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Guest Opinions

Greater Sage Grouse CCAA – Making an Informed Decision

I have often wondered how many decisions a rancher makes each day. In our fast-paced, constantly changing world, each new day seems to bring more options for day-to-day decisions. While most decisions aren’t going to make or break the ranch, in hindsight, it is easier to say whether the decision was the best choice. Most decisions aren’t black and white – right or wrong.

I have always operated with the premise that most decisions are very personal. What is a good decision for one operation may not work for another operation. The most important part of the decision making process is to obtain enough information to make an informed decision. 

Information in today’s society changes rapidly. There are so many places people get information – with lots of the information being inaccurate. It is hard enough to keep up with day-to-day ranch management operations that it is no wonder a poll showed that the number one reason for why livestock producers didn’t participate in available programs was “they didn’t know about the program.” 

One of the high-priority issues facing many ranching operations in Wyoming is the potential listing of the Greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). While the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in their March 23, 2010 listing decision determined livestock grazing is not a significant threat to the sage grouse, it was determined that improper livestock management may have negative impacts on sage grouse seasonal habitats. Listing the sage  grouse could have significant impacts to managing private and state lands. Additional challenges in utilizing federal grazing permits could also occur.

One risk management tool currently available to private landowners in Wyoming who have a sage grouse utilizing their land is the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). As implied, sage grouse are a “candidate” for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list, with the next FWS listing determination scheduled for September 2015.

Many agencies, organizations and individuals in Wyoming worked for years to develop an umbrella sage grouse CCAA with goals of streamlining the process for landowner enrollment; promoting conservation measures that reduce or remove threats to the Greater sage grouse through proactive ranch management; providing comprehensive conservation; and providing landowners assurances that current ranch management practices covered by this CCAA will continue in the event the Greater sage grouse is listed under the ESA.

The Greater Sage Grouse Umbrella CCAA for Ranch Management is designed to address identified threats affecting Greater sage grouse on private lands in Wyoming, while providing conservation measure options to address each threat. Individual CCAAs entered into by landowners are built on the information provided in the umbrella agreement to tailor a conservation package to the requirements of habitat on particular parcels of land.

Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) provided input during the development of the umbrella CCAA. Providing timely, useful information is part of the core mission for the WSGA. They felt it was vital for landowners to have complete and accurate information when making a decision on whether or not to enroll all or part of their lands in a CCAA, so they partnered on an educational project with Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts and Wyoming Nature Conservancy to develop a CCAA education program. The project was made possible through funding assistance from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

WSGA subsequently contracted with me to serve as the CCAA Education Project Coordinator. It is my job to insure private landowners have accurate information to make an informed decision in regards to the sage grouse CCAA.

So what is a CCAA?

A CCAA is a voluntary agreement between the FWS and a private landowner whereby private landowners agree to manage their lands to remove or reduce threats to species at risk of being listed under the ESA. The complementary public land voluntary agreement is a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) that may provide some “insurance” for grazing allotments but not assurances.

The overall goal of a CCAA is conservation of the species through cooperative, voluntary conservation on non-federal land. Actions should be conducted, or not conducted, that remove or reduce threats, so there would be no need to list the species under the Endangered Species Act.

Landowners agree to carry out the actions, and in exchange, the FWS agrees not to require additional conservation measures if the sage grouse ever becomes listed.

So what does a private landowner gain by enrolling lands in a CCAA and the sage grouse is listed? With a CCAA, the landowner receives assurances that current ranch management practices covered by the umbrella CCAA will continue even if the Greater sage grouse is listed under the ESA, and an “incidental take” permit will go into effect. If the bird is listed, take will be illegal per Section 9 of the ESA, but with the take permit, the landowner would have incidental take coverage. 

Enrolled participants could expect a reduction in the amount of time it takes to implement projects for conservation programs offered through the Farm Bill, Natural Resources Conservation Service or other Federal agencies, such as Wildlife Services.

To learn more about CCAAs and CCAs to make an informed decision, attend the WSGA Convention June 4-7, contact the WSGA Office at 307-638-3942 to ask questions or receive a CCAA/CCA Education Packet, visit wysga.org for extensive information or attend an informational meeting in your area.