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Pioneers Alliance conserves working land

Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

A nonprofit group in south-central Idaho has worked to keep 2.3 million acres intact for wildlife habitat including habitat for sage grouse. The initiative has led to nearly 80,000 acres of conservation easements, some pending.

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Pioneers Alliance is a cooperative effort by ranchers, residents, conservationists, public land managers, and elected officials to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural value of the Pioneer mountains to Craters of the Moon landscape in south-central Idaho.

The area borders the Sawtooth Mountains and comprises 2.3 million acres of wildlife habitat, working farms and ranches and recreational activities.

The private lands in the middle of the landscape are the linchpin between state and federal lands, and farmers and ranchers have voluntarily granted conservation easement for nearly 80,000 acres (some pending) to keep the landscape intact through Pioneers Alliance, said Bas Hargrove, senior policy representative with The Nature Conservancy.

That land is home to sage grouse, pronghorn sheep, mule deer, and elk, and through landowner easements will never be subdivided or commercially developed, he said.

“This is one of the great conservation stories in the West in the last decade,” Hargrave said during a Sage Grouse Initiative team meeting in Twin Falls last week.

It’s pretty remarkable and never would have happened without the backing of the local community, centered around Carey, Idaho, he said.

To date, more than 65,000 acres of private land have been protected through conservation easements, representing 30 agreements, 17 land owners and about $14 million in public funding, said Lisa Eller, communications director for The Nature Conservancy.

The landscape contains 28 sage grouse leks, with many on the easement-protected areas, Hargrove said.

It’s important to keep the landscape connected and keep those lands in ranching to protect sage grouse habitat and keep the species from being listed as an endangered species, said Jeremy Maestas, Sage Grouse Initiative technical lead with NRCS, Redmond, Ore.

The Sage Grouse Initiative, led by NRCS and using conservation programs in the farm bill, has contributed significantly to conservation easements in the area since the Initiative was launched in 2010.

But Pioneer Alliance dates back to 2004 or 2005 when the community banded together to stop a proposed transmission line through the center of the landscape, said Keri York, senior conservation coordinator with the Wood River Land Trust.

“At the heart of it all were landowners and community members,” she said.

The concerned group had a shared value and wanted to protect working farms and ranches, wildlife habitat, water resources, recreation and cultural heritage, she said.

The non-profit Pioneer Alliance was formed, and the job of convincing landowners to donate easement began. Outreach was challenging, but the initiative gained traction once a few key ranchers bought in, she said.

“In the long run, it’s one of the most incredible land-protection programs in the West,” she said.

Rancher Monte McConnell said he was interested because he didn’t think it would change his land management. Although his easement does have a land-management plan, the partnership isn’t telling him how to manage, he said.

Easements offer ranchers some certainty, he said.

“It takes agencies, partners and NGOs (non-government organizations) to help us help ourselves,” he said.


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