Ongoing concern for sage-grouse resources was matched with guarded optimism by a room full of state, federal, and non-profit wildlife conservation professionals at a gathering during the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Omaha, Nebraska, last week. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership organized the event to celebrate the largest landscape-scale conservation effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management on behalf of this threatened game bird.
The fact that a once abundant, widely-distributed, and liberally-harvested game species is now at population levels low enough to be considered for listing as threatened or endangered—that decision will be made in September—has greatly concerned many. But habitat loss impacts more than just sage-grouse. Sagebrush ecosystems are critically important to more than 350 species of plants and animals, including mule deer, pronghorn, and elk. Thriving populations of sage-grouse would indicate healthy sagebrush ecosystems, and this is the bigger-picture goal of those working to restore this troubled landscape, many of whom were in attendance as the TRCP expressed its gratitude for their efforts.
Collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the states has been augmented by the participation of sportsmen, conservation groups, academic and research institutions, private landowners, and a multitude of other stakeholders in the energy and agriculture industries. At the event, posters and displays from many TRCP partners, including the Sage Grouse Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North American Grouse Partnership, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, Mule Deer Foundation, and the High Lonesome Ranch, demonstrated their efforts to conserve sage-grouse and sagebrush ecosystems
The highlight of the evening was a fascinating and impressive presentation by Jason Weller, Chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In its Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), the NRCS has played a tremendous role in working proactively with private landowners to balance sustainable ranching with sage-grouse conservation. Under Weller’s leadership, the NRCS is demonstrating solid results, continued investments, and committed stakeholders as they remain steadfast in their dedication to protecting and bringing back the greater sage-grouse. Weller shared some outstanding achievements of that program:
- In the five years since SGI was started, NRCS has worked with 1,129 participating ranches in 11 western states, and SGI and its partners have invested $424.5 million and conserved 4.4 million acres—that’s an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.
- These investments have focused attention on large populations by successfully targeting 75 percent of investments inside Priority Areas for Conservation (PACs).
- Conservation easement acreage has increased 18-fold under SGI. Of the more than 450,000 acres of easement, more than 80 percent are inside occupied habitats and 94 percent provide permanent protection.
- Conifer removal has reclaimed 405,241 acres of otherwise suitable habitat. Nearly half of these acres are in Oregon, where the threat to habitat has now been reduced by more than 68 percent on priority private lands in the state.
- Additional resources are enabling SGI to nearly double past achievements, and an estimated 8 million acres should be conserved by 2018.
- Taking a business-like approach, Weller is asking each state to come up with an investment strategy for the next four years.
- SGI will receive $198 million from NRCS starting in 2015 – this is a new commitment to conservation well into the future. Combined with partner contributions, this will bring the total SGI investment to an estimated $751 million.
Event attendees were also treated to a sneak preview of “The Sagebrush Sea,” a new film about sagebrush and sage-grouse sponsored by the George B. Storer Foundation and produced by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology for the NATURE series on PBS. The episode will air on May 20.
As they celebrate the heroic progress made in the sagebrush-steppe ecosystems thus far, the TRCP and its partners are continuing to press federal, state, and private landowners to create solid plans and make sufficient commitments to keeping this iconic bird of the American West off the threatened or endangered lists.