Savoring success with sage grouse decision

By Bruce Knight

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The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decision not to list the Greater Sage-Grouse as an endangered species represents a victory of small steps by many committed to conservation. Success has come not in one fell swoop but acre by acre as farmers and ranchers have partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), FWS and others to turn the tide of decline into a steady buildup of habitat for a bird whose numbers had waned dangerously.

It's a victory for the voluntary conservation approach and collaborative conservation. Rigid rules and regulations rarely are the best solution.  Rather than tell farmers what they can't do on their land, tell them what they can do-to help.  And provide incentives for stepping forward voluntarily.

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Through NRCS conservation programs and particularly the agency's Sage Grouse Initiative, farmers and ranchers in 11 western states have already installed conservation practices to enhance sage grouse habitat on 4.4 million acres. And the program will continue through 2018 reaching a total of 8 million acres through an investment of $760 million by NRCS and its partners. This is commendable.

Practices that benefit the sage grouse are removing invasive grasses after wildfires, eliminating conifers that encroach on rangeland, reducing fence collisions, protecting rangeland and preserving wet meadows. As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has pointed out, these conservation practices are also “good for cattle, good for ranching operations and good for America's rural economy.” They are also a good value for taxpayers who foot the bill for the federal investment in these efforts through the NRCS cost-share programs.

In addition to the cost-share funds that farmers and ranchers receive to help defray the cost of installing conservation practices that benefit the sage grouse, landowners receive something else they may value even more: certainty. Regardless of what decision FWS made, those who have signed up to install conservation practices can also qualify for one of the assurance programs that guarantee that as long as they maintain the practices, they've met their obligations to protect the sage grouse.

As I mentioned in last month's blog, landowners can opt for one of three guarantees that they've done what they need to do under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), even if a species is later listed as endangered.  FWS offers a safe harbor agreement and also the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances designed to help prevent the need to list a species. The third option comes under the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership that NRCS and FWS offer, addressing the sage grouse and six additional species.

This is important because the sage grouse is not the only species in trouble in the U.S. The WLFW agreement covers landowners' efforts to preserve those species as well, including the bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, lesser prairie-chicken, New England cottontail and southwestern willow flycatcher. 

I am glad to see that voluntary conservation has helped make the difference necessary to avoid listing the sage grouse as an endangered species. But we all need to be aware that this is just the first skirmish in the battle to save species from extinction, not a wholesale victory. We must be vigilant and continue to encourage farmers and ranchers to work to protect and improve habitat for at-risk species. This is going to be an issue in public lands conservation and agriculture for years to come. So while we celebrate victory today, it's back to work tomorrow installing and maintaining those conservation practices that preserve habitats and promote wildlife proliferation.

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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