New Year, New Connections, New Opportunities

January 26, 2022

Western Working Lands for Wildlife’s efforts are addressing threats across the Great Plains and the sagebrush sea, two of the largest biomes in North America.


If you’ve followed the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), or Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) over the past decade, you’ve doubtless heard the following phrases: Win-win solutions. Voluntary conservation. Incentive-based action.

You’ve probably also heard that our work is science-driven, partnership-based, and proactive. These aren’t just taglines; they are the very foundation of our work across the country and especially in the West where America’s iconic rangelands support ranchers and rural communities, provide wildlife habitat, and store carbon.

WLFW bridges wildlife conservation with the people who are supported by these landscapes. As 2021 recedes and we march into 2022, we’re doubling down on our proven approach to conserving the West’s working rangelands for people and wildlife.

cows and sage grouse hens sharing wet meadow ken miracle

Across the West, WLFW is showing how conservation benefits both wildlife and producers. Photo: Ken Miracle.

In April 2021, we released two Frameworks for Conservation Action, one for the sagebrush biome and one for the Great Plains grasslands biome, two of the most imperiled and important ecosystem types in North America. These frameworks serve as the NRCS’s continuing contribution to voluntary conservation of western rangelands with the people who live and work in these biomes. The new frameworks were built on past achievements of SGI and LPCI and provide a collective approach to target the most severe and large-scale threats causing biome-level impacts. Each framework also serves as NRCS’ ongoing contributions to efforts like the Sagebrush Conservation Strategy administered by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the collaboratively developed Central Grasslands Roadmap.

True to our collaborative approach, NRCS state conservationists and staff hosted strategy sessions wherein their local partnerships identified threats to address, honed geographic focus areas, and generated estimates of acreage goals and resource needs. The WLFW team—as part of NRCS’ Areawide Planning, Science and Technology, and Outcomes branches—crafted these new frameworks, provided emerging technologies and spatial data, and led technical sessions to train staff and partners.

These frameworks provide a common vision and coordination to address resource concerns and ecosystem threats across state boundaries, along with new scientific tools that provide unprecedented opportunities to develop strategic approaches to combat these issues, especially when combined with on-the-ground landowner and rancher expertise.

While sagebrush country and the grasslands of the Great Plains may look different to the casual observer, they share a striking number of similarities. Two of the biggest threats facing each biome are the same: loss of native habitat to woody species expansion and to land-use conversion. Both are imperiled landscapes, yet both contain some of the most intact and resilient examples of rangelands in the world. And both are rooted in long-standing and hard-working ranching cultures.

These similarities drive our updated conservation approach in both landscapes as articulated in the frameworks. No longer are we focusing solely on a focal wildlife species, even though wildlife conservation still undergirds all our work. Our updated approach focuses on the health and resiliency of these entire biomes by expanding our partnerships and efforts to proactively address threats while ensuring that both wildlife and people benefit from our conservation investments. Between the Great Plains and sagebrush country, we have committed to reducing threats on more than 10 million acres of working rangelands.

In both biomes, spatial technology delivered through the Rangeland Analysis Platform is

The innovative Rangeland Analysis Platform is informing how WLFW prioritizes where to work across the West.

providing new opportunities for landscape-scale conservation. This innovative satellite-based technology allows us to “see” rangelands like never before, and it is at the core of all our threat-based strategies, whether woody species encroachment in the Great Plains or annual invasive grasses in the Great Basin.

We’re still working in lesser prairie-chicken habitat while leveraging what we’ve learned from LPCI to expand across the entire Plains through the Great Plains Grassland Initiative. This updated effort is laser-focused on addressing woody species encroachment, led by local efforts in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

In sagebrush country, we’re using spatial technology to address threats in core habitats where sage grouse live and where we have partners and landowners engaged in our efforts. Whether addressing annual invasive grasses, woody species, land-use conversion, or mesic restoration, our focus on core habitats ensures that we keep the most intact and valuable lands healthy.

Within both biomes, WLFW capitalizes on the coproduction of science. This approach includes the joint creation of new knowledge based on interactions between researchers and affected stakeholders. Coproduction in rangeland conservation makes science more actionable by engaging stakeholders to share in both design and implementation, striving to achieve better outcomes for ranching and wildlife. As we expand our work, ensuring better outcomes and producing actionable science will continue to be a keystone of our overall approach.

Keeping rangelands resilient and productive is one of the best ways we can help mitigate the effects of a changing climate. Proactive and climate-smart strategies like keeping rangelands “green side up” through targeted conservation easements, reducing the risk of severe fires by removing encroaching conifer trees, combating invasive annual grasses, and restoring wet meadows and other riparian areas are all part of our overall approach. Globally, rangelands store 12 percent of terrestrial carbon making these efforts even more important.

We focus our efforts where there are intact cores, where wildlife live, and where we have willing partners.

Guided by our frameworks and our commitment to collaborative, voluntary, win-win conservation, we are expanding our efforts to address the most significant threats facing two of the largest biomes in North America – the 175-million-acre sagebrush sea and the native grasslands that still comprise much of the 450-million-acre Great Plains. With new technologies that help us prioritize where to work, new approaches that focus our limited resources where they will have the most impact, and new connections that help us leverage the power of partnerships, we’re looking forward to new opportunities in the year ahead.


 

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.