Partnership to help sage-grouse continues to grow

Byrhonda Lyons
NRCS Montana
January 12th, 2015 at 7:00PM

A photo of Michael Brown showing key places on a map where he and others work with ranchers. When many different groups come together for a common goal, the impacts can be tremendous. That’s the case for the sage-grouse, an at-risk bird in the American West. Since 2010, over 1,100 ranches have teamed with the Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI) and conserved 4.4 million acres across 11 western states, an area equivalent of 2 Yellowstone National Parks. The diverse partnership led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service includes ranchers, state and federal agencies, universities, non-profit groups and businesses that rally around a common vision of conserving wildlife through sustainable ranching.

SGI continues to grow and just over the weekend ConocoPhillips announced the company will invest $1 million to further strengthen the partnership. The contribution was made to the Intermountain West Joint Venture, one of the key partners of SGI. New funding will be used to extend the partnership through 2019 by providing $200,000 per year to support SGI’s Strategic Watershed Action Team, or SWAT. This team provides field delivery, science, communications and partner development support to SGI.

A photo of Clancy Jandreau and Michael Brown, with NRCS, conduct a range inventory as part of the Sage-Grouse Initiative. “SGI has been successful because our partners have bought into this model of voluntary, proactive conservation and stepped up with significant investments,” NRCS Chief Jason Weller said. “This growing partnership shows what private landowners, NRCS and partners have accomplished together over the last five years, and it will play a key role in transforming the initiative into a durable conservation effort.”

Once numbering some 16 million before settlement, sage-grouse have dwindled to as few as 200,000 birds. The SGI works to reverse trends by proactively conserving sage-steppe landscapes, providing win-win solutions to non-regulatory threats facing ranching, sage grouse and 350 other species.

A photo of Mandi Hirsch, a member of the Sage-Grouse Initiative SWAT, conducts a field inventory. NRCS launched SWAT in 2011 as its primary vehicle for increasing capacity and scaling up SGI delivery. This model teams 40-plus paying partners with NRCS and places 27 partner conservationists in NRCS field offices to provide technical assistance to private landowners and facilitate conservation projects. Additional SWAT funding is invested in science to effectively target conservation investments where benefits are highest and in communications to maintain partner and landowner support and participation.

“We have a mechanism that works,” said Tim Griffiths, Sage-Grouse Initiative National Coordinator.  “SWAT is an incredibly efficient way to leverage partner resources and is resulting in unprecedented SGI participation and outcomes.”

A primary outcome of SWAT is the doubling of SGI conservation since 2011. The SWAT has helped:

  • Establish conservation plans for more than 1.8 million acres of grazing systems, providing better habitat for sage-grouse and forage for livestock;
  • Remove more than 200,000 acres of conifers, restoring original habitat the sage-grouse needs.
  • Mark or remove almost 800,000 feet of fence, minimizing the risk of sage-grouse colliding with fences;
  • Restore more than 800 acres of wetlands, enhancing habitat; and
  • Place almost 25,000 acres in conservation easements, guaranteeing healthy habitat in the long-term.

From private companies to state and federal agencies to non-profit organizations, all SGI partners rally around the common vision of achieving wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching.

“In SGI, all partners put their differences aside and agree to work on common ground,” Griffiths said. “Focusing all our efforts to achieve a shared vision has enabled us to achieve unprecedented success.”

Griffiths also credits the SGI and SWAT’s success to the partners’ willingness to work together behind a common SGI brand and share success with all. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when nobody takes the credit.”

The agreement became effective Jan. 1 and continues through December 31, 2019.