The Sage Grouse Initiative: A Federal Program that Works with Private Landowners

By: Amos P. Eno
Posted on:08/18/2015 Updated:02/25/2016

Conservation of the greater sage-grouse, which inhabits roughly 165 million acres of sage brush steppe habitat in 11 western states, has been a recurring topic on this blog. However, with a decision looming from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether to put the greater sage-grouse on the Endangered Species List, it seemed like an opportune time to speak with Tim Griffiths, National Coordinator of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Sage Grouse Initiative since 2010, and recently named West Regional Coordinator of NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife, where he will continue to provide vision and leadership for the SGI.

Since its creation in 2010, the goal of SGI has been to achieve “wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching,” specifically conservation of the greater sage-grouse. While the goal has remained the same, SGI has evolved greatly since its inception five years ago.

In the beginning, most of SGI’s work went into developing prescribed grazing systems for ranchers, plans that includes strategies to rotate cattle to different pastures to avoid over grazing and altering the seasonal use within pastures, all designed to develop healthy cattle and healthy ecosystems. “We wanted to make sure that, above everything else, we had a sustainable space,” said Griffiths. “That was our big focus.”

The development of sustainable grazing systems is still an important part of SGI’s strategy to conserve greater sage-grouse, but according to Griffiths, now they are devoting more resources to two major projects: conservation easements and conifer removal.

Conservation easements are one of the most valuable ways to protect sage-grouse on private lands because they ensure the lands will remain as working ranches and preserve their conservation values in perpetuity: No matter who owns the land in the future, the deed to the conservation easement is held by a third party land trust so it can never be sold for development.

Unfortunately, Griffiths explained that their conservation easement program is suffering a setback. In the past, SGI was able to work quickly by using NRCS funding to pay for the full cost of conservation easements, but since the establishment of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the NRCS can only provide matching funds of up to 50 percent. The rest of the money must come in the form of a non-federal match, such as from the land trusts who hold the easement, other non-profits, state and local government agencies, businesses, or the landowners themselves.

Typically, many land trusts and local agencies located near urban centers, think Bozeman, Montana or Denver, Colorado, have the funding, through taxes or donations, to purchase and preserve open space, but the best sage-grouse habitat is located in rural areas. There, many landowners are land-rich, but cash-poor and funding can be hard to find. This situation has created what Griffiths referred to as an “easement bottleneck,” where demand from ranchers for conservation easements is greater than the funding available.

The fact that many of these ranchers are land-rich is exactly what makes conservation easements vital to the success of sage-grouse conservation: As the ranching population ages and ranchers get closer to retirement, the prospect off potentially selling their land to developers for millions of dollars can be hard to pass up.

Griffiths provided an example of what he believes is one of SGI’s greatest successes. Wyoming is home to 40 percent of the world’s sage-grouse population, and through a conservation strategy driven by scientific data they identified what SGI calls the Daniels Core Area, which is home to the largest sage-grouse population in the world.

Located just south of the Wind River Mountain Range, it is also what Griffiths described as, “breathtakingly beautiful,” and where “everyone (who can afford it) wants to go in and buy 40 acres and a horse, and look at the Wind Rivers all day.” As such, pressure from subdivision developers is huge and could greatly impact the sage-grouse population’s habitat.

Despite the pressure of development, Griffiths called the region a success because, through the SGI, the NRCS has spent almost $100 million over the last five years to place conservation easements on two-thirds of the landscape under private ownership, while the majority of sage-grouse habitat in the region is manage by the Bureau of Land Management.

SGI’s second high priority project is conifer removal. The natural habitat for sage-grouse is open steppe covered in native grasses, forbs, and its namesake sage brush, and research has shown that as little as four percent canopy cover can cause sage-grouse to abandon a lek – a breeding ground where males conduct elaborate mating dances.

An advantage of conifer removal is that tangible results can be seen almost immediately. According to Griffiths, a former lekking area that is devoid of sage-grouse due to conifer encroachment can see the population restored “basically overnight by surgically removing those trees that shouldn’t be there.

As with all of SGI’s work, what’s good for the sage-grouse is also good for the rancher. Conifers consume a disproportionate amount of scare water resources, and removing them also increases forage available for cattle.

Earlier this year, the NRCS released its Sage Grouse Initiative Outcomes in Conservation Report, which documents that, through SGI and its partners 1,129 ranches in 11 western states have conserved 4.4 million acres, and area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. Through conifer removal, they have also reclaimed 405,241 acres of sage-grouse habitat.

The 2014 Farm Bill committed $200 million to sage-grouse conservation on private lands through the life of the bill, which expires in 2018. An NRCS report, expected to be released by the end of August, will detail SGI’s business plan and investment strategy for the allocation of that money. In addition to illustrating SGI’s conservation strategies, Griffiths said the report will “also show how the NRCS and the Sage Grouse Initiative are not working in a vacuum at all; we are working with Governors, we are working with other agencies to use the Initiative and the horsepower behind it to help them implement their broad strategy.”