USDA pledges additional $211 million in sage grouse protection funds

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 27, 2015 - USDA announced today it plans to invest an additional $211 million over the next three years in its 11-state, public-private partnership conservation effort to save the greater sage grouse.

According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the money will be awarded regardless of whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) elects to list the bird as an endangered species on or before Sept. 30, when a final listing decision is due.

Today's commitment of additional funds is part of what USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is calling the Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0, which builds upon the successes of the agency's Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) - an unprecedented public-private partnership started in 2010 to improve and protect sage grouse habitat.

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To date, SGI has restored more than 4.4 million acres of sagebrush habitat on more than 1,100 privately-owned Western ranches through conservation easements and voluntary pinion juniper removal programs. By 2018, NRCS projects that USDA, its partners and Western states will invest approximately $760 million and conserve 8 million acres to protect the sage grouse.

“The Sage Grouse Initiative has proven itself as a model for how wildlife and agriculture can coexist and thrive in harmony,” Vilsack said in an NRCS release. “I applaud America's ranchers for their initiative in improving habitats and outcomes for sage grouse and other wildlife, and for their recognition that these efforts are also good for cattle, good for ranching operations, and good for America's rural economy.”

Wildlife and sportsmen's groups applauded USDA's announcement, touting the move as an example of the department's continued commitment to voluntary conservation efforts on working lands.

In a release, Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, hailed the news, saying that the continued investments will “support the livelihoods of ranchers and producers, while providing extraordinary benefits for sage grouse and other wildlife.”

Whit Fosburgh, the president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said “conservationists and landowners across the West are starting to see real results . . . because of what the SGI has already accomplished (and) we're happy to see this commitment from the NRCS continue.”

Farmers, ranchers and Western governors have been generally supportive of SGI and other voluntary conservation efforts. However, some of the same stakeholders, as well as many oil, gas and mining trade associations, have taken issue with any attempt by the federal government to limit land use practices within critical sage grouse habitat areas.

Is conservation high on your list of things to watch? As news happens, you'll find it on Agri-Pulse. Sign up for a four-week free trial subscription. Additionally, both the House and the Senate have bills pending that would ensure FWS, the agency responsible for listing species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, cannot list the bird or curtail land use on private lands to protect it.


In July, NRCS Chief Jason Weller said that congressional listing delays would only serve to slow momentum and threaten the “shared vision” of conservationists and ranchers in the West working to earn a “non-warranted” listing decision for the bird from FWS come the end of September.

 

FWS estimates the greater sage grouse's population has declined 30 percent in the last three decades and is now somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 individuals.

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