Ranchers get boost in habitat protection; second sign-up draws 23 applications
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
With an additional $5.5 million for sage grouse habitat protection, the National Resources Conservation Service in Idaho held a second sign-up this year for the Grasslands Reserve Program.
The program will pay ranchers for conservation easements to preserve large tracts of sagebrush habitat important to sage grouse, a candidate for endangered species protection, and ranchers are showing "overwhelming interest," said Idaho NRCS State Conservationist Jeff Burwell.
In its last sign-up, which closed July 20, NRCS received 23 applications for a total of 42,000 acres at a cost of $19.4 million, Wade Brown, Idaho NRCS easement specialist, said.
"Unfortunately, we don't have enough funding to cover all of those," said Clint Evans, assistant state conservationist for programs. "We would love to, but we were only allocated $5.9 million."
That roughly $5.9 million for fiscal year 2011 included an earlier allocation of $421,000, he said.
Unsuccessful applicants can defer their applications to fiscal year 2012, which starts Oct. 1, he said.
There is also the possibility USDA will allocate more funds for sage grouse protection under the program this year, as NRCS has submitted a request for $4.2 million more, he said.
The easements will restrict specific activities, such as development, on the ranchers' private property in perpetuity, but landowners still retain grazing rights on the land.
"With sage grouse, the threat is development or anything that might fragment those big blocks of ground and habitat, such as roads," Brown said.
The Grasslands Reserve Program is one effort in maintaining large tracts of grazing lands that support both healthy sage grouse populations and sustainable ranching businesses, Burwell said.
Other efforts to protect sage grouse habitat include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.
"It's always nice to have assistance in making some improvements, a lot are fairly expensive," said Mountain Home rancher Ted Hoffman.
Those improvements include fencing, fire breaks and seeding programs, he said.
Habitat protection and preserving native grasslands makes economic and ecological sense for ranchers, the birds and government, he said. It protects species, makes land more productive, keeps ranching families viable and produces more jobs, taxes and revenue.
On the flip side, an endangered species listing leads to halted activities on public lands, he said.
"If we get crowded out, all those things disappear," he said.
Landowners receive a one-time payment based on the appraised value in a geographic area, Brown said. In Idaho, that value runs from $350 to $750 an acre.
This is the first time USDA has dedicated a portion of grassland reserve funding to solely protect sage grouse habitat, he added.
That allocation also includes $10.4 million for Wyoming and $2.3 million for Utah.