TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Working to protect sage grouse habitat and preclude the bird’s listing as an endangered species, the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) is making headway in addressing threats to the species through conservation projects on private and public land.
Those projects include conservation easements on private ranch land, new grazing systems that increase cover for nesting birds, removal of invasive conifers to restore historic sagebrush, and marking or removing high-risk fences.
The initiative, led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, was launched in 2010 and has invested $354 million in sage grouse conservation projects from farm bill funding and matching contributions.
“We’re making a heck of a lot of progress together,” said Tim Griffiths, SGI NRCS national coordinator, during an SGI team workshop in Twin Falls May 6.
The Initiative works through partnerships involving government agencies, universities, wildlife and conservation groups, businesses, and ranchers and capitalizes on the strength of diversity of its partners, Griffiths said.
The big takeaway when it comes to sage grouse is that they need large, intact landscapes, he said.
The largest threat to those intact landscapes is subdivision of large ranches and non-ranching uses of that land in the West, he said.
SGI addresses that threat by offering incentives for conservation easements on ranches and helping ranchers work through easement agreements and requirements. Since 2010, nearly 1,000 ranchers have enrolled 381,000 acres in conservation easements.
That’s more than 6,000 square miles, double the size of Yellowstone National Park, and the sign-up rate is equivalent to two city blocks every minute, Griffiths said.
“We have never seen anything like it,” he said
Forty percent of sage grouse dwell on private lands, he said.
“SGI has shown us what’s possible if we all work together and roll up our sleeves,” he said.
It takes an army to solve the sage grouse problem, but ranchers provide the glue to keep landscapes intact. Without them, there’s no way to conserve habitat and protect sage grouse, he said.
The goal is to ensure ranching stays sustainable for the long-term, he said.
Sage grouse occupy 186 million acres in 11 western states, with 75 percent located on 25 percent of the land (56 million acres). SGI prioritizes those areas and focuses on the primary threats.
The distribution of sage grouse has been reduced by roughly 50 percent from historic range, and sage grouse populations have been reduced from millions to 200,000 to 500,000, Griffiths said.
SGI has conserved 3.8 million acres for sage brush habitat, which some might think isn’t much compared to the 186 million acres inhabited by sage grouse. But not every area is broken or needs conservation, he said.
In addition to conservation easements, SGI has facilitated new grazing systems that increase hiding cover for nesting birds on 2.6 million acres, the removal of invasive conifers to restore historic sagebrush on 276,000 acres, and the marking or removal of 537 miles of high-risk fences that prevents 2,800 bird collisions annually.
In order to be successful, SGI not only needs the desire or willingness of ranchers, it needs the outright passion and enthusiasm ranchers are bringing to the table, he said.
SGI is the largest conservation experiment in the 40-year history of the Endangered Species Act, and the stakes are high for western economies, ranching, and oil, gas and wind development, he said.
A lot has been accomplished, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The problem can be solved collectively, but it will take long-term, sustained investment, he said.