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Study estimates sage grouse impacts on ranches

Written by Heather Loraas

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) created the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) in 2010 to reduce the threats against sage grouse and keep them off the Endangered Species list.

Now, SGI is expanding its science into water conservation, ranch productivity and how producer economics weigh into the conservation equation.

On Sept. 29, the University of Wyoming (UW) hosted a webinar titled “Estimating the Economic Impact of Sage Grouse Conservation on Ranches.”

The webinar detailed a study that will look into how sage grouse conservation practices affect ranches.

Partners for the study include NRCS, SGI, UW and the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable (SRR).

Thad Heater, NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative coordinator, noted that what’s good for the bird is good for the herd, but SGI wants to quantify that statement. UW’s study will accomplish that goal.

“When SGI heard USDA funded the UW study proposal, we were excited by the invitation to come to the table and coproduce this science,” he added.

Study beginnings

SRR, along with the SGI, UW and NRCS, approached the study by asking whether sage grouse conservation and ranching work hand-in-hand economically and what it means for ranchers’ budgets and bottom lines.

The group started by outlining nine major land resource areas (MLRAs), overlaying those MLRAs with known sage grouse habitats.

After the MLRAs were set, a team of researchers began pulling together focus groups of ranchers to look at their enterprise budgets.

Kristie Maczko, SRR executive director, explained that, specifically, the focus groups will bring in ranchers from small private ranches, small ranches with public grazing permits, large private ranches and large ranches with public grazing permits.

Maczko said SRR will work with these ranchers to characterize typical operations in their respective MLRAs.

“The enterprise budgets aren’t meant to be any one rancher’s operation but rather be representative of ranches within the MLRAs,” she added.

Through the enterprise budgets, a sense of how each type of operation operates will be developed.

In each of the nine MLRAs, there will be four enterprise budgets – one for each operation type – for a total of 36 budgets.

Maczko noted that the enterprise budgets will be published and shared at the end of January 2018 during the Society for Range Management meetings in Nevada.

Once published, the enterprise budgets will be beneficial across the board for economic research, Mazcko added.

Ranch models

Data from the enterprise budgets will be put into ranch economic models, of which three already exist for public lands and 33 will be built from scratch.

“As the models run, sage grouse conservation practices will be included. As many conservation practices as the group can get data on will be added to the models,” commented Maczko. 

John Tanaka, University of Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station associate director, said the ranch economic models are 40-year models developed using recursive linear programming. They seek to maximize the present value of annual profits over that time period.

He mentioned that the models have been used before to look at a variety of different scenarios, like wildfire and cheatgrass invasion, and the impacts of such events on ranch economics and management.

“The model allows the ranchers to adjust different prescriptions or opportunities that will have different impacts on the ranches,” Tanaka said.

Conifer removal and prescribed grazing will be the initial conservation practices analyzed, he added.

“Not only are we looking at the impact of different practices on the ranch, we will also analyze what the models can tell us about lost ranch value,” Tanaka stated.

He said once the enterprise budgets are close to being finalized, post-doctorate researchers will start putting together the ranch models.

“We expect some of the initial impacts and model results to be available later this winter and into the spring. The project as a whole should wrap up by May 2018,” he concluded.

Heather Loraas is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.