Funds to be used to enhance conservation practices on western ranches and rangelands; it’s too soon to tell if incentive-based programs will stave off the decline
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — After deciding not to list greater sage-grouse as an endangered species, the federal government will pay up to $16 million to help private landowners with conservation efforts in 11 western states, including Colorado.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture will take bold steps to ensure the enhancement and preservation of sage-grouse habitat and the sustainability of working ranches and farms in the western United States,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Our targeted approach will seek out projects that offer the highest potential for boosting sage-grouse populations and enhancing habitat quality.”
The money will flow through two established programs aimed at reducing threats to the birds from disease and invasive species. Applications for the first round of funding are due April 26. As an incentive, landowners who participate in the programs will be protected from increased regulation should the bird be listed under the Endangered Species Act in the future.
The funding could be used to expand conservation efforts already in place in Montana that have been cited as a model, said conservation biologist and sage grouse expert Ben Deeble.
“It’s related primarily to private ranches,” Deeble said, explaining that federal funds are often used to help ranchers develop plans for grazing and other land management tools that help protect or increase sage grouse habitat. About 60 percent of sage grouse habitat in the West is on public lands, but some of the key areas for breeding and mating are on private land, he said.
“Some ranchers think they need to burn or spray sage with herbicides to increase the productivity of their range. With grants to pay for technical assistance, the ranchers learn that they don’t need to kill the sagebrush. Sometimes, changing pasture size, installing new water tanks and similar measures can help boost range productivity and protect sage grouse habitat at the same time.
It’s not clear if the voluntary incentive-based approach will work.
“It’s too soon to tell if it’s effective. We know in the in the short-term, it prevents the killing of sagebrush. We don’t know if enough ranchers will take advantage of the program across big enough landscapes to keep the sage grouse population stable or increase it,” Deeble said.
The greater sage-grouse is an iconic bird in the sagebrush ocean of the interior West. But in recent decades, populations have plummeted due to habitat fragmentation. The biggest impacts are from oil and gas development, agricultural conversion, application of herbicides and pesticides, unnatural fire, urban sprawl, mining, off-road vehicle use, and the placement and construction of utility corridors, roads, and fences.
The total sage-grouse population, estimated between 140,000-500,000 birds, has declined between 69-99 percent from historic levels. Some conservation groups were advocating for endangered species listing because it mandates critical habitat designation and requires the federal government to develop a recovery plan.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided earlier this month that the birds qualify for endangered species status, but put them on a waiting list behind other species that have more critical conservation needs. That decision has already been challenged legally by a group called Western Watersheds Projects. The group claims the most recent federal studies prove that existing conservation practices are not working, as populations continue to decline. Read the legal complaint here.
Deeble said some of the funds released by the Department of Agriculture could also be used to combat invasive weeds that are displacing sagebrush habitat.
Greater sage-grouse are found in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. In Colorado, greater sage-grouse live mostly in the northwest corner of the state, where their habitat is shrinking because of the oil and gas boom.