Sage Grouse Initiative Strategic Watershed Action Team

Male sage grouse strutting.


Purpose

The Greater Sage-Grouse, an iconic ground-dwelling bird of the West, has experienced significant population declines during the past 50 years, mostly from habitat loss and degradation. In pre-settlement days, sage grouse numbered in the millions; today, their populations have slipped to about 200,000.  There’s hope for this species, however, because much of the ideal sage grouse habitat is found on private ranchlands and what’s good for the bird is also good for the herd. As such, ranchers and wildlife conservationists in the Intermountain West are extensively collaborating to conserve landscape-scale sagebrush habitats through the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI).

SGI is making a huge impact for conservation and agriculture. Today, 1,129 ranches across 11 Western states are conserving 4.4 million acres of land – an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park! And in 2015, the species narrowly escaped designation under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), thanks in large part to this voluntary, incentive-based conservation program.

History

In 2010, just after the Greater Sage-Grouse was listed as a candidate for the ESA, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched SGI to voluntarily reduce threats facing sage grouse on private lands. Soon after, the SGI Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT) was established to build critical field capacity, science, and communications capacity for SGI in a way that enhances the durability and longevity of the program.

The IWJV, in close collaboration with the NRCS at multiple levels, has been instrumental in supporting SGI SWAT activities, especially by fostering partnerships that leverage opportunities.

SGI and the IWJV utilize the SWAT to achieve the following:

  • Increase field-level capacity by placing specialized human skill sets at critical geographic “pinch points” to increase SGI benefits.
  • Increase science capacity to better focus SGI implementation, assess biological outcomes, and continually improve program delivery.
  • Improve and enhance outreach and communication strategies to increase partner buy-in and SGI participation from landowners.
  • Expand SGI partnership to further leverage NRCS contributions resulting in increased outcomes and participation.



Initially, SGI SWAT was facilitated by an agreement between NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in which NRCS provided $9.3 million to the FWS to be managed by the IWJV. The IWJV leveraged the NRCS investment by raising over 25% of the funds needed to implement the SGI SWAT from an array of conservation partners, including the FWS, state wildlife and agricultural agencies, conservation districts, non-governmental conservation organizations, and corporations.

Over the past five years, SGI has matured into a primary catalyst for sagebrush conservation across the West. Sustainable ranching practices are providing win-win solutions for producers, sage grouse, and 350 other sagebrush obligate species. The funding in SWAT capacity over that time supported NRCS and agricultural producers in delivering approximately $50 million per year in science-based, on-the-ground SGI conservation practices in key sagebrush landscapes across the West. 

In August of 2015, the NRCS published a Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0 Investment Strategy for 2015 – 2018 to help guide a $211 million investment to SGI over the life of the 2014 Farm Bill. This additional commitment will provide partners an unprecedented opportunity to conserve sagebrush habitats. When combined with partner contributions, the total SGI investment comes to an estimated $760 million and will result in a doubling of acres conserved (8 million) by the end of 2018.

Region of Influence

NRCS uses a variety of programs authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill in its sage-grouse conservation efforts. But the cornerstone of SGI is the funding of 27 natural resource specialists that live and work in key ranching communities within the sage-grouse range– from Lakeview, Oregon to Belle Fouche, South Dakota. These range conservationists and wildlife biologists provide direct on-the-ground technical assistance to private landowners and facilitate conservation projects that improve sage-grouse habitat and the sustainability of large ranching operations. The SGI SWAT team also includes scientists, communication specialists, and other conservation professionals working to achieve the objectives described above.

Conservation Actions

NRCS state and field offices, partners, and each partner position will focus on conservation actions that address the following threats

1.     Fire and Invasive Annual Grasses
2.     Invasive Conifers
3.     Exurban Development
4.     Cultivation of Grazing Lands
5.     Mesic Area Loss and Degradation
6.     Fence Collisions

Each of these programs already has had promising conservation outcomes. Those are detailed, along with SGI 2.0 objectives, in this report.

Opportunities for SGI SWAT

SGI represents a bold step to conserve sagebrush landscapes at a scale that transcends anything attempted to date and the SGI SWAT, its primary vehicle for increasing capacity, will continue to diversify partnerships, increase science, improve communication and outreach, and to expend field capacity. The underlying strength of SGI SWAT is its simplicity and breadth of partnerships. The diversity of partners investing in SWAT includes state and federal agencies, conservation districts, corporations, and non-governmental conservation organizations. Another strength is its 27 field positions, which already allowed SWAT to facilitate 11,149 field visits with landowners that ultimately doubled SGI conservation. By continuing to manage these positions SWAT will allow SGI the flexibility to capitalize quickly on emerging opportunities by working locally with partners to solve issues that would otherwise stymie conservation progress.

Additional Information: