Growers interested in enrolling nearly 43,000 acres
By SEAN ELLIS
There has been higher-than-expected interest in a federal conservation program that could end up protecting Idaho ranchers by preserving large swaths of sage grouse habitat.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service in Idaho initially received $421,000 to establish conservation easements through the federal Grassland Reserve Program to maintain large tracts of sagebrush habitat critical to the chicken-like bird, which is a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection.
But interest in the program was so high that the agency was able to successfully lobby for an additional $5.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That amount also proved to be insufficient.
Wade Brown, NRCS easement coordinator, said the agency ended up receiving 23 applications from ranchers throughout the state. The applications, which came from nine of the state's 44 counties, totaled 42,910 acres. The combined value of all the proposed easements is $19.44 million.
The agency will sort through the applications and pick the ones that provide the best benefit to sage grouse habitat.
The program limits future development of private rangeland using conservation easements. Landowners maintain their grazing rights and the land can be sold but never be developed.
According to the NRCS, studies have shown the bird's population decline is primarily due to fragmented habitat.
Focusing on improving habitat is one way ranchers and Gov. Butch Otter, along with local, state and federal agencies in Idaho, are working together to try to keep the sage grouse from being listed.
"Whatever we can do voluntarily and proactively to help keep the species from being listed is good for ranchers," said Alexis Collins, an NRCS public affairs specialist. "If the species is listed, who knows how it will affect ranchers."
Lindsay Nothern, communications director for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said programs like this one give ranchers and Idaho officials the ability to have an important say in the issue.
"Giving the state and ranchers local control over sage grouse recovery is what we want," he said. "We do not want listing of the sage grouse."
Crapo, a member of the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, which has oversight of the ESA, said a sage grouse listing could be very harmful to agriculture and he praised state leaders for coming up with these types of innovative programs.
NRCS State Conservationist Jeff Burwell said the program is a win-win for ranchers and sage grouse and he noted the agency requested additional funds because of overwhelming interest from ranchers in areas with large amounts of sage grouse habitat.
"We are working with our partners to take a proactive approach to maintain these large tracts of grazing lands that support both healthy sage grouse populations and sustainable ranching businesses," he said. "The Grassland Reserve Program is one way to protect those lands for both people and birds."