With Sage-Grouse Initiative, Both Wildlife and Agriculture Win

Greater Sage-Grouse in courtship display.

The Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI) has quickly become one of the largest conservation success stories in the West, with a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) investment of over $113 million to date for ‘on-the-ground’ sage-grouse conservation. The goal of SGI is to conserve sage-grouse populations through sustainable ranching.

The SGI focuses conservation within the sage-grouse habitat range in eleven Western states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Instead of trying to tackle all of the threats to the species in a massive land area, NRCS and its partners are using a “conservation triage” approach by targeting activities in core areas to maintain large and intact grazing lands rather than provide palliative care to small and declining populations. Examples of the types of conservation practices that NRCS and its partners are installing include using sustainable grazing systems to improve hiding cover for birds, marking or moving “high risk” fences near breeding sites to reduce bird collisions, and removing invasive conifers from grasslands to allow re-colonization of otherwise suitable sage-grouse habitat.

This bold initiative is an example of how NRCS, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), is helping to shift the paradigm of wildlife conservation from small and reactive to large and proactive. NRCS launched SGI on the heels of FWS’s designation of sage-grouse as a “candidate” species for potential listing as “threatened or endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in March 2010. Such a designation would have profound impacts on ranching operations and rural communities in much of the western U.S. and could impinge upon economic and energy development opportunities in the region.

To further strengthen SGI, NRCS and FWS completed a historic Conference Report at a regional scale that provides regulatory certainty to landowners on crucially both private and public lands. As part of the Conference Report, NRCS and FWS prepared a set of 40 conservation practices that will benefit sage-grouse. If the sage-grouse is eventually listed as threatened or endangered under ESA, ranchers have confidence that if they are implementing the appropriate SGI conservation practices, they will be in full compliance with ESA.

In just one year, SGI is generating positive outcomes: more birds, fewer deaths, and more habitat.

  • More sage-grouse. In FY 2010, SGI implemented grazing systems on about 1,000 square miles of large and intact sagebrush to increase hiding cover for nesting birds. Based on the latest scientific research, NRCS estimates that the improved range conditions with more residual grass cover will increase sage-grouse nest success by 8 to 10 percent.
  • Fewer bird fatalities. In addition, by removing threats posed by a total of 180 miles of high-risk fences near core breeding areas, NRCS estimates that SGI has already prevented 800 to 1,000 collisions in just one year. This number of avoided sage-grouse deaths is equal to the most recent combined field counts of male birds in North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan combined!
  • Expanded habitat. The SGI also removed encroaching conifers from 40,000 acres of range lands in areas near high sage-grouse abundance, allowing birds to re-colonize otherwise suitable habitats.

In 2011, SGI expanded the conservation portfolio from the initial program allocation of cost-share programs, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) in 2010, to incorporate easement programs like the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, the Grassland Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program in addition to EQIP and WHIP in 2011. The $68 million NRCS investment in conservation easements has been matched by $45 million in partner contributions for a total easement investment of $113 million dollars—all highly targeted to perpetually address the threat of fragmentation in the most important places throughout the West.

Keep reading for more on SGI: Sage-Grouse Initiative Strengthened through Partnership with IWJV.

Download the SGI Brochure.

Tim Griffiths is the NRCS Sage-Grouse Initiative Coordinator. He is based in Bozeman, Montana.