Feds announce funding for sage grouse efforts
Washington, D.C. – On March 12 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new initiative to protect sage grouse populations and habitats in 11 western states using two popular USDA conservation programs—Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP).
“USDA 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 Vilsack. “Our targeted approach will seek out projects that offer the highest potential for boosting sage-grouse populations and enhancing habitat quality.”
USDA will use up to $16 million through EQIP and WHIP in the 11 states this fiscal year to provide financial assistance to producers to reduce threats to the birds such as disease and invasive species and improve sage-grouse habitat. Producers can sign up through April 23 to participate in the first round of rankings for this initiative.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers EQIP and WHIP.
“We have a chance to keep the greater sage grouse off of the endangered species list if it shows recovery progress,” says Ted Toombs, Rocky Mountain Regional Director of the Center for Conservation Incentives at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and a member of several state technical committees for the NRCS. “This new NRCS initiative supports that goal across a very large landscape, which is an essential component to the larger recovery effort. We applaud these kinds of federal initiatives that encourage cooperative conservation efforts in sagebrush country, to stitch back together fragments of sage-grouse habitat on private working lands.”
According to a USDA press release, this funding “enhances the opportunity for USDA to strengthen its conservation commitment with state agencies responsible for managing sage-grouse populations.”
USDA will also work with the Department of Interior (DOI) to provide certainty to landowners who enroll in NRCS programs to benefit sage grouse, saying this will protect landowners from increased regulation should the bird be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“Thanks to this NRCS program support, ranch communities will be able devote more resources to sagebrush habitat recovery as well as initiate new cooperative habitat revitalization efforts,” says Leo Barthelmess, a rancher in Malta, Mont. and founding member of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, which works collaboratively with agencies, private landowners, non-governmental organizations and many other partners to conserve sage grouse habitat across a one million-acre landscape in eastern Montana.
The press release continues, “USDA’s sage grouse initiative also will help the 11 western states respond proactively to a recent DOI announcement that the sage grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but will not be listed because of the need to focus on other higher priority species.”
Because of the DOI decision not to list the sage grouse, USDA says landowners now have “additional time to be responsive by taking specific actions to protect the species.”
USDA, noting it’s worked at the local, state and national levels on behalf of voluntary sage grouse conservation for many years, says it will intensify its efforts in the future.