Quantifying Outcomes Improves Conservation Effectiveness

Field technicians find radio-collared sage grouse hens using telemetry. Photo by Kenton Rowe.

October 8, 2019

Outcome-focused science plays a key role in Working Lands for Wildlife’s approach to conservation on private lands. Photo: Kenton Rowe

The agricultural rangelands that span the western United States generate economic revenue for rural communities and produce food and fiber for the nation. These rolling grasslands, silvery sagebrush flats, and green meadows are also home to world- class wildlife populations, including hundreds of different kinds of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

This infographic highlights some of WLFW’s conservation outcomes. Click to download it. Infographic by: Emily Harrington.

It can be challenging for ranchers to maintain these grazing lands for future generations, especially when faced with drought, development, and commodity price swings. Conserving America’s vast working rangelands requires a proactive, collaborative, landscape-scale approach that keeps agricultural operations profitable and wildlife habitat productive.

One key pillar to advancing conservation on private lands is sound science. That’s why WLFW has partnered with the NRCS’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project to co-produce 37 peer-reviewed research studies over the past decade that document outcomes from Farm Bill-funded conservation practices on rangelands.

WLFW relies on science-based targeting tools to: 1) pinpoint where to invest limited resources, 2) evaluate outcomes to quantify the results, and 3) improve conservation delivery to benefit people and wildlife.

Taking a team approach to quantify conservation outcomes brings accountability for taxpayers, and also illustrates the important role of science in keeping our nation’s working lands productive. ~ Charles Rewa, NRCS Resource Inventory and Assessment Division

A new Science to Solutions Report details some of the conservation outcomes studied by CEAP and WLFW.

>>Download and read the Science to Solutions Report here <<

The report summarizes outcomes from four key conservation practices WLFW employs. Read on for the details.

Removing encroaching conifers from sagebrush-steppe rangelands:

WLFW has helped landowners restore rangelands by strategically removing encroaching woody species on 780,000 acres of prime grazing lands in the western U.S., generating the following outcomes.

    • Greater sage-grouse population growth rates are 12% higher in grazing lands where advancing trees have been removed. Within three years of conifer treatments, 29% of studied sage grouse hens were nesting within and near restored grazing lands. Read more about this study.
    • Songbird abundance doubled following tree removal in sagebrush landscapes for at-risk species like the Brewer’s sparrow, green-tailed towhee, and vesper sparrow. Read more about how WLFW practices benefit songbirds.

Stemming the loss of intact rangelands:

WLFW has secured over 200 individual easements that conserve 567,100 acres of ranchlands, and also implemented improved grazing strategies to improve 3.6 million acres of prime rangelands. In Montana alone, partners have protected 190,000 acres of at-risk grazing lands since 2010, a six-fold increase in easements over all prior years. This work has generated the following outcomes:

Restoring wet habitats:

During the summer, wet habitats cover less than 2% of the western landscape, but more than 80% of these vital resources are located on privately owned ranchlands. Research shows sage grouse cluster 85% of their breeding sites within 6 miles of wet habitats in order for hens and chicks to access “green groceries” near water in the late summer and fall.

WLFW and its partners have led 11 hands-on field workshops that trained more than 400 resource managers and landowners to use simple, cost- effective methods that restore precious wet habitat.

    • Low-tech methods of restoring wet habitat (such as hand-built stone structures, mimicking beaver dams, or grazing management) increase vegetation productivity by up to 25% and keep riparian areas greener longer. Read about the importance of conserving wet habitats.

Turning science into action:

In addition to examining on-the-ground outcomes, CEAP and WLFW help bridge the gap between science and implementation by creating easy-to-use technology and tools that empower ranchers and resource managers to effectively conserve working lands. One example is the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP), a free online tool powered by Google’s Earth Engine. RAP merges decades of field data and remote satellite imagery to show how rangeland plant cover has changed at the watershed, ranch, or pasture scale.

Incorporating science and focusing on conservation outcomes improves the efficiency and effectiveness of Farm Bill programs so that they achieve the biggest benefits for wildlife, rural communities, and agricultural operations. By putting science directly into the hands of conservation practitioners, CEAP and WLFW are helping to maintain productive and profitable rangelands throughout the American West.

>Download and read the Science to Solutions Report here <<


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.