By Jason Weller and Larry Selzer | This opinion article by USDA-NRCS Chief Weller and The Conservation Fund President and CEO, Larry Selzer describes how the Sage Grouse Initiative brings together groups to find common ground for an uncommon bird.
The following opinion article by USDA-NRCS Chief Weller and The Conservation Fund President and CEO, Larry Selzer, was published March 12, 2016 in the Casper Star Tribune.
Weller, Selzer: The future of conservation
The American West is known for its pioneering individualism. Yet many in the region are demonstrating a growing spirit of collaboration, partnership and innovative solutions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the management of our natural resources. As the demands on our natural resources grow, there’s a need for creative thinking that protects our resources while also helping local communities who depend on them.
A signature example is the Sage Grouse Initiative, an effort to protect an emblematic western bird and its sage steppe habitat that has been the focus of conservationists and policymakers alike. As part of SGI, ranchers and communities are leading the largest conservation effort in history while strengthening the western economy. Using Farm Bill conservation programs, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and partners, like The Conservation Fund, use voluntary, incentive-based approaches to conservation. And they are working. In just the last six years, more than 1,200 ranchers across 11 Western states have conserved over 5 million acres of working private land, generating benefits for both the environment and private ranches.
One of the biggest ongoing threats to sage grouse is habitat fragmentation, the primary reason the sage grouse was being considered as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Through SGI, many ranchers are restoring habitat for the sage grouse in a way that both benefits the bird and provides improved forage for cattle and other livestock. Other ranchers are working to permanently protect their ranches from development. In particular, ranchers in high-quality habitat areas voluntarily sell conservation easements on their land, permanently preventing fragmentation, providing habitat for sage grouse and 350 other species, and maintaining the land in private ownership.
The landowners continue to ranch, graze, and manage their ongoing operations, often on lands that have been in their families for generations. The money ranchers receive to protect their land can be re-invested in other ranch enhancement projects or in acquiring new ranchland to expand their operations. The Farm Bill funding ensures that the ranches will remain intact for generations to come, providing a long-term foundation for both the ranching economy and wildlife habitat.
The Conservation Fund has assisted NRCS in protecting more than 100,000 acres of sage grouse habitat on private lands in critical places like the Upper Green River Valley in Wyoming, the Upper Colorado River corridor in Colorado, and the Pioneer Mountain Foothills in Idaho. While important for sage grouse, these places are also vital migration corridors for species like pronghorn and elk, sources of water for people and agriculture, and doorsteps to wilderness areas on public lands. They are places unique and special to America and our natural resource heritage, and they are well worth protecting.
Last September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would not list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. A substantial amount of credit for this outcome is due to the many public and private partners, including ranchers, conservation groups and local communities, who have worked together for years as part of SGI and will continue to do so for years to come. These groups are finding common ground for an uncommon bird. This is what the future of conservation looks like – collaboration, partnership and innovative solutions.
Read more about the The Conservation Fund’s sage grouse conservation work.