Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association works to conserve speciesWritten by Saige Albert
The Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association (TBGPEA) was formed in 1999 with a focus on black-tailed prairie dogs, but the organization has expanded its reach to focus on a wide variety of species.
“When we were formed, there was a lot of interest in the Thunder Basin National Grassland associated with the plan revisions for the Forest Service,” says Dave Pellatz, executive director for TBGPEA. “The group got together to look at issues of conservation, particularly related to prairie dogs.”
Today, TBGPEA, a 501(c)3 corporation, includes 15 coal members, including 12 Powder River Basin mines, one oil and gas member and 24 ranch members, but in the beginning, the landowner-led initiative faced some obstacles.
In the formative years for TBGPEA, Pellatz notes that landowners had a large land base, but they didn’t necessarily have the funding to put conservation measures in place.
“Our early discussions with energy companies in the area were that they wanted to look at conservation options. They didn’t have the land, but they have the ability to provide funding,” he continues. “That is how our partnership started.”
TBGPEA’s members now partner with between 50 and 60 organizations across 13.2 million acres to accomplish their goals.
The land is 77 percent privately owned, with eight percent owned by the state of Wyoming, seven percent owned by the U.S. Forest Service and eight percent owned by BLM.
“This group is driven by private landowners,” Pellatz adds. “We also work with a lot of federal agencies because of the nature of the landscape.”
He notes that, though there is not the checkerboard situation seen in southwest Wyoming, a large amount of federal land sits in the northeast corner of the state.
“The Forest Service lands up here tends to be more blocked, but there are private inholdings as well,” Pellatz says. “Our projects are primarily done on the private lands of our members, but we have put several projects in place on federal lands as well.”
The major focus of TBGPEA has been development of their conservation strategy – a document that will be affective for at least 30 years.
The conservation strategy focuses on habitat conservation efforts to protect species of concern.
It also provides property owners appropriate assurances or certainty that no additional regulatory requirements will be imposed should the covered species be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
With its unique make-up and ability to work across landscapes, TBGPEA is uniquely poised to address the difficulties often seen in conservation.
“One of the hiccups we have seen in conservation is that invasive species and habitats don’t stop at the fence line when they hit federal lands,” Clark McCreedy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues. “One of the striking features of this conservation strategy is that we can work cooperatively to achieve the greatest good. We can work across these lines.”
“TGBPEA can look over the large landscape and ask, ‘Where should we prioritize our efforts?’” McCreedy adds, noting that it is also important to work across both public and private lands.
The Memorandums of Understanding with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have allowed the groups to work together strategically. However, the amount of time and effort that have been spent on developing these relationships has been substantial.
“Facilitating partnerships and projects, regardless of the landscape, is important,” Pellatz says.
Species of concern
Though the organization started with a focus on black-tailed prairie dogs, Pellatz notes, “As things changed and other species became more prominent, as far as listing decisions and species of concern, we identified almost 1,000 species that we could work on. That is unwieldy, so over a period of time, we decided to focus on a representative set of species in the sagebrush steppe and the shortgrass prairie.”
In each ecosystem type, TBGPEA focuses on conservation of four primary species, for a total of eight species of concern – black-tailed prairie dogs, mountain plover, burrowing owl, Ferruginous hawk, Greater sage grouse, Brewer’s sparrow, sage sparrow and sage thrasher.
“We have developed a list of conservation measures for each species,” Pellatz explains. “There are over 170 measures with the majority focusing on the sagebrush species.”
Pellatz continues that TBGPEA partners with many organizations to accomplish their work – which ranges from invasive species work to monitoring information.
With mixed ownership of their lands, Pellatz adds that the surface and subsurface ownership of the land means that partnerships have been even more important.
“We applaud our energy partners for putting conservation on the ground,” Pellatz says.
McCreedy adds, “These energy companies have really been making conservation happen. Their commitment to conservation is above and beyond the statutory requirements of their reclamation.”
With a focus on conservation today and moving 10 to 20 years into the future, Pellatz notes that TBGPEA’s strategy is one that looks for a way to work with partners to accomplish conservation goals.
“We are looking to cross private and public lands, which makes for a very strong conservation strategy,” Pellatz says. “TBGPEA’s strategy is designed to work with the issues that we face in northeast Wyoming, and we are anxious to continue working into the future.”
“We are taking a very long-term approach, and our focus over the last five years has been getting these agreements in place,” Pellatz says. “We are hoping to have the Environmental Assessment and the final documents signed by September 2015.”
McCreedy notes that the long-term view that TBGPEA has taken is particularly notable.
He comments, “TBGPEA has taken, in my view, a holistic, very reasonable approach to land management in looking at how we sustain the health of lands and continued multiple use of lands for the future.”
In developing their collaborative conservation effort, the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association has accomplished a number of conservation efforts.
The association has invested $2.8 million to enhance sagebrush and shortgrass habitats.
They have also developed 3,900 acres of enhanced nesting cover in sage grouse core areas, and 35,000 acres have been treated for cheatgrass. They have mapped 1.7 million acres of sagebrush as well.
Additionally, monitoring has been accomplished on 835 vegetation transects, along with small mammal and breeding bird surveys and raptor nest searches, as well as sage grouse telemetry and lek cameras.