Shared Capacity, Shared Success

February 21, 2021

Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT) staffers on a tour of mesic restoration sites in Idaho during a WLFW workshop in 2019. Photo: Greg M. Peters


By Greg M. Peters

When Rebecca Burton arrived at the NRCS office in Craig, Colorado, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect for her first day of work. It was 2019 and even though she would be working on private lands conservation under the direct supervision of NRCS staff, Burton wasn’t officially an NRCS employee.

Like more than 19 other conservation professionals across the West, Burton works to advance

Rebecca Burton is one of 19 “swatters” adding capacity to the NRCS’s efforts around the West.

rangeland conservation through the Sage Grouse Initiative as a Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT) member. Many “swatters,” as they’re affectionately known, are trained in rangeland ecology or wildlife biology (like Burton), and their work on western rangelands is part of a shared-capacity approach to conserving the biologically and culturally rich sagebrush sea.

Burton and her counterparts are employed by one of a handful of the NRCS’s Western Working Lands for Wildlife partner organizations; in Burton’s case, it’s Pheasants  Forever. Through a multi-year agreement with the NRCS, these organizations can hire and manage these partner positions to add much-needed capacity to the important private lands conservation work that is the NRCS’s specialty.

Michael Brown oversees SWAT staffers across the West (Brown is also a Pheasants Forever employee in a shared-capacity position), and the crew is busy indeed. According to Brown, collectively these positions have developed customized grazing plans on over 2.95 million acres, worked to remove over 333,000 acres of encroaching conifers, and marked or removed 318 miles of fence since SGI started.

So, even though Burton may not have known just what to expect on her first day in the office, the Craig, Colorado NRCS staff was ready for her.

“Basically, they told me, ‘You’re the partner biologist, and you’ll be working on sage grouse and other wildlife-related projects,’” she explained. “The office had a long list of producers who had requested a variety of technical assistance help. That’s where I started – working through that list with a focus on wildlife projects.”

It didn’t take her long to start making a difference. Kendall Smith is the District Conservationist in the NRCS’s Craig/Meeker Office, and he’s thrilled with the added capacity Burton provides.

Rebecca’s dedication towards assisting the Craig/Meeker resource team and cooperators has allowed for maximum use of Farm Bill programs. As conservation software and planning tools evolve, we can maintain and increase conservation assistance. Rebecca promotes scientific-based projects that benefit relevant wildlife species while also providing sustainable ranching/farming management capabilities. ~Kendall Smith

SGI partners with landowners to remove conifers and protect the sagebrush sea.

SWAT staff work with contractors and landowners across the country to remove conifer trees that are degrading rangeland habitat. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Michael Brown is justifiably proud of the work the SWAT staff gets done each year, “These positions have proven their value time and again. One of the biggest limitations to getting good work done on the ground, work that helps ranchers and wildlife, is the limited capacity of the NRCS. These positions have helped local NRCS offices provide more technical assistance to more people. They are a key part of why SGI and Working Lands for Wildlife efforts have been so successful and allow us all to get more done.”

In the arid Western Slope of Colorado, Burton works a lot on water development projects. These critical infrastructure development projects improve how cattle are distributed across the range, which improves range health and helps protect natural water sources critical to wildlife.

Western Colorado’s arid landscape is rugged and beautiful. Photo: Rebecca Burton

“I also work on a lot of fencing projects, where we remove old fencing and install wildlife-friendly fencing or cross fencing that helps ranchers implement prescribed grazing schemes. Removing the old fencing helps wildlife move more freely across the landscape and it reduces perches for raptors that prey on sage grouse.”

“Recently, one of my most gratifying projects was helping build Zeedyk structures (low-tech stream restoration structures that prevent ‘head cuts’ from developing) on a rancher’s land in Moffat County. The project helped sage grouse by improving brood rearing habitat, even though the NRCS and SGI weren’t directly involved. The staff here gives me lots of freedom to pursue different projects. I’m excited to take what I learned there to other ranches in the area.”

As a wildlife biologist, it’s really awesome to be able to find those win-win solutions that benefit wildlife and landowners. ~Rebecca Burton

Burton contributes much of her success to the NRCS staff with whom she works. And although she’s worked through the list of projects that first greeted her when she started, there’s no shortage of work to be done.

Low-tech restoration efforts, like using Zeedyk structures or beaver dam analogs, are some of the key conservation actions the Sage Grouse Initiative suggests ranchers can take to benefit both working lands and wildlife. The Initiative is working with partners to host trainings that help spread the word.

“Most of our producers come to the NRCS seeking help for their operation, but when they see how improving rangeland health benefits both their operation and wildlife, they’re even more excited to partner with us. Word of mouth is really important in this area; when producers see what their neighbors are doing, they want to do the same thing,” she notes.

“Rebecca’s contributions are part of this broader approach to wildlife conservation the NRCS advances through Working Lands for Wildlife,” adds Michael Brown. “It’s a pretty amazing approach and it really works. With these positions, we’ve added a substantial amount of on-the-ground capacity to the NRCS’s work in the West.”

For her part, Burton is thrilled with the diversity of work she gets to do, with the producers she gets to meet and with the impact she’s able to achieve. The sagebrush hills surrounding Craig are similar to where she grew up in Wyoming and there are always new opportunities to improve the landscape.

“We have mule deer and elk that migrate through this area, and it’s really cool to be able to work on projects that benefit them while also improving rangeland health for producers. So much of the productive habitat here is privately owned. As a wildlife biologist, it’s really awesome to be able to find those win-win solutions that benefit wildlife and landowners.”


 

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.