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Harshbargers lead Wyo with potential ESA agreement

Written by Jennifer Womack
Newcastle – If the months ahead go as planned, Bob and Jean Harshbarger’s 4W Ranch in Weston County could be the sight of the state’s first agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to protect species that are candidates for Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing while ensuring the Harshbargers can continue ranching. The agreement would protect their right to ranch should one of the four species included in the agreement be listed.
     It’s been nine years since the FWS unveiled final policy for its Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) and eight years since the Harshbargers first sought out such an agreement. “This policy is intended to facilitate the conservation of proposed and candidate species, and species likely to become candidates in the near future by giving citizens, States, local governments, Tribes, businesses, organizations, and other non-Federal property owners incentives to implement conservation measures for declining species by providing certainty with regard to land, water, or resource use restrictions that might be imposed should the species later become listed as threatened or endangered under the Act,” says the July 1999 Federal Register in which the incentive-based approach to ESA goals is announced.
    The 4W Ranch’s proposed CCAA includes black-tailed prairie dogs, mountain plover, ferruginous hawk and burrowing owls. By agreeing to provide 3,000 acres of habitat for the species, which have largely the same habitat requirements, the Harshbargers will be compensated for the habitat they provide and ensured they can continue existing ranching practices.
    “The reason I support this, and I stick to my guns today,” says Bob noting some of his fellow ranchers have questioned their efforts, “is that on our ranch there’s such a magnitude of prairie dog colonies that if they’re ever listed and they restrict the grazing, it would take away a quarter of our ranch.” He says another petition recently filed to give the prairie dog ESA status underscores his concern.
    Listing discussions surrounding the prairie dog were also pending when the Harshbargers first entered the CCAA process with the help of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture’s Matt Hoobler. “He’s the author,” says Bob of the document’s early drafts.
    “The 4W ranch CCAA is going to show us that we can do a Section 10 CCAA,” says Hoobler of the agreement that could be published in the Federal Register as early as this winter. Wyoming has one Safe Harbor Agreement, written on species already granted ESA listing status, in Albany County for the Wyoming toad. A CCAA hasn’t yet been written in the state, although in recent months there’s been talk of seeking a statewide CCAA for sage grouse.
    “We’re taking the step to create a document the FWS is comfortable with as well as a working ranch,” says Hoobler. “That’s a tremendous value in theory.”
    FWS responses to the document have been tied to changes in personnel, but both the Harshbargers and Hoobler credit FWS Biologist Scott Covington, who joined the agency six months ago, for bringing the process back to life. “He came to us with a timeline of when he wants to have things done,” says Bob noting Covington’s work has brought renewed optimism that the document might reach completion.
    “It’s one of the times when the service can take a proactive effort,” says Covington. While not many CCAAs have been completed, nationwide he says he isn’t aware of a species that’s been listed following completion of an agreement. “I’m really happy to be working with them on this. It’s a step in the right direction and I hope we can do more of them.”
    Covington says, “We’re trying to streamline the process.” Since the Harshbargers first sought a CCAA he says his agency has developed a CCAA template. “It was pretty new when they first started. They’ve been really patient and it’s a testament to their character that they’ve stuck it out and continued pushing for it.”
    Harshbarger’s proposed agreement is for 10 years with an option to renew as it nears the end of its life. In the event the Harshbargers sold their ranch during that timeframe the new owner would have the option of accepting the agreement. They also have an exit clause that allows them to abandon the agreement for a variety of reasons including inadequate financial compensation for the habitat they provide.
    “Jean and I want to make sure the language in this agreement doesn’t take away any of our private property rights,” says Bob. “We don’t want it to interfere with how we operate the ranch.”
    Hoobler says the Harshbargers have reviewed every draft of the CCAA. It’s important, he says, that landowners make sure the agreement is something they can live with.
    Jean says they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure prairie dogs can be controlled in the hay meadows using all legal means. They’ve also included language to continue their prairie dog hunting business, a tool integral to keeping populations in check. The business was launched in the early 1990s and continues on and off based on the plague cycles associated with prairie dogs.
    A private contractor hired by the ranch gathered baseline data on the four species in the spring and early summer of 2001. Population monitoring of the prairie dog was accomplished late summer of 2001 and monitoring of all four species has continued annually through 2007. The ranch stood the initial cost of obtaining the baseline data, GPS mapping of the prairie dog colonies and population monitoring through 2004. A grant has now been obtained to assist in the cost of monitoring and the annual reports associated with the data gathered.
    During the monitoring process Bob and Jean say the ranch’s prairie dog populations have been through one complete cycle of the plague and started another. “We’ve seen the prairie dog population go high, crash, come back up and now it’s down again,” says Bob. “We’ve probably got the only data in the country showing that.”
    Using FWS guidelines in their data collection, Jean says they also learned, in numerical terms, how quickly prairie dog populations are able to expand. Between 2003 and 2004 they say the population, recovering from the plague, jumped from 2,500 to 25,000. “In 2005 and 2006 we were able to resume limited recreational hunting of the priairie dog as the population continued to increase in those years. Hunting was again terminated in 2007 as the plague returned and annihilated the population,” says Bob.
    The CCAA sets out a population threshold at which recreational hunting can resume. Hunting, when populations allow, runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day with no more than six hunters at a time.
    “The biggest hang-up is probably funding,” says Bob, who insists the agreement must cover the cost of maintaining the prairie dog habitat, compensation for forage loss in the prairie dog colonies and the associated cost of monitoring and reports. With FWS lacking the necessary funds, he says they’re instead looking at an agreement in which FWS would help secure funds from other federal and state agencies.
    “We could be running 75 more cows at times if it weren’t for the prairie dogs, as they are a large consumer of rangeland forage,” notes Jean.
    “Not too many folks work on a document for eight years,” says Hoobler noting the drive the Harshbargers have shown in this process. Of the document, he says it’s good for the Harshbargers, good for the environment in which they live and good for the species the CCAA addresses.
    “We’ve got a really good, solid draft,” says Covington. “The next steps are to finish up NEPA work.” He says the document requires publication in the Federal Register and public comments will be taken for 30 days.
    “If  we can get this through it will be a real incentive for other people to try and follow,” says Jean.
    Jennifer Womack is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..