Sep 9, 2015

Nearly $60 million to be poured into sage grouse conservation efforts in Wyoming

The federal government expects to commit nearly $60 million to protect sage grouse habitat in Wyoming over the next four years.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last month that the Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0 will invest approximately $211 million between now and 2018 to benefit greater sage-grouse in the West.

Flanked by (from left to right) Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Executive Secretary Larry Kruckenberg, Pheasants Forever President and CEO Howard Vincent and Oregon rancher John O'Keeffe, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the USDA's new sage grouse strategy on Aug. 27 in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy Tracy Robillard, USDA

Brian Jensen, state wildlife biologist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Casper, said nearly $60 million was requested for Wyoming and it's been tentatively approved.

That amount roughly breaks down as:

• $40 million for conservation easements

• $8 millon for grazing management improvements

• $6 million for invasive species control

• $5 million for treating invasive plants and wet meadow restoration

Under conservation easements, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) offers financial and technical assistance to landowners primarily to prevent the development of subdivisions and thus protect sage grouse habitat, Jensen said.

Improving grazing management means more cover for sage grouse and more forage for livestock, Jensen said.

Sage grouse benefit from taller grass because it protects nests from predators, Jensen said in a spring 2012 article for Wyoming Livestock Roundup, “Sage Grouse: Why the Focus on Nesting Habitat?”

“The primary tool used under the Sage Grouse Initiative is prescribed grazing, tailored to needs of the individual ranch, to meet rangeland health goals and increase residual grass heights,” Jensen wrote.

Studies have determined that simply increasing residual grass height by a few inches could improve nest success by 10-15 percent, which could be significant to the long-term viability of the bird. Residual grass is the remaining grass following the grazing season, Jensen said in his article.

A sage grouse flies at the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Sweetwater County. File photo courtesy Tom Koerner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Under the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) 2.0 strategy, NRCS will focus on reducing the threat of wildfire and spread of invasive grasses after fires to restore wildlife habitat and quality livestock forage. Invasive plant species and fire reduce the amount of forage and cause erosion, Jensen said.

The strategy will also focus on removing encroaching conifers, protecting rangeland from suburb development and cultivation, protecting wet meadows and reducing fence collisions, according to the USDA.

Encroaching conifers are a threat to sage grouse because they colonize areas where sagebrush and grass grow, thus stealing both cover and food. Sage grouse have been documented to gain weight in the winter, depending on sagebrush leaves exclusively for food, Jensen said. 

Since its launch in 2010, public and private partners engaged in the SGI have conserved 4.4 million acres, according to the USDA.

In Wyoming, Jensen said that is:

• 993,100 acres in grazing system improvements

• 181,418 acres in conservation easements

• 1,280 acres for conifer removal

• 4 acres of reseeding grass, forbs and shrubs

“All conservation efforts are relevant to the FWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) listing decision process,” said Tom Christensen, sage grouse coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Fish and Wildlife must decide whether the bird warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act by Sept. 30. The decision will be to determine if it is warranted as a candidate for listing or not warranted. If it is a warranted decision, another year will pass while Fish and Wildlife decide whether it is “threatened” or “endangered.”

Using the slogan of “good for the herd, good for the bird,” wildlife managers say what benefits livestock also benefits sage grouse.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead issued an executive order in July to strengthen protections for the greater sage-grouse as the federal government considers whether to list the bird, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

Mead supported the USDA’s plan to help Wyoming and other western states' efforts to protect sage-grouse habitat. SGI 2.0 will contribute to private conservation efforts that improve greater sage grouse habitat, he said.

Improving range land conditions improves livestock grazing and sage grouse habitat. A founding principal of SGI is, “good for the herd, good for the bird,” Jensen said.

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