(Bozeman, MT – June 25, 2009) Montana’s new strategy to utilize farm bill conservation programs to conserve habitat for the greater sage-grouse on private lands is a model for the 10 other states where the bird still exists, according to the Montana Stockgrowers Association and Environmental Defense Fund. Historically, there were more than a million sage-grouses spread across the western U.S. and Canada, but today they are rare in most places with the total population estimated at 100,000-500,000 birds. The bird’s remaining U.S. strongholds are in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Documented declines of the sage-grouse population and rising threats to their survival have caused the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to reevaluate sage-grouse for protective listing under the Endangered Species Act. If USFWS lists the grouse as an endangered species, ranching, mining, energy development and other activities could be subject to additional scrutiny to protect the bird (see bird photo: www.edf.org/article.cfm?contentID=9405).
Recognizing the threats the bird faces and the fact that USDA conservation programs can be used more effectively to address those threats, the Montana NRCS developed the Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat Conservation Strategy in consultation with many stakeholders and management agencies. They included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Bureau of Land Management; University of Montana; Montana State University; Montana Stockgrowers Association; Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation; Intertribal Agricultural Council; The Nature Conservancy; and private landowners. This strategy better aligns NRCS practice specifications and programs with the latest scientific information on the bird.
“This strategy is a win-win proposition for both sage-grouse and private landowners,” said Malta rancher Dale Veseth, a member of the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the 2008 Montana and Region V Environmental Stewardship Award winner. “It provides ranchers like me economic support so we may continue to participate in cooperative, scientifically-based, on-the-ground conservation efforts for sage-grouse. If more proactive, cooperative efforts are initiated on private lands, perhaps we can avoid listing the species.”
“Dale’s comments are right on the money,” said Malta rancher Leo Barthelmess, a northeast district director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, and winner of the Montana Environmental Stewardship Award and NCBA Regional Environmental Stewardship Award in 2004. “As a director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, I’ve worked to build broad-based support for private and public lands conservation of sage-grouse and other bird species known to share similar habitats.”
- Prioritizes protection of habitat in key “core” habitat areas through conservation easements;
- Aligns specific practice specifications, and adds new ones, with the recommendations of leading sage-grouse scientists;
- Commits to work with partners to develop more intensive outreach, education, and monitoring efforts in the state.
Among the benefits of the strategy are:
- Improved practices and incentives available to private landowners to manage for the species;
- Reduced negative impacts of fencing, watering facilities, transmission lines, etc.; and
- Improved education for landowners and resource professionals on how to apply beneficial management practices.
“We commend Montana NRCS for taking this much needed action to save sage-grouse,” said Ted Toombs, Rocky Mountain Regional Director of Environmental Defense Fund’s Center for Conservation Incentives and a member of several NRCS State Technical Committees. “We look forward to working with NRCS scientists and partners to ensure monitoring is conducted and the results of new research are incorporated on the ground through adaptive management. We strongly urge NRCS to develop similar strategies in the 10 other states where sage-grouse still exist.”
Montana NCRS will utilize six of the conservation programs the agency administers to implement the strategy, including the:
- Conservation Cooperative Partnership Initiative (CCPI)
- Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
- Conservation Technical Assistance Program (CTA)
- Grassland Reserve Program (GRP)
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
- Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP)
- Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP)
Unfortunately, in an effort to cut the federal deficit, the Obama administration’s budget asks Congress to cut funding for two of these conservation programs, including EQIP (by $250 million) and WHIP (by $43 million).
“This strategy is significant step toward utilizing farm bill conservation programs in ways that will help prevent the sage-grouse from being listed on the U.S. Endangered Species List, as it already is in Canada,” concluded Toombs. “We urge Congress not to cut these vital conversation programs.”