Conservation agreements move toward streamlined process
A new strategy for Candidate Conservation Agreements, or CCAs, and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances, or CCAAs, is just about ready to head for the Federal Register.
That’s according to Scott Covington of the U.W. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Cheyenne Ecological Services Field Office.
The goal of Wyoming’s proposed sage grouse CCAA strategy is to combine public and private lands in the state into a joint CCA/CCAA that would cover 35 million acres, should everyone eligible enroll.
“The strategy focuses on range management through a streamlined process,” says Covington.
“It doesn’t make sense to have a different set of conservation measures on private property than on public, and we’ve worked intensively for the last month on the BLM’s proposed approach,” states Covington. “We’d work to make sure those conservation measures cross over. That’s why the BLM and Forest Service have been at the table since the get-go.”
A CCA applies to federal or private lands, without assurances, while the CCAA applies only to private lands.
“CCAs are proactive, voluntary conservation agreements, with no assurances because of Section 7 requirement under Endangered Species Act,” says Covington. “But, the CCA agreement can dovetail into a CCAA.”
Covington says the goal was to have two sets of documents, one applying to grazing allotments on federal land and the other applying to private lands, with identical conservation measures.
“The whole idea is to preclude the need to list,” says Covington of the goal of CCAAs. “It can be for any species – for those proposed or those at risk of being added to the endangered species list.”
He emphasizes the CCAAs are not a mitigation tool, but rather they identify specific threats and remove them.
“It’s essentially a listing in reverse,” he explains. “We run a threats analysis on the five listing factors – including habitat, regulatory mechanisms, disease issues – and develop these agreements accordingly in conjunction with federal, state and local agencies.”
The assurances that come into play with CCAAs are that, along with things the landowner promises to do to preserve the species, the federal government promises that the land under the contract will not have increased land use restrictions should the targeted species be listed.
“The foundation of a CCAA is conservation measures, whether you avoid certain activities at certain times or reduce threats to a species on the property,” says Covington. “One of the biggest threats is fragmentation, and that’s one of the biggest things a landowner can address. Other conservation measures are specific actions to remove or reduce specific threats, and they must significantly contribute to eliminating the need to list. They may forego a practice that might influence the species, or allowing a species to be introduced.”
He says a grazing permittee would be able to nominate their federal grazing allotments for inclusion in the CCAA on their private land.
Covington says his agency is still working with the Forest Service, which has a slightly different approach. “In most cases we expect theirs to mimic the BLM, but that chapter remains to be written.
There would be one National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document and one Environmental Assessment (EA) covering all actions in issuing the permit. In addition, Covington says the agreements would be “batched” for approval as they’re completed.
“If we set up quarterly time periods, say from June 1 to Oct. 31, we could collect the agreements from that time span, process them and send them all at one time to streamline the process,” he explains. “That way we can get them processed more quickly.”
On the question of who would hold the permit, Covington says, “Typically on an agreement of this scale we have one permit holder, but we will issue individual permits in this case. FWS will issue individual permits to each applicant.”
If there are a lot of applications in one time period, they’ll be prioritized according to whether or not they’re in or adjacent to a core area, within an energy development region or things of that nature.
“Those are just a few things that would help prioritize, and we want to focus efforts on the low-hanging fruit at first,” he says.
Of the biological monitoring to follow up on the effect of the agreements, Covington says that would be a three-tiered approach.
“Landowners would evaluate local range conditions, a team of cooperators will evaluate the habitat at a larger scale and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will coordinate the data collection,” he says. “We’ll work with the Game and Fish, landowners, the BLM and whoever else we need to, to make sure the lek data is collected.”
Covington says, as the BLM and Forest Service draft their CCAs for internal review, he and his office will write the final draft of the CCAA, including the NEPA document. They hope to begin outreach activities in January 2011, and he says interested parties, including landowners and local sage grouse working groups, can contact him to take a look at the preliminary version in late January.