Saving the Sage Grouse through voluntary conservation

By Bruce Knight

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Voluntary conservation efforts have helped protect and restore habitat for the sage grouse on more than 4.4 million acres since 2010 through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnerships with owners of private working lands.  That's good news.  But efforts to save the sage grouse began long ago and will continue across multiple administrations, various government levels and agencies and additional farm bills. 

In 2004, during my tenure as NRCS Chief, we worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to begin implementing a multi-faceted strategy to partner with private landowners and conservation groups to protect the sage grouse.  We also made restoring sage grouse habitat a high priority for NRCS technical assistance and farm bill cost-share programs. 

Together we can feed the Bees"

Four years ago, FWS settled a lawsuit with environmental groups that committed the agency to decide whether or not to list the sage grouse as an endangered species by September 30, 2015.  Whatever decision FWS makes, protecting the sage grouse will continue to be an important agricultural policy concern for farmers and ranchers for years to come.  That's why I want to examine the issues that will come into play as part of that decision and the implications for the agricultural community.    

Over the next couple of months, I'll be devoting several blogs to the efforts to protect the sage grouse and the positive difference voluntary conservation can make-and has made.  Pressure on natural resources continues to increase, and helping farmers and ranchers take proactive approaches can be the best way to avert potential conflicts and to provide safe harbors to assure they are meeting regulatory requirements.  In the next few years, the impacts of endangered species listings will impact nearly every farmer and rancher in America, the success of these voluntary efforts could be precedent setting. 

The FWS determination, like the Waters of the U.S. rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is another example of a regulatory decision that will be made by the Obama administration outside USDA but will greatly impact agricultural land owners for generations.  Farmers and ranchers will have to take these decisions into account as they plan their day-to-day operations.

The problem is simple though the solution is complicated.  Sage grouse populations have declined by 90 percent as the sagebrush habitat where they live has been converted, fragmented or degraded.  Roads, fences, power lines, urban expansion and energy development all threaten the birds, which now are found in only 11 western states.  And in 2010, FWS determined that an endangered designation was warranted for the sage grouse, but stopped short of actually listing the bird.  About 30 percent of sage grouse habitat-nearly 40 million acres-lies on private land.

With its Sage Grouse Initiative, the Obama Administration has continued the emphasis begun in the Bush Administration to encourage landowners to restore and preserve sage grouse habitat through voluntary conservation programs.  In addition to $300 million spent over the past five years, NRCS expects to spend another $200 million over the next four years to protect the sage grouse.  NRCS is making a concerted effort to demonstrate that voluntary actions are sufficient and listing the sage grouse as an endangered species is unnecessary.

Just this week as part of its Sage Grouse Initiative, NRCS signed a partnership agreement with the state of Montana and Montana's Soil and Water Conservation Districts to work together to protect and enhance sage grouse habitat on privately-owned working ranch lands.  The agreement will increase coordination and cooperation to promote voluntary conservation efforts.

Ahead we'll be looking at the practicality of conservation measures that preserve sage grouse habitat along with the clear benefits landowners receive to support their operations and ensure regulatory compliance while protecting wildlife.  Conservation should be a win-win proposition, and I believe the measures NRCS supports to safeguard the sage grouse prove that.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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