Idaho landowners have until May 25 to apply for Fiscal Year 2018 habitat-improvement funding under the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Sage Grouse Initiative for the state.
The greater sage grouse nests on the ground, in sagebrush or long grass. Males use a lek system of mating wherein they gather in sizable areas for competitive, flamboyant displays. The NRCS effort focuses on improving rangeland to support healthy populations of the grouse while promoting sustainable ranching practices.
“Putting sustainable conservation practices in place can improve sage grouse habitat or reduce threats to bird survival,” Jerry Raynor, acting NRCS state conservationist for Idaho, said in a release. “The Sage Grouse Initiative gives landowners funding to apply those conservation practices on their property.”
NRCS said typical habitat improvement practices include seeding rangeland to make food plants more available; removing juniper trees in key breeding, brood-rearing and wintering sites to restore habitat; and including a rest period in grazing systems to help improve cover during nesting season.
Morgan Bennetts, Boise-based NRCS assistant state conservationist for programs, said in an interview that non-native juniper can overcrowd sagebrush.
“We are taking out some, not all, to make sure it does not reduce sagebrush habitat where they are nesting,” she said.
Resting a grazing area can benefit habitat while reducing disturbances to sage grouse during nesting season, ideally improving survival rates, she said.
Initiative funding has prioritized historically significant grouse population sites including mating-display areas, Bennetts said. Last year, the program contracted about $771,000 to improve sage grouse habitat on 6,766 acres held by about 10 landowners. NRCS has Sage Grouse Initiative Funding available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
“The practices that benefit sage grouse habitat also create or maintain healthy grazing land for livestock,” Raynor said. “Through voluntary conservation, we hope to keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list.”
Sage grouse population decline and habitat loss have generated concern for years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 said Endangered Species Act protection for the grouse was “warranted but precluded.”
In 2015, Fish and Wildlife determined protection was no longer warranted following “an unprecedented conservation effort across the western United States that has significantly reduced threats to the Greater Sage Grouse across 90 percent of the species’ breeding habitat.”
Sagebrush habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation have been key threats to the sage grouse in the Great Basin, Fish and Wildlife said. In the Rocky Mountains part of this range, energy development and related infrastructure has been a primary driver of habitat loss.
The U.S. Department of the Interior said the grouse and its habitat have been helped by federal land-management plans and partnerships with states, non-government organizations, ranchers and other private landowners, and other partners to conserve habitat. Despite long-term population declines, sage grouse remain relatively abundant and well-distributed across the species’ 173 million-acre range, Interior said.
Sage Grouse Initiative: https://bit.ly/2HoHQmf