USDA allots $40 million to protect sage grouse habitat

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2015 - USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) said Thursday it will make $40 million in conservation funding available to farmers and ranchers operating within the greater sage grouse's 11-state range in the western U.S.

“The decisions of agricultural producers have powerful impacts on wildlife and the long-term health of their own land, and the partnerships formed through our Working Lands for Wildlife initiative have had proven success for bringing back several of America's native species,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release. “By managing ranches with sage grouse and other wildlife in mind, producers also strengthen their own operations, boost resilience and increase agricultural yields.”

The $40 million will awarded to landowners and other partners through the USDA's Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) 2.0 - the second installment of a public-private conservation initiative started by NRCS in 2010 to protect and restore habitat for the greater sage grouse. SGI is one of several projects that emphasize focus species conservation under NRCS's Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative (WLWI).

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To date, SGI has restored and improved 4.4 million acres of sagebrush habitat, put about 360,000 acres of private ranch land into long-term conservation easements, and has restored 14,000 acres of sagebrush habitat through the removal of invasive juniper trees.

This most recent investment in the project will compensate producers who enter into voluntary conservation easements, USDA said. It will also help landowners continue to make habitat improvements through the removal of conifers and invasive grasses that undermine the viability of sagebrush ecosystems and grazing operations.

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In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service elected to not list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Many credit the collaborative work of SGI stakeholders - USDA, ranchers, wildlife groups, and Western governors - for FWS's listing decision. NRCS Chief Jason Weller has said proactive and collaborative voluntary conservation initiatives are key to avoiding ESA listings. Energy companies and other private entities contended a sage grouse listing would have imposed strict land use requirements on private lands in the West, impeding energy development and extraction.

Vilsack also announced more than $10 million in conservation funding would be made available for six other focus species - the New England cottontail, southwestern willow flycatcher, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, bog turtle and lesser prairie-chicken - through WLWI.

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