Sage grouse conservation touted in report, boosted in Montana

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, July 20, 2015 - USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) says it's joining the state of Montana in a plan to streamline protections for the greater sage-grouse - a bird currently up for federal endangered species protections.

“We both recognize that while we may not agree on… everything, we do agree on the importance of protecting the bird,” Montana Governor Steve Bullock said at today's signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between his state and NRCS.

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The MOU provides a framework for streamlining cooperative conservation efforts on privately owned, working ranchlands, Bullock said, by promoting voluntary and incentive-based conservation practices and strategically aligning public and private resources and priorities.

NRCS also released a report - Sage Grouse Initiative: Success on the Range - that details the conservation efforts the agency and its 1,129 ranching partners - together dubbed the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) - have implemented on private lands across the bird's 11-state range in the West since 2010.

According to the report, the collaboration has conserved 4.4 million acres - about 6,000 square miles - of sage grouse habitat. About 360,000 acres of private ranchland have been put into long-term conservation easements and 14,000 acres have been restored through the removal of invasive juniper trees.

The initiative itself is “completely unprecedented,” NRCS Chief Jason Weller said today at a roundtable discussion with ranchers in Montana's state capital, Helena. The report is “not just a retrospective, but a prospective” on what's to come in sage grouse conservation, he said.

SGI is taking action to treat another 22,000 acres in the next three to five years, Weller said, and by 2018, the group projects it will have conserved 8 million acres of sagebrush habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with making “endangered” or “threatened” species listings under the Endangered Species Act, is set to make a determination on the greater sage-grouse by Sept. 30. Several measures, including pending legislation and policy riders in House appropriations bills, would delay a listing of the bird for years until states have implemented their own conservation management plans.

Cattleman and energy companies, which claim that federal protections for the bird would needlessly interfere with fossil fuel extraction and ranching operations, have also filed lawsuits that could postpone a listing.

Weller said that a listing decision delay would not directly affect his agency's work - the 2014 farm bill has given NRCS authority to invest in SGI, he said - but, “you lose momentum” and a “shared vision” with delays.

Pat O'Toole, a Wyoming rancher who partners with NRCS, said the coalition “has tremendous momentum… already there, but the (possible) listing this fall is probably what is driving people as much as anything.”

According to NRCS, there are 200,000 to 500,000 sage grouse currently spread over 165 million acres. Experts say the population has declined about 30 percent since 1985.  The biggest threats to the bird include habitat fragmentation and the encroachment of invasive conifer species that displace native shrubs and grasses.

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