NRCS provides Sage Grouse Initiative funding specifically for conservation easements
In early February the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced the availability of $17 million in additional funding through the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program (FRPP) for sage grouse habitat projects in Wyoming.
The funding, announced by NRCS Chief Dave White at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) meeting in Denver, Colo., comes as part of the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), now in its second year as a program, that will target the FRPP funds to places in the state where sage grouse numbers and fragmentation threats remain high. The funding is expected to help conserve 40,000 acres of sage grouse habitat through conservation easements.
“Chief White stipulated that the funds be used for sage grouse centric projects, which in Wyoming is not hard to do,” says Paul Shelton of the NRCS in Casper.
“The money that’s been announced is specifically for conservation easements to protect existing habitat rather than on-the-ground management,” says Wyoming Game and Fish Department Habitat Extension Biologist Brian Jensen, who will soon transition to NRCS State Sage Grouse Coordinator.
To support ongoing SGI partnership efforts, NRCS will use $23 million in FRPP funds to protect the approximately 40,000 acres of prime sagebrush grazing land in Wyoming, 7,000 acres of working lands in Montana and roughly 2,000 acres of large and intact sagebrush grasslands in Colorado.
“We see conservation easements as part of the equation for sage grouse habitat, along with EQIP, WHIP and Candidate Conservation Agreement language that the Wyoming Department of Agriculture and others are working on,” says Shelton.
Jensen adds that the money for easements will be targeted at sage grouse core areas, with perhaps even some special emphasis on some of the best sage grouse habitat, as well as that which is considered most at-risk.
“We have a great land trust community in the state, and a backlog of projects,” says Shelton, who adds his agency is ranking them and will soon begin to allocate the funds.
Although he says participation is excellent, the “fly in the ointment” is the ability of land trusts to obtain the matching dollars, which typically require 25 percent of the easement’s purchase price.
“In that case, the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust comes into play, as well as private donations, and the Jonah Interagency Office and the Pinedale Anticline have participated. There’s also a lot of discussion with Governor Mead and the state legislature for a funding mechanism to help the land trusts,” says Shelton.
“Part of the reason we got the additional FRPP money was because the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust has publicly said conservation easements are a priority for them, too, and they’re willing to piggyback on our FRPP efforts,” says Jensen.
“The conservation of large intact sagebrush grasslands provided by Wyoming’s working ranches is critical to the avoidance of sage grouse being listed,” says Wyoming Stockgrowers Agricultural Land Trust Executive Director Pam Dewell in a statement. “We value this effort to provide landowners with tools that can protect us all from federal government management.”
Dewell’s support is echoed by other conservation leaders who support efforts to protect Wyoming’s land, water and Western heritage. Other Wyoming leaders expressing their appreciation for this major funding effort include the Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, the Wyoming Land Trust and the Jackson Hole Land Trust. The groups also expressed support for the elevated level of communication between NRCS and FWS, ensuring that future listing decisions are well informed and that partners receive “credit” for implementing voluntary conservation.
Although the $17 million is designated for sage grouse projects, Shelton says that’s not all the FRPP funding Wyoming hopes to get, and that there will be funding available for other projects that lack sage grouse implications.
Of the SGI in general, Jensen says he expects to receive similar amounts to last year, and that the program will generally stay the same, with a few tweaks to project rankings to do a better job of targeting the money to good sage grouse country and higher density sage grouse areas.
“We attempted to do that last year, but now we’ve beefed that portion up,” he says. “Otherwise, the program will run similar to last year, with a grazing management emphasis leading to an increase in residual cover for nesting.”
He says Wyoming has received slightly more money than last year for projects, and that the agency is batching and ranking projects now. The application period is ongoing, so any application sent in this spring will be included in the 2012 program.
Jensen says last year’s SGI money was completely allocated, and that there were many more applications than available funding. He estimates 25 or 30 applications were funded statewide through the SGI, out of approximately 70. The unfunded 2010 applications can roll over to the next funding pool, and that’s an option that’s given to applicants, as well as the opportunity to adjust the applications.
“The reason we have a lot of sage grouse in this country is because we have the habitat, and the best thing we can do for sage grouse is to maintain the land we have,” says Jensen.