Montana Success in Two Important Areas: Sage Grouse Habitat and Soil Health

December 20, 2013

End of year letter from:
Joyce Swartzendruber, State Conservationist, NRCS Montana

From NRCS Montana Conservation Update, January 2014 Quarterly Newsletter

 Greetings from Bozeman,

We are in the dead of winter here, but soon the earth’s rotation around the sun will start bringing us longer days, and with more sunshine we can stand the cold a little better!

Conservation in Montana is seeing huge successes in two very important areas: Greater sage-grouse habitat and soil health.  Let me bring you up to speed on these, and what they bring to farmers and ranchers in the Treasure State.

The Greater sage-grouse has made its home in sagebrush country because that is simply where it can thrive.  It needs broad, open landscapes that don’t infringe on its mating, nesting, and wintering habitats.  As these landscapes are broken out for cropland, subdivided for houses, drilled for oil, or overgrazed, the habitat and the bird populations dwindle.  This has put the bird on the Candidate list under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

NRCS embarked on the Sage-Grouse Initiative in 2010, and we have put extra funds and staff into core sage-grouse areas to provide ranchers with technical assistance (upland wildlife habitat and prescribed grazing plans) and financial assistance (Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, Grasslands Reserve Program, Farm and Ranchland Protection Program).  To date, we have a half million acres of ranches in conservation plans that are protecting sage-grouse habitat and maintaining and improving grazing systems.  If we don’t marry those two concepts up – wildlife habitat in conjunction with productive working ranches – we should take down our NRCS shingle and shut the doors.

NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently came to agreement that ranchers who are maintaining the practices in their conservation plans addressing sage-grouse threats will be protected from legal action for 30 years if the sage-grouse is listed as “Threatened” or “Endangered” under the ESA.  This doesn’t tie the protection–also referred to as predictability or certainty–to a financial contract with NRCS.  It ties the protection to a good old-fashioned resource management system conservation plan.  That is our bread and butter planning process, and it is feeding the long-range protection of the iconic Greater sage-grouse species.

On the farming side of the house, soil health is taking center stage.  Producers filled the rooms in our six soil health workshops we held across the state in November.  They are savvy growers who understand the microbiology, mineralization, and magic of managing for living things under the soil surface.  When farmers put together their costs and returns on using cover crops, no-till and rotations, they are finding the improvements are helping their bottom line, not just the water-holding capacity and nutrient benefits of their healthier soil.

If you haven’t seen a soil health demonstration or rainfall simulator at work, check out some You Tube videos on the national NRCS website.

Season’s Greetings, and I wish you all the best in 2014. 


(Photo of rancher Dennis Mercer, enrolled in SGI programs near Roundup Montana, provided by RFD TV, Larry Butler, Out on the Land)

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.