NRCS chief discusses the Sage Grouse Initiative at the program’s five-year markWritten by Natasha Wheeler
In 2010, the Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCS) launched the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) to create partnerships and manage habitat across 11 western states.
“We launched this initiative five years ago with a focus on bringing collaborative partnerships to the table to approach widespread conservation by using partners, networks and relationships, science tools, know-how and target actions in ways that are proactive, positive and collaborative,” stated NRCS Chief Jason Weller, during a webinar on Feb. 13.
SGI brought together federal and state agencies, conservation districts, private landowners and other interested parties.
“We want to prove that we have room for wildlife, but importantly, we also want to maintain the economic and overall sustainable approach for ranching in the West,” he noted.
Total current investment in SGI is almost $425 million. Conservation through the program already includes 6,000 square miles of rangeland in the western states.
“That is a land area equivalent in size to Yellowstone National Park,” explained Weller.
Experts involved with SGI teamed up to identify viable sage grouse habitats, as well as areas containing the largest populations and greatest densities of breeding pairs.
“To make an investment on a collective recommendation, our professionals began by looking at Priority Areas for Conservation (PAC),” Weller noted.
Over the last five years, 360,000 acres have been added to NRCS easements, bringing the total to more than 450,000 acres.
The size of easements has also increased.
“One of the threats to grouse, we know through science, is the fragmentation of the landscape,” he explained.
Row crop production, energy development and infrastructure, housing development, highways, transportation and more can affect habitat.
“These things are all necessary for the economic fabric of the West,” commented Weller. “How do we provide room for ranching, the grouse and economic development within the landscape?”
By working with voluntary partners and landowners, SGI is designating protection of habitat throughout the West.
“Protection is not just for grouse, but for hundreds of other species on the range, as well as for the cows that we need to provide food for America,” Weller added.
NRCS will continue to support SGI, financed by continued funding from the latest Farm Bill.
“From this point forward, we are working to maintain, if not accelerate this momentum. I am really excited and absolutely positive that we are going to make a difference moving forward,” he said.
Financial assistance from NRCS will continue at the current level of $25 million a year, driven by the demand of landowner interest in the program.
“We feel that landowner interest has been accelerating, so we are going to maintain our high levels of investment in this landscape for the next four years,” he explained.
Investments in the regional conservation through SGI are achieved by a locally-led, partner driven approach.
“Ranchers choose which environmental sustainable ranching practices work for them on their ranches and then sign a five-year contract that can be renewed at the end of the term for another five years,” he explained.
NRCS will also be adding permanent positions to the SGI effort, including solidifying 27 partner positions in Strategic Watershed Action Teams (SWAT).
“A lot of folks have been serving on an interim basis, and we made the decision that we are going to make this permanent,” he stated.
SWAT professionals work from field offices to communicate and plan SGI strategy, consult with and assist ranchers and bridge between landowners and NCRS.
The program will also extend the contract for Dave Naugle and his team from the University of Montana for another five years, as well as bringing in a permanent sage grouse technical specialist to work with the Western Technical Center.
“We will also be advertising soon for a regional coordinator for Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW),” he added.
“I can’t say enough good things about what happens when we get dedicated people who are really smart and passionate together and what they can do. I am really excited to see where the team and the whole network takes us next,” Weller said.
NRCS will also be maintaining the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), supported by an average of $20 million a year.
“We are also going to bring to bear the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which has been unfortunately dormant in this landscape over the last five years,” Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller commented.
CSP is designed to reward producers for current excellent stewardship, as well as to provide them with tools and resources to take their sustainable ranching practices to the next level.
“Today, we have at least 67 million acres under contract across the U.S., and we are looking to bring another 7 million acres in this year,” he stated.