Sage grouse agreement moves forward
Cheyenne – At the 2013 Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Deputy Field Supervisor Tyler Abbott reviewed the comments received on the Sage Grouse Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA).
“In every case, I tried to accommodate requests made in comments,” said Abbott. “I was careful to address comments, and I think they made it a better and fairer document.”
“The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) had a number of questions and concerns, and there were comments from the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts and other folks that helped to make the environmental assessment and CCAA a lot better,” he added.
Defining a CCAA
A CCAA provides a mechanism offering landowners protection in the event a candidate species is listed.
“They are voluntary agreements between FWS and landowners, where landowners agree to implement certain measures or actions,” explained Abbott. “There are two important things landowners get back.”
If they sign a CCAA, landowners who have implemented conservation measures are allowed to continuing operating as described in their CCAA with no additional requirements if the species is listed.
“The second thing that goes along with the CCAA is a Section 10 permit,” explained Abbott, noting that a Section 10 permit allows a certain number of birds to be taken incidentally as a result of actions association with livestock operations.
Incidental take associated with normal ranch operations is of concern for landowners, who fear accidental sage grouse deaths as a result of normal agriculture operation could result in penalties.
“There may be things that happen – if producers are mowing a hay meadow, moving livestock or checking water – that result in death of the birds. Things happen,” said Abbott. “The idea behind incidental take and the incidental take permit is producers will not be penalized for accidental deaths.”
“Section Nine of the Endangered Species Act prohibits killing, harassing, harming or taking endangered species, while Section 10 makes exceptions to takings,” he explained.
He also added that language in the CCAA states, “If adequate data are available on a localized scale in which a particular ranch is located, and the average number of birds differs substantially from the statewide average, the amount of allowable incidental take would be adjusted accordingly.”
A concern expressed by WSGA and others was the ability of ranchers to work with those participating agency representatives that they feel comfortable with and trust.
“We have no problem with this,” explained Abbott of producers working with participating agency representatives. “The first couple of CCAAs that we do will have to include FWS folks like myself to make sure us and the participating agencies are on the same page. After that, we anticipate much less involvement.”
Monitoring requirements were also of concern. WSGA noted the mandated monitoring may exceed the technical ability of landowners.
Abbott said that because monitoring is required to evaluate progress. However, he added that participating agencies will also work with landowners on monitoring.
“Participating agency biologists and range techs will work with landowners to show them how to conduct the monitoring,” he said. “We have intentionally streamlined the monitoring to make it as easy as possible and still provide the basic information. We will work with landowners, as needed, in order to address any issues they have and to accommodate their needs.”
A number of commenters expressed concerns over the lack of recognition of predators as a threat to sage grouse.
“To date, FWS’ interpretation of the best available science is that, on a range-wide basis, predation has little impact on breeding sage-grouse populations,” said Abbott. “FWS will continue to monitor the findings of ongoing research regarding this issue and will re-think its position as more information becomes available, using the Adaptive Management framework as a model of how to move forward.”
Each agreement, he continued, will be an individualized document that reflects individual operations.
“We’ll work with landowners and agree to do what is feasible and what makes sense – flexibility to take these situations on a case-by-case basis is one of the real values of the CCAA,” Abbott mentioned. “It is the voice of reason that guides us. If it isn’t feasible, then it isn’t a valid agreement.”
Abbott also noted that he inserted language to recognize site to site variability of rangeland production and habitats to further accommodate landowners.
“Grazing and ranch management are not a concern,” said Abbott of threats to sage grouse.
“We have some big issues like development and fragmentation,” he continued. “Regardless of what happens, if the bird gets listed, as long as producers follow the agreements, we aren’t going to ask them to do anything more.”
“There was a 30 day public comment period, and for the last three months, I’ve been modifying the CCAA to try to address the comments,” said Abbott, also noting that an environmental assessment on the Section 10 permit is an important part of the CCAA. “The next step is to get together with ag executives, agriculture producers and representatives to talk about how to implement the CCAA and how to get started.”
He predicted the process would take a month to a month and a half.
“We have a lot to do. The logistics are daunting,” commented Abbott, “but by mid-July, we will ready to get the application process going.”