Pathfinder Ranches become home to first sage grouse conservation bankWritten by Jennifer Womack
Cheyenne –Central Wyoming’s historic Pathfinder Ranches, as announced March 18 in the State Capitol Building, are now home to the nation’s first conservation bank dedicated to the Greater sage grouse.
Beginning with 55,000 deeded acres, the Sweetwater River Conservancy could grow to encompass 700,000 acres of working lands including 10 historic ranches owned by the Conservancy. Those ranches include the Pathfinder Ranch, the Bummer Ranch, the Buzzard Ranch, the Cardwell Ranch, the Cardwell Access Ranch, the Dumbell Ranch, the Miracle Mile Ranch, the Sun’s Turkey Track Ranch, the Oil Can Ranch, the Perkins Ranch and the Two Iron Ranch.
According to Jeff Meyer, managing partner of the Conservancy, it will be larger than each of the nation’s other 200 mitigation banks combined.
Mitigation in mind
“Sweetwater’s goal is to protect and enhance some of the nation’s best sage grouse habitat while delivering an important tool that will contribute to the long-term health of Wyoming’s business community,” said Meyer. “Mitigation credits created on this landscape will be available to offset unavoidable impacts of economic development by supporting permanently protected, high-quality habitat for the Greater sage grouse.”
Representatives from the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, numerous state agencies and the private sector were in attendance for the announcement.
While privately driven, state and federal partnerships guided the Conservancy to fruition. An interagency review team comprised of representatives from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, the Bureau of Land Management, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and private landowners helped form the Conservancy and will monitor it moving forward.
As mitigation credits are sold, funds will be deposited in a trust fund with the interest providing for the Conservancy’s long-term management.
Importance of agriculture
“It’s important to me as a rancher,” said Wyoming Governor Matthew Mead, “that livestock grazing will continue on the ranch. It’s no surprise that, once again, it’s ranching and ag that helped provide some of the answers we need in Wyoming. In fact, sound ag practices will be the cornerstone of habitat management on private, state and federal lands within the ranch.”
“The Sweetwater River Conservancy is a conservation bank that encompasses some of the most historic and storied ranches in Wyoming,” said Jim Kurth, deputy director of the FWS, of the project he called the largest landscape planning effort in the history of wildlife management. “These ranches have conserved some of the best wildlife habitat in Wyoming for decades, and now we can ensure they will forever be dedicated to providing a home for the Greater sage grouse and hundreds of other species that depend on the land.”
“The best solutions for the things we care about always come locally,” said Bob Budd, director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund.
Sage grouse efforts
Recalling when Wyoming first began discussing the state’s role in sage grouse conservation, Budd said, “When we started this strategy in 2007, we built it on three fundamentals – avoid conflict, minimize threats and mitigate where we are forced to do that.”
While declaration of core sage grouse areas and strict development strategies addressed the first two items on the list, Budd said the mitigation component has thus far been missing.
The market, or demand for the credits the conservation bank has to sell, will determine the rate of growth and the Conservancy’s eventual size. Companies, as approved by the land management agencies, can purchase credits to offset impacts stemming from development elsewhere in sage grouse habitat.
A credit with the Sweetwater River Conservancy equates to a single unit of habitat value for the sage grouse. Given the bird’s nesting, brood rearing, summering and wintering habitat needs, each of the habitat types is represented in a credit.
As the number of credits sold grows, so, too, will the size of the conservation bank. Once a credit is sold to a third-party developer, the Conservancy is responsible for ensuring that conservation goals are met.
The efforts will be protected in perpetuity via conservation easements. The Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust has been selected to hold and administer the conservation easements.
“The Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust is a natural fit for a project that seeks to conserve Wyoming’s working ranches and the wide-open spaces, natural habitat and rural communities they support,” said Mantha Phillips, chairman of the Land Trust’s Board of Directors.
“The long-term health of the Greater sage grouse throughout the West depends on strong and innovative partnerships to conserve and restore its habitat in ways that embrace traditional uses of the land such as cattle ranching,” said Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. “As the first conservation bank for Greater sage grouse, the Sweetwater River Conservancy provides one model for how we can work with states, landowners, tribes, local communities and others to conserve our working, western landscapes.”
In 2010, the FWS determined that the Greater sage grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but was precluded by higher priorities.
Since then, a remarkable, broad-based coalition of stakeholders has come together across the bird’s 165 million-acre, 11-state range to address threats in an effort to prevent the need for a listing.
The FWS is set to review its listing decision later this year.
Most of the Sweetwater River Conservancy is classified as core sage grouse habitat by the state of Wyoming, a designation applied to areas of the highest sage grouse populations.
In addition to sage grouse, the Conservancy will manage the property for the benefit of other wildlife and promote improved water quality and quantity on the property.
Defining conservation bank
A conservation bank is a piece of property that is permanently protected and managed with regard to the natural resource values within that property. It functions to offset adverse impacts to a species that occur elsewhere, and is often referred to as off-site compensatory mitigation.
These lands are conserved and permanently managed for species that are listed under the Endangered Species Act, have been designated a candidate for listing or are a species of conservation concern.