USDA will dedicate at least $500 million over the next five years to wildlife conservation by jointly leveraging both NRCS and FSA conservation programs and public/private partnerships through its Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) effort.

The funding will support a series of “Frameworks for Conservation Action” for specific ecosystems, which USDA says will serve “as a roadmap to leveraging both farm bill funding and the historic investments from the Inflation Reduction Act" to guide voluntary conservation efforts for farmers, ranchers, private forest owners and tribes.

“One of the best strategies for conserving grasslands is keeping ranchers ranching. So, there's a lot of interest in this voluntary, incentive-based model,” said USDA’s Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie, in an interview with Agri-Pulse. Bonnie announced the investments on Tuesday at the Western Governors Association meeting in Boulder, Colo.

“Our hope here is to just send a message to our partners, states, conservation groups, and producer groups that we're in this for the long haul, that we want to look for opportunities to work together,” Bonnie added.

The new funding includes $250 million from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and $250 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). In addition, USDA is committing $30 million over five years to expand the WLFW team’s science and coordination capacity through partnerships.

In a first for the agency, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency will coordinate their delivery of conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program, through WLFW.

Some of these efforts grew out of a project with Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon in Wyoming, as USDA looked at ways to use CRP, particularly the grasslands side of CRP, to help producers deal with some of the challenges associated with conserving range lands when you have both big game and livestock out there, Bonnie said.

He noted that fewer crop acres are going into the CRP general signup right now because of commodity prices, yet more land is coming into the grasslands program.

“It creates opportunities for NRCS and FSA to work together and coordinate. We are also looking at ways we can take, for example, NRCS dollars and apply them on grasslands if we need to update fencing, or there was a serious invasive species challenge,” Bonnie explained. “The ability to stack those dollars gives us more benefits for producers.”

The new USDA funds will immediately benefit two of WLFW’s newest priorities, according to a USDA release.

In the western U.S., at least $40 million of EQIP and ACEP funding will go toward USDA’s ongoing efforts to help conserve migratory big game habitat, continuing an existing partnership with the state of Wyoming and an expansion to the neighboring states of Idaho and Montana.

  • In 25 central and eastern U.S. states, an additional $14 million in new EQIP funding will be dedicated to conservation of bobwhite quail and associated species in grasslands and savannas.
  • Additionally, Inflation Reduction Act funding will build outcomes for northern bobwhite recovery as over 3.5 million acres will help mitigate greenhouse gases.

“The USDA-Wyoming Big Game Partnership Pilot is proving out a win-win model of conservation that recognizes the central importance of working lands to both people and wildlife,” said Lesli Allison, Chief Executive Officer of the Western Landowners Alliance, in a release. “We are hearing interest from landowners, partners and state agencies around the West in this program.”

USDA will also work with partners to develop four new frameworks to be released in 2024-25:

  • Western Migratory Big Game: A strategy to maintain large and connected working lands in the West to help sustain some of our nation’s iconic wildlife migrations.
  • Eastern Deciduous Forest: A strategy to achieve forest health and habitat restoration that benefits declining wildlife dependent on young forests.
  • Eastern Aquatic Connectivity: A strategy to guide restoration of rivers and wetlands to support habitat connectivity in watersheds with significant at-risk species.
  • Southeastern Pine Ecosystems: A strategy to establish and maintain native pines with cultural, ecological and economic value.

The WLFW was launched in 2010 and grew out of NRCS’s early work on what was then called the Sage Grouse Initiative. Since that time, the WLFW has teamed up with leading scientists and conservation partners as well as more than 8,400 producers to conserve or restore nearly 12 million acres of working lands.

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“We had a situation with the sage grouse out West because it was going to be listed under the Endangered Species Act,” recalls Tim Griffiths, Western coordinator for WLFW. “Underneath that critter’s habitat was 186 million acres, roughly a third of our country, that was all grazed by domestic livestock. From an ag perspective, we saw a huge threat associated with listing the species and the ability to make a living through ranching,” he said.

Starting in Montana under then state conservationist and later NRCS Chief Dave White, “it was really the first time that our agency said, ‘let's really go all in and understand what's going on with these birds.’”

If there was something negatively affecting the bird populations, there were probably other impacts on the ranch or the land, Griffiths said.

“We wanted to leverage the farm bill to bring the right practice to the right place, change the trajectory of those species, and also make ranching more sustainable and profitable,” Griffiths said. “Ultimately, we not only got a lot of habitat on the ground, but we also avoided this pending regulation.”

Advances in science in the past decade have demonstrated how reliant migratory big game are on private land, according to the Western Landowners Alliance. 

“Most of America’s biodiversity, sensitive species, landscape connectivity, and natural carbon storage opportunities depend heavily on private working lands,” said Arthur Middleton, a wildlife biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Senior Advisor for Wildlife Conservation at USDA.

To learn more about NRCS and FSA programs, including opportunities related to these frameworks, landowners and operators can contact their local USDA Service Center.