SGI offers incidental take protections in wake of sage grouse decisionWritten by Saige Albert
With the uncertainty as to whether or not sage grouse will be listed as an endangered species, many ranchers across the West are looking at how to protect themselves and their operation if the bird is listed.
With options like the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) available, some landowners are implementing conservation actions on their property to provide protection in the event of a listing.
“After FWS’ candidate designation of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act in 2010, NRCS launched SGI to reduce threats facing sage grouse and ranching through voluntary and collaborative partnerships with ranchers and conservation partners,” wrote NRCS Director Jason Weller in a Feb. 11, 2015 letter to FWS Director Dan Ashe.
The Working Lands for Wildlife program provides the umbrella that SGI falls under. The program is a collaborative effort between NRCS, FWS and private landowners.
SGI offers multiple options for producers to work toward conserving sage grouse habitat – including conifer removal, conservation easement, grazing systems, marking fences and other restoration.
“With SGI, we can provide technical knowledge for ways to improve habitat for the sage grouse, as well as things that might improve their operation,” says Wyoming NRCS State Wildlife Biologist Brian Jensen. “We can also potentially provide financial assistance to voluntarily implement the practices that might protect the bird and the operation while also getting the ESA protections that people are interested in.”
Jensen noted that SGI provides 40 conservation practices that are fairly broad in nature.
“When forage is in terrific shape for sage grouse and other wildlife, it’s also great for putting more pounds on livestock that translate into higher prices in the market,” SGI comments.
To date in Wyoming, 993,100 acres have been put into grazing systems, 181,218 acres have been protected by easements, and conifers have been removed from 1,280 acres under SGI.
Additionally, four acres have been seeded and 14 miles of fence have been marked or removed to help sage grouse.
Participants in SGI are granted some certainty, or predictability, if the sage grouse is listed.
“In 2010, the FWS agreed to give 30 years worth of assurance to participating SGI ranchers that they can continue their approved practices for sage grouse conservation, whether the species is listed or not,” says SGI.
Tyler Abbott, FWS Wyoming Ecological Services deputy field supervisor, continued that those landowners who are enrolled in SGI also receive coverage for incidental take if the bird is listed.
“Those landowners participating in the SGI program are covered for incidental take for the 40 practices that can be implemented on the ground for sage grouse within the SGI program,” Abbott noted.
Jensen added, “FWS issued 30 years of predictability from the signing of the conference report, which was in 2010. They are protected for 30 years under SGI, which covers a full generation in most cases.”
Abbott also noted that the coverage under SGI is similar – but not identical – to the protection received from a CCAA. SGI Program and CCAAs are complimentary to, and compatible with, each other and landowners may choose to participate in both.
“The CCAA assurances provide more general coverage for farm and ranch practices in exchange for implementation of a number of agreed-upon conservation measures,” he explained.
A CCAA allows a landowner to agree to any number of conservation measures on the ground – all of which address potential threats to sage grouse that may occur on a specific property – in return for two assurances.
First is that FWS will not ask the participant to implement any additional conservation measures in the event that the sage grouse is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Second is that participants will receive an incidental take permit which becomes effective if the sage grouse is listed under the ESA.
“The agreement involves implementing certain measures, and those who sign up receive coverage for all farm and ranch activities occurring that may potentially result in take of sage grouse that is incidental to otherwise legal activities,” Abbott says.
As of Feb. 18, FWS has completed 25 CCAAs covering 302,472 acres. Of that, 168,150 acres are in sage grouse core areas, and 20,216 protected acres are in connectivity acres.
“We have also completed four Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCA) on federal land,” Abbott says.
The CCAs cover 48,826 acres, 31,471 of which are in core area and 7,541 acres in connectivity areas.
“At the end of the day, we don’t have any say as to whether the bird is listed or not,” Jensen adds, “but we want to help landowners. We are looking to help the bird and provide protections for landowners and their interests.”
Jensen encourages landowners with more questions about SGI to contact their local NRCS field office.
“We are taking signups for this program right now,” he comments, “and there may be money available to help out.”