NRCS chief speaks at Pinedale sage grouse meeting
Pinedale – With the Sage Grouse Initiative continuing its work across 11 western states, the Strategic Watershed Action Team met in Pinedale on June 29 to recognize the success of the team’s first year and hear about continuing efforts for sage grouse conservation.
Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White addressed the group, commending the efforts of the Sage Grouse Initiative team and commenting on the positive outlook for the future.
“What is good for the grouse is good for the cow is good for the rancher,” said White at the June 29 event. “We can have responsible energy development, we can have flourishing sage grouse populations, and we can have a healthy ag community.”
Implications of listing
While White recognized that the potential impacts of a sage grouse listing are widespread, he also likened the event to the listing of the spotted owl.
“We remember the spotted owl – this thing has the same potential, but covers 10 times the geographic area,” he emphasized. “The economic disruption to our country would be incredible.”
The detrimental impacts, White said, would not be as harmful on private lands, but rather greatest for ranchers with intermingled private and federal lands.
“In Sublette county, for example, 80 percent of land is federal,” he noted. “If this bird gets listed, western ranching as a whole is going to shut down, because these intermingled units are managed as a whole – they aren’t managed as distinct tracts of federal and private lands. They’ve been managed as a whole in families for generations.”
Steve Ferrell, Governor Mead’s advisor on wildlife and endangered species policy, mentioned that there is a lot at stake.
“We are talking about western heritage – 186 million acres in the West, local customs and culture, working landscapes and national policy,” he said. “We are talking about impacting economies, at a state and national level, and on the international level as well.”
“What Wyoming has done, starting under Governor Freudenthal and continuing and expanding under Governor Mead, is nothing short of outstanding,” White said. “Today, Gov. Mead is working with other governors as the co-chair of a federal-state task force to put some parameters on the effort.”
Under Wyoming’s core area strategy, Ferrell added that 83 percent of the birds and 24 percent of the landscape are protected.
The efforts of the Sage Grouse Initiative team have also been productive, and White noted that, with just 24 members and only six months, ranchers have begun working to put together 250,000 acres in conservation plans, remove 24,000 acres of conifers and mark over 350 miles of fence line.
“Based on university research, for every mile of fence that is marked, we are reducing the mortality by four or five birds,” White said. “If we look at 350 miles of fence, that is equal to the entire male sage grouse population in North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, Alberta and Saskatchewan combined two times.”
“The accomplishments of the first two years is breathtaking,” he added, noting that $200 million has been invested into the effort and over 500 ranchers have instituted 1.3 million acres of prescribed grazing.
“We can save the grouse, and we can do it in harmony with agriculture producers,” said White, marking partnerships, science and relationships as the reasons the effort will be successful.
“This effort is not about one entity – it is multiple entities working together,” he noted. “This is agriculture and conservation, private landowners, non-government organizations, state, local and federal agencies who are unified in a common purpose. Never before has such a coalition existed.”
White added that by using sound science in the effort, the programs in place to maintain sage grouse habitat and decrease bird losses would be difficult to refute.
“It’s tough to argue with science,” he mentioned. “We are going to continue to use sound science to guide and inform our efforts across the county.”
By adding positive working relationships to the equation, White said that the initiative will be even more successful.
“This is not a top-down effort. This effort is about entities working with the ranchers to develop conservation plans that meet ranchers’ needs and goals,” he said. “It isn’t about what we need and want, it’s about what the producer needs, and it just so happens that it helps the sage grouse.”
By building sage grouse conservation efforts from the interests of the producers, White said, “No one has ever done this before – it’s a game changer. We are changing the entire paradigm of how this nation will address endangered species in the future.”
With producers working with industry to conserve species by their own mandate, rather than by federal government decree, White said the strategies for dealing with endangered species will be more successful.
As additional news, White announced that NRCS will continue funding beyond 2015 for the effort.
“The NRCS is making available another $2.3 million that will extend your contracts for five years,” announced White, “but we can’t do it by ourselves.”
Along with the $2.3 million provided by NRCS, White called for a 25 percent match from private industry and organizations.
“We can continue this for another two years,” he said. “We’re going to be with you. We have your back, and we are going to make this work. We can build this bird back with agriculture production, and don’t let anyone tell you that we can’t.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.