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Sage Grouse

In 2010, the Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCS) launched the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) to create partnerships and manage habitat across 11 western states.

“We launched this initiative five years ago with a focus on bringing collaborative partnerships to the table to approach widespread conservation by using partners, networks and relationships, science tools, know-how and target actions in ways that are proactive, positive and collaborative,” stated NRCS Chief Jason Weller, during a webinar on Feb. 13.

Impacts

SGI brought together federal and state agencies, conservation districts, private landowners and other interested parties.

“We want to prove that we have room for wildlife, but importantly, we also want to maintain the economic and overall sustainable approach for ranching in the West,” he noted.

Total current investment in SGI is almost $425 million. Conservation through the program already includes 6,000 square miles of rangeland in the western states.

“That is a land area equivalent in size to Yellowstone National Park,” explained Weller.

Positive influence

Experts involved with SGI teamed up to identify viable sage grouse habitats, as well as areas containing the largest populations and greatest densities of breeding pairs.

“To make an investment on a collective recommendation, our professionals began by looking at Priority Areas for Conservation (PAC),” Weller noted.

Over the last five years, 360,000 acres have been added to NRCS easements, bringing the total to more than 450,000 acres. 

The size of easements has also increased.

“One of the threats to grouse, we know through science, is the fragmentation of the landscape,” he explained.

Row crop production, energy development and infrastructure, housing development, highways, transportation and more can affect habitat.

“These things are all necessary for the economic fabric of the West,” commented Weller. “How do we provide room for ranching, the grouse and economic development within the landscape?”

Moving forward

By working with voluntary partners and landowners, SGI is designating protection of habitat throughout the West.

“Protection is not just for grouse, but for hundreds of other species on the range, as well as for the cows that we need to provide food for America,” Weller added.

NRCS will continue to support SGI, financed by continued funding from the latest Farm Bill.

“From this point forward, we are working to maintain, if not accelerate this momentum. I am really excited and absolutely positive that we are going to make a difference moving forward,” he said.

Financial assistance from NRCS will continue at the current level of $25 million a year, driven by the demand of landowner interest in the program.

“We feel that landowner interest has been accelerating, so we are going to maintain our high levels of investment in this landscape for the next four years,” he explained.

Partnership

Investments in the regional conservation through SGI are achieved by a locally-led, partner driven approach.

“Ranchers choose which environmental sustainable ranching practices work for them on their ranches and then sign a five-year contract that can be renewed at the end of the term for another five years,” he explained.

NRCS will also be adding permanent positions to the SGI effort, including solidifying 27 partner positions in Strategic Watershed Action Teams (SWAT).

“A lot of folks have been serving on an interim basis, and we made the decision that we are going to make this permanent,” he stated.

SWAT professionals work from field offices to communicate and plan SGI strategy, consult with and assist ranchers and bridge between landowners and NCRS.

Technical services

The program will also extend the contract for Dave Naugle and his team from the University of Montana for another five years, as well as bringing in a permanent sage grouse technical specialist to work with the Western Technical Center.

“We will also be advertising soon for a regional coordinator for Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW),” he added.

“I can’t say enough good things about what happens when we get dedicated people who are really smart and passionate together and what they can do. I am really excited to see where the team and the whole network takes us next,” Weller said.

Other efforts

NRCS will also be maintaining the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), supported by an average of $20 million a year.

“We are also going to bring to bear the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which has been unfortunately dormant in this landscape over the last five years,” Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller commented.

CSP is designed to reward producers for current excellent stewardship, as well as to provide them with tools and resources to take their sustainable ranching practices to the next level.

“Today, we have at least 67 million acres under contract across the U.S., and we are looking to bring another 7 million acres in this year,” he stated.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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.”
Accomplishments
    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.
Collaborative efforts
    “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.
Continuing efforts
    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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cheyenne –Central Wyoming’s historic Pathfinder Ranches, as announced March 18 in the State Capitol Building, are now home to the nation’s first conservation bank dedicated to the Greater sage grouse.

Beginning with 55,000 deeded acres, the Sweetwater River Conservancy could grow to encompass 700,000 acres of working lands including 10 historic ranches owned by the Conservancy. Those ranches include the Pathfinder Ranch, the Bummer Ranch, the Buzzard Ranch, the Cardwell Ranch, the Cardwell Access Ranch, the Dumbell Ranch, the Miracle Mile Ranch, the Sun’s Turkey Track Ranch, the Oil Can Ranch, the Perkins Ranch and the Two Iron Ranch. 

According to Jeff Meyer, managing partner of the Conservancy, it will be larger than each of the nation’s other 200 mitigation banks combined.

Mitigation in mind

“Sweetwater’s goal is to protect and enhance some of the nation’s best sage grouse habitat while delivering an important tool that will contribute to the long-term health of Wyoming’s business community,” said Meyer. “Mitigation credits created on this landscape will be available to offset unavoidable impacts of economic development by supporting permanently protected, high-quality habitat for the Greater sage grouse.” 

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, numerous state agencies and the private sector were in attendance for the announcement. 

While privately driven, state and federal partnerships guided the Conservancy to fruition. An interagency review team comprised of representatives from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, the Bureau of Land Management, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and private landowners helped form the Conservancy and will monitor it moving forward. 

As mitigation credits are sold, funds will be deposited in a trust fund with the interest providing for the Conservancy’s long-term management.

Importance of agriculture

“It’s important to me as a rancher,” said Wyoming Governor Matthew Mead, “that livestock grazing will continue on the ranch. It’s no surprise that, once again, it’s ranching and ag that helped provide some of the answers we need in Wyoming. In fact, sound ag practices will be the cornerstone of habitat management on private, state and federal lands within the ranch.” 

“The Sweetwater River Conservancy is a conservation bank that encompasses some of the most historic and storied ranches in Wyoming,” said Jim Kurth, deputy director of the FWS, of the project he called the largest landscape planning effort in the history of wildlife management. “These ranches have conserved some of the best wildlife habitat in Wyoming for decades, and now we can ensure they will forever be dedicated to providing a home for the Greater sage grouse and hundreds of other species that depend on the land.” 

“The best solutions for the things we care about always come locally,” said Bob Budd, director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund. 

Sage grouse efforts

Recalling when Wyoming first began discussing the state’s role in sage grouse conservation, Budd said, “When we started this strategy in 2007, we built it on three fundamentals – avoid conflict, minimize threats and mitigate where we are forced to do that.” 

While declaration of core sage grouse areas and strict development strategies addressed the first two items on the list, Budd said the mitigation component has thus far been missing.

The market, or demand for the credits the conservation bank has to sell, will determine the rate of growth and the Conservancy’s eventual size. Companies, as approved by the land management agencies, can purchase credits to offset impacts stemming from development elsewhere in sage grouse habitat. 

A credit with the Sweetwater River Conservancy equates to a single unit of habitat value for the sage grouse. Given the bird’s nesting, brood rearing, summering and wintering habitat needs, each of the habitat types is represented in a credit.  

As the number of credits sold grows, so, too, will the size of the conservation bank. Once a credit is sold to a third-party developer, the Conservancy is responsible for ensuring that conservation goals are met. 

Easements

The efforts will be protected in perpetuity via conservation easements. The Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust has been selected to hold and administer the conservation easements.

“The Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust is a natural fit for a project that seeks to conserve Wyoming’s working ranches and the wide-open spaces, natural habitat and rural communities they support,” said Mantha Phillips, chairman of the Land Trust’s Board of Directors.

“The long-term health of the Greater sage grouse throughout the West depends on strong and innovative partnerships to conserve and restore its habitat in ways that embrace traditional uses of the land such as cattle ranching,” said Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. “As the first conservation bank for Greater sage grouse, the Sweetwater River Conservancy provides one model for how we can work with states, landowners, tribes, local communities and others to conserve our working, western landscapes.”

Grouse status

In 2010, the FWS determined that the Greater sage grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but was precluded by higher priorities. 

Since then, a remarkable, broad-based coalition of stakeholders has come together across the bird’s 165 million-acre, 11-state range to address threats in an effort to prevent the need for a listing. 

The FWS is set to review its listing decision later this year.

Most of the Sweetwater River Conservancy is classified as core sage grouse habitat by the state of Wyoming, a designation applied to areas of the highest sage grouse populations. 

In addition to sage grouse, the Conservancy will manage the property for the benefit of other wildlife and promote improved water quality and quantity on the property.

Defining conservation bank

A conservation bank is a piece of property that is permanently protected and managed with regard to the natural resource values within that property. It functions to offset adverse impacts to a species that occur elsewhere, and is often referred to as off-site compensatory mitigation. 

These lands are conserved and permanently managed for species that are listed under the Endangered Species Act, have been designated a candidate for listing or are a species of conservation concern.

Jennifer Womack is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Lander – The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is under contract to purchase the 3 Bar X and Double A Ranches, adjacent properties located southwest of Lander. Comprising a total of 3,600 acres, these private lands hold high ecological and agricultural values, and face mounting housing development threats.

“Our hope is that this land will stay in agriculture operations,” says Andrea Erickson Quiroz, State Director of TNC in Wyoming. “Our intent is to very temporarily own these properties for the purpose of protecting them from subdivision. We very much want them to stay in agriculture, for which the land is completely compatible and has been traditionally used.

“We are seeking an agriculture buyer to purchase these properties in March 2012 when the title transfer is complete. We will hold and manage the ranches for agriculture as long as we have to, but we would like to sell fairly quickly at an agriculture price point. Until we legally own the property we can’t legally sell it, but we would love to talk to people right now who are sincerely interested in purchasing these ranches.”

A conservation easement will be placed on the property at, or before, out-sale, to prevent future subdivision, but it will allow agricultural operations to continue. The ranches will be priced differently than previously marketed because of the TNC conservation easement.

“When you do a conservation easement you’re removing the development rights,” Erickson Quiroz explains. “Here in Lander there is a lot of pressure from subdivision, and there is already a large subdivision on the backside of these ranches. Because of the subdivision pressure, the value of the land has gone beyond agriculture value. When the conversation easement is placed on the land, it removes that subdivision pressure and allows for future agriculture operations.”

Both the 3 Bar X and the Double A have been on the market for some time, and the owners recently decided to work with TNC to sell the ranches for agriculture conservation purposes. TNC has been working to conserve wildlife habitat and agriculture lands on the Lander Front, an important area of the Greater Yellowstone region, since 1993.

“We would not be able to even think about this project without funding from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service),” says Erickson Quiroz. “This is a really unprecedented time for Wyoming, as the NRCS has garnered $73 million from the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program to protect land and water in our state. The reason for the large investment is for conservation easements and stewardship programs to help sage grouse and keep them from being listed as endangered species.”

The Lander Front is critical winter range for mule deer, elk and moose, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has done field tests on both the Double A and 3 Bar X, and have found that collared sage grouse have core breeding and nesting habitat on the land.

“These ranches are part of the agriculture heritage of our community,” says Erickson Quiroz, “and they’re important to the watershed for the Lander Valley, as they feed the Middle Popo Agie River and ensure excellent water quality.”

TNC has served as a conduit for conservation and agriculture buyer transactions in Wyoming before. One such project was Jack Winchester’s Upper and Lower Ranches near Dubois. TNC sold the Upper Ranch, Ramshorn Ranch, with a conservation easement to ranchers Bob and Kate Lucas, who operate it in conjunction with their ranch along the Snake River near Jackson.

The Lower Ranch, the Winchester, TNC kept to pair with their Red Canyon Ranch as they needed more hay ground and winter pasture for their cow/calf operation.

“We have learned a lot regarding the hardships and economics of ranching through our cow/calf operation,” says Erickson Quiroz. “It’s not that we’re trying to be better ranchers, we’re trying to be better conservationists by really understanding what it takes by being in agriculture and working on the land. We also want to enhance wildlife habitat and produce other values, and that is a hard job to do. Actually being engaged in agriculture ourselves gives us a huge amount of humility and realism about what that truly means.”

TNC has to raise $1.3 million by March 2012 to complete the purchase of the Double A and 3 Bar X, for which the non-profit organization is looking to private philanthropists, community events, corporations and other conservation partners in the state. The properties are contiguous to a network of more than 500,000 public acres, land that provides crucial big-game migration corridors and winter range. There are also 14,000 acres of working ranchland already under conservation easement in the area.

“We know that fragmentation is the largest threat to sage grouse and their habitat,” says Erickson Quiroz. “The more we can remove the threat of fragmentation from new roads, subdivisions and infrastructure development, the better chance the sage grouse have of not becoming endangered. We have been given a lifeline, so to speak, to help remove the threat of fragmentation from private lands.

“Will $73 million be enough? Will all the conservation efforts be enough? I think it might be too early to tell. But if we fail to use the funding available to protect critical habitat for the sage grouse, then it is pretty clear that we will end up with a listing. We’re excited to help through purchasing the Double A and 3 Bar X ranches, which are a part of this larger story. We hope it will be a part of the success story that says Wyoming did it: we got together and actually pushed back a listing.”

Melissa Hemken is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Buffalo – The Lake Desmet Conservation District Sage Brush/Sage Grouse Conservation Program is a landowner-initiated project designed to benefit the sage grouse and other wildlife species through enhanced grazing. 
“There are over 340,000 acres and 24 landowners currently involved,” states NRCS District Conservationist Phil Gonzales. “We are working with landowners to implement grazing management strategies that benefit their livestock business and the sage grouse.”
There are currently $3.2 million in the project budget. USDA Farm Bill programs provide funding with additional assistance from state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and the oil and gas industry.
Projects are partnership-based and tailored to each situation. “Most landowners come in and visit with us and we start a project at whatever level of participation they are comfortable with,” explains Gonzales. “Projects are based on the benefits for the livestock enterprise that has outreach benefits to sage grouse. We don’t force-feed changes and it’s entirely voluntary. If producers truly want to do things that benefit their livestock business that will have outreaching benefits to the sage grouse we can explain what they are and what we can do to provide assistance.”
Extensive fieldwork is conducted to study soils, stock densities and seasonal use prior to sitting down with a landowner to provide alternative grazing strategies. “Depending on the unit we write a minimum three-year plan. Some are going to five years but it depends on the needs and tools needed to implement a plan,” says Gonzales.
“We have learned to be visual when presenting plans to producers to make everything palatable. We can show where birds have been seen and how they relate to the land by pasture. The more visual we are the easier plans are to understand,” explains Gonzales.
“We can’t tell people what to do, but we can tell them what not to do. We work with livestock producers, BLM, Game and Fish, Pheasants Forever and other organizations to further our understanding and learn what we can do that is effective and different,” says Gonzales.
Dave Fraley is the chair of the Lake Desmet Conservation Board and an area rancher. When Gonzales asked him why it was important to be involved in sage grouse management, he answered that he was concerned about the potential of special interest groups controlling how he grazes his ranch.
“He commented that he attended a meeting and he didn’t know another person in the room. He was very concerned about a room of strange people determining policy that would affect how he managed his operation,” explains Gonzales.
Tom Lohse is another area producer who was originally hesitant to get involved in the program because he felt it might reduce his flexibility. “Tom is in the profit business and he wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved. Everything I was asking him to do would impact his investment. After doing inventories, his biggest concerns were livestock and wildlife and managing both during a drought. In working with us he found we can provide flexibility during a drought and we found we could meet his livestock management goals. He runs fewer livestock than when we established his stocking rates, and he continued running fewer head during the drought, but he is still selling the same pounds of beef. This is contributed to higher conception rates and a change in calving and marketing of calves,” explains Gonzales.
Margaret Smith and her sisters inherited a ranch and were faced with the decision to keep it or sell out. “They didn’t want to sell because it had been in the family a long time, but the ranch was suffering from drought and many years of over-grazing. I explained that if they sold it would be at a discount because it doesn’t take a lot of management changes to see a lot of improvement that would increase the property value,” says Gonzales. “In order to see change they had to be willing to take the time, which they decided to do. Despite being in the middle of a long drought there have been some significant changes, the largest being that they have taken a grass and water management approach instead of livestock.”
Smith takes in cattle on contract and found that altering management to include rest and recovery periods increased forbs and bunch grasses. Lots of hardpan areas now have vegetation. Gonzales adds that it didn’t come without sacrifice as all three sisters have outside jobs to help pay taxes and other ranch-related expenses. But today their operation is turned around and they are back in the driver’s seat.
The program utilizes a variety of tools including fiberglass ramps in stock tanks. According to Gonzales when sage grouse or other wildlife fall in a tank they swim to the outer edge where they come into contact with the ramp and can get out. He adds that sheep can also utilize the ramps.
“We had one tank from which we pulled 13 dead birds. We put ramps in the tank and didn’t find another dead bird it in the entire summer. We’ve tried several different ways of putting ramps in tanks and these fiberglass ramps are the most cost effective in addition to being easy to install,” says Gonzales.
Pasture aerators are used to manipulate habitat and increase forage production on rangelands. They have been especially beneficial on poor-producing landscapes, such as old prairie dog towns. “We have two types of aerators. After that we seed with forbs and shrubs and in some locations we’ve started planting sagebrush. This process increases diversification of grasses, forbs and shrubs and results in a greener landscape with better sage grouse habitat,” explains Gonzales.
“This is truly a livestock management project. We are using cows to benefit sage grouse and what we are finding is that there are significant benefits to this approach. I am a firm believer that by investing in being proactive we can keep sage grouse from being listed,” states Gonzales.
Heather Hamilton is 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.