given a chance to succeed.

Leibowitz said conservation easements happen to be consistent with state and federal priorities to protect the grouse. And there is money to be made.

Funding for landowners to receive direct payments from CPW and conservation organizations to protect sage-grouse habitat is growing, he said.

“The opportunities for local conservation of grouse habitat are really limitless when local government and nonprofits collaborate,” Leibowitz said. “The Seltenreich easement is proof of that.”

Read the original story here in the Cortez Journal. 

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.