Sublette County Sage Grouse Update explores new conservation tools
Pinedale – As western agencies and landowners work to boost Greater sage grouse habitat and bird populations and avoid a potential “endangered species” listing in September 2015, new conservation partnerships within Wyoming are solidifying.
On March 20, about 40 people gathered in Pinedale for the daylong Sage Grouse Update to hear about various – and often overlapping – conservation strategies available to Wyoming’s private landowners and state and federal land-management agencies that hold sage grouse habitat.
The audience got up-to-date details on a new program, the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange (UGRCE).
Founders are feeling the way to possible formal recognition this spring from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as a “conservation bank” for sage grouse mitigation partnerships with financial incentives paid to ranchers by energy and development companies.
“How do we monetize the benefits that landowners provide to society?” asked Kristi Hansen, a University of Wyoming agricultural economist, listing food, fresh water, clean air, habitat and other “ecosystem services.”
The UGRCE hopes to bring together companies needing offsite mitigation “credits” with landowners, who can undertake specific conservation measures that benefit sage grouse recovery on the companies’ behalf.
UGRCE members chose three specific incentives – to conserve and improve greater sage grouse, mule deer and riparian functions.
Companies would pay specific amounts to UGRCE, acting as a middleman, to buy “conservation credits” from ranchers or private landowners for agreed-upon voluntary practices. These “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) would have varying terms that are not permanent, according to Hansen.
If Greater sage grouse recover as a result of these conservation partnerships, the species might avoid listing. If listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2015, the companies would have regulatory assurances in place with their PES “credits,” Hansen said.
“Regulatory assurances are key for energy companies,” she said. “Energy companies want to know their money is well-spent, with a focus on measuring results and quantifying what has been done.”
This “cutting edge” mitigation and conservation exchange concept would need to fit with policies of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and FWS, Hansen explained.
Esther Duke of Colorado State University presented a feasibility study analysis of an UGCRE survey with 132 Sublette County ranchers responding, or 48 percent of those receiving the survey.
The survey was designed to identify what factors might lead ranchers to participate in the new conservation-credit exchange and to determine how familiar they are with conservation compensation programs from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD) and the Jonah Interagency Office.
Its Sublette rancher profile shows 70 percent responding are male and have an average age of 60 with some college education. Eighty-eight percent rely on off-ranch income, according to Duke.
In 2011, 71 ranchers, or 54 percent, said their ranches were profitable or broke even, while 60 respondents lost money or chose to not answer, Duke said.
The survey also helped come up with possible suitable payments for practices such as flood irrigating to create a wetland or opening gates to allow wildlife through.
“As an example, respondents who remove fencing would need to be paid $1,226 per year per suitable acre to keep the same utility that they would have had if they did not remove the fencing and perches,” Duke related. “Opening gates during wildlife migration would be $465 per gate.”
These and other possible actions could be a “free-market solution, not a government program” for ranchers to receive more revenue from private lands, Hansen concluded, citing a need for more conversation among involved agencies and landowners.
UGCRE partners include UW, Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Environmental Incentives (EI) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Vermillion Ranch owner T. Wright Dickenson told the audience about Partners for the West, a Colorado credit-exchange program that provides ranchers an option for permanent land-trust conservation easements.
“The ecosystem services and this exchange will bring dollars to the table – new capital to the table,” Dickenson said. “Coupled with regulatory assurances, we have the certainty to operate a good path for sage grouse in Colorado. This tool could work rangewide in this issue of sage grouse.”
Larger landscape measures were also discussed as possible solutions to sage grouse recovery and ranchers’ protections.
Leanne Correll of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) said the organization will provide a broad view of FWS’ new voluntary Sage Grouse Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) as possible on its website with a dedicated page opening April 15.
“It is one of several tools that landowners have, was just developed and is being finalized as a viable option,” Correll said, adding those interested should “pare down” conservation plans to “what is specifically going to benefit sage grouse.”
Correll also discussed the FWS’ complementary Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) for those with permits on federal lands.
“Many of the ranchers in Wyoming have public and private lands with the BLM and the Forest Service,” she said.
FWS deputy field supervisor Tyler Abbott also delved into private-land CCAAs.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to do this on an individual ranch basis – whatever makes sense for that property and the landowner,” Abbott said.
As for the CCA, the BLM could be prepared this week to begin reviewing applications. The FWS has provided USFS officials with a draft template and a document is in the works.
“The point is to keep sage grouse from being listed under the ESA,” Abbott said. “The goal is to reduce and remove threats to the species.”
Newest conservation tool
The Upper Green River Conservation Exchange (UGRCE) is in the early stages of forming a program to help energy companies, developers and other public and private organizations buy “conservation credits” for offsite mitigation and conservation by providing financial incentives to landowners who undertake certain practices that would benefit sage grouse, as well as mule deer and riparian habitats.
“We are working now on more substantial documents describing how the exchange will work, in preparation for filing with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be a ‘programmatic conservation bank,’” Kristi Hansen, a University of Wyoming ag economist with UGRCE, said last week. “Those documents are all in draft form but should become publicly available within the next few months.”
For some background information on UGRCE, visit the Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD) at sublettecd.com/pid/63/wildlife-and-habitat-program.aspx.
For more details, call SCCD Director Eric Peterson or Melanie Purcell in Pinedale at 307-367-2257.