By Published On: August 12, 2019

Charting a Future for Sage Grouse Through Voluntary Conservation

This post originally appeared as a Guest Blog on the Western Energy Alliance’s Source Rock Blog on May 14, 2018.

The Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV) is a self-directed, public-private partnership that supports voluntary, proactive conservation across parts of 11 states in the West. One of the IWJV’s more prominent success stories is that it helped build the capacity for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to implement its Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) at a scale which played an important role in averting the need for an Endangered Species Act listing of the Greater Sage-grouse in 2015. The IWJV brokered a partnership that included private energy industry representatives that achieved more than three million acres of sagebrush habitat conserved through voluntary, incentive-based conservation with private landowners. These successes are noteworthy, even historical, and the partnerships have achieved a momentum that must be sustained because sagebrush threats still exist.

An additional 80 million acres of sagebrush habitat that supports the Greater Sage-grouse and a host of other sagebrush-dependent species still face threats including conifer encroachment, non-native grass invasion, fragmentation from subdivision and development, and tillage of exceptionally high value sagebrush habitat. Juniper trees have greatly encroached into sagebrush over the last 150 years, expanding six-fold to occupy nearly 75 million acres. Conifer encroachment has adversely impacted sage grouse and other key species such as mule deer. Likewise, non-native invasive grasses like cheatgrass have spread into sagebrush habitat, threatening 60 million acres. They dry out early in the season, resulting in more frequent, faster burning, hotter, and larger wildfires that decimate sagebrush habitat. Finally, subdivision and development fragments large tracts of sagebrush rangelands that ranchers depend on for their livelihoods and the wide-open spaces that sage grouse need to survive. Maintaining intact working ranches is also important for sustaining big game migration corridors and supporting hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and other contributors to rural communities.

The last seven years of collaborative conservation has proven how partnerships can implement cost-effective conservation that dramatically improves sagebrush habitat. Effective and efficient solutions have been implemented at a scale of millions of acres annually that seemed beyond reach even a decade ago. These proactive, voluntary, and highly-organized actions have leveraged tools such as NRCS financial and technical assistance for agricultural producers; conservation practices on BLM lands and across ownership boundaries; and conservation easements on private lands to protect ranching lifestyles and essential habitats.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2015 not-warranted decision for sage grouse was in effect provisional and will be revisited again in 2020 to assess the implementation and effectiveness of conservation measures. The organized, landscape-scale conservation partnerships upon which the 2015 decision was based must remain vibrant and effective to maintain the conservation momentum. Should partnership efforts falter, the sage grouse could again be at risk for listing. Here are a couple of actions energy companies can take in sagebrush country to promote conservation and minimize the need for future ESA listings.

First, advocate for continued federal investments in proactive, science-based conservation by NRCS and BLM. These public funding sources enable conservation work to continue at a large scale. Since 2010, NRCS has spent about $50 million per year on SGI which is supplemented by contributions from states, non-governmental organizations, landowners, and corporations. With continued funding, SGI can continue to conserve or restore one-half to one million acres per year. Likewise, BLM’s sagebrush habitat implementation effort is investing over $64 million per year in conservation. BLM can deliver up to one million acres of sagebrush conservation per year if funded at current levels.

Second, to the extent that your company is making regular philanthropic donations to conservation efforts, there may be an opportunity to increase the effectiveness of your dollars by directing contributions to proven, landscape-scale partnership efforts such as those facilitated by IWJV. Small-scale, uncoordinated conservation efforts simply won’t get the job done. Non-federal funds are necessary for leveraging federal program dollars and make industry investments go further through strategic and coordinated efforts. Without the non-federal match, opportunities to fully deploy federal conservation funding appropriations are in jeopardy.  The IWJV has a decades-long track record of bringing together partners to implement on-the-ground conservation that is broadly supported and a win-win for wildlife and local communities.  On average, the IWJV has leveraged private funds at an unprecedented 39:1 ratio.

Clearly, landscape-scale threats to sagebrush habitat such as conifer encroachment, invasive annual grasses, development from rural subdivision, and conversion of sagebrush to annually tilled cropland have not been caused by energy development. However, industry investments in proactive and voluntary conservation–leveraged at extraordinarily high ratios with federal conservation funding through organized sagebrush conservation initiatives–can play an important role in charting a productive future for energy development by sustaining wildlife populations, hunting opportunities, and the rural economies of the West.

The IWJV is governed by an executive-level Management Board that includes energy companies, the agricultural community (influential private landowners), leaders from seven state fish and wildlife agencies (six at the Director level), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Regional Director, Deputy Regional Director), major conservation organizations, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This diverse Management Board in turn works with a vast array of partners to get proactive conservation work done on the ground.