Nick Myatt/Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
Volumes have been published on conservation approaches to benefit embattled Western sage grouse populations, but economist John Tanaka believes researchers have largely overlooked how such strategies affect ranchers’ bottom lines.
Tanaka, associate director of the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station, and his research team have started working on a model to estimate the economic impacts of sage grouse management practices on ranches of varying sizes and distributions of public and private grazing land.
The model will be used to develop at least 36 enterprise budgets covering hypothetical ranches in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Montana and Nevada.
“From an economic standpoint, nobody has ever looked at if what we’re proposing ranchers do to enhance sage grouse habitat is going to enhance their bottom line,” Tanaka said, adding the data should help guide decisions of land managers and ranchers.
Local USDA offices will help Tanaka’s team recruit ranchers to serve on small focus groups and provide baseline data on regional industry practices. To model likely outcomes of management practices, Tanaka’s team will interview scientists, land managers and ranchers.
“We’re trying to find a representative response, not a specific ranch response,” Tanaka said. “We’ll use expert opinion and anecdotal evidence where we need to.”
Tanaka’s team also includes principal researchers Kristie Maczko, director of the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable, and University of Wyoming agricultural economist John Ritten. Their work is funded by a nearly $500,000 grant from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and they expect to complete the model by next May.
They’ll be improving upon a previous ranch-management model Tanaka developed with retired University of Idaho economist Neil Rimbey and New Mexico State University emeritus economist Allen Torell. Rimbey believes the economic data will help land managers address a common void in their environmental reviews.
Rimbey said concerns about sage grouse sometimes lead land managers to implement grazing permits requiring ranchers to delay grazing by a month, or to remove cattle a month early, “with no idea of the economic impact, and they can have very dramatic impacts at the ranch level.”
Tanaka anticipates the project will show economic benefits resulting from some common sage grouse conservation practices, such as adding off-stream watering, thereby dispersing cattle to graze land more evenly, or removal of junipers to improve both sage grouse habitat and livestock forage.
John Peavey, who has implemented conservation practices on rangeland near Carey, Idaho, believes practices that reduce the risk of wildfire provide the greatest benefit for both cattle and grouse.
Farm Bill programs under the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative cover up to 75 percent of ranchers’ costs of implementing approved conservation practices. Sage Grouse Initiative coordinator Thad Heater said the program has facilitated conservation across 5.6 million Western acres in its first seven years.
Heater explained that voluntary conservation efforts helped avert an Endangered Species Act listing for sage grouse in 2015, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to review progress in 2020.