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July 01, 2014
USDA Updates Sage Grouse Plan

With backing from the 2014 Farm Bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a “ground-breaking commitment … to accelerate and focus conservation efforts that will benefit ranchers and also the distinct population of the greater sage grouse population that lives along the border of Nevada and California.”

For several years, the USDA and western states have collaborated on the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI).  One goal of the SGI is to find ways to avoid listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a move that is opposed by western ranchers and agricultural interests.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make a final listing decision by April 28, 2015.

Bistate population

The sage grouse is a large ground bird that inhabits California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and western Canada.  The species is notable for the elaborate courting dance performed by males. The birds, found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to more than 9,000 feet, are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food.

It is estimated that up to 16 million sage grouse occupied the western high plains when the U.S. population began to settle in the region.  The current population is estimated at between 200,000 and 400,000.  But the overall population has distinct subgroups, including the California-Nevada or bistate population of greater sage grouse that are candidates for ESA listing because of declining numbers.

Easements and conifer removal

In its announcement, the USDA committed to providing up to $25.5 million of conservation investments over the next 5 to 10 years.  With the funds, two USDA agencies—the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—will continue working with the Bi-State Local Area Working Group to advance the Bi-State Action Plan.

The Plan has two top priorities—establishing conservation easements on private lands to ensure persistence of critical brood habitats and removing encroaching conifers that degrade habitats and increase predation, primarily on public lands.  The Bi-State Executive Oversight Committee estimates it will cost about $38 million to fully implement the remaining priority actions identified in the Plan.

The NRCS has committed to funding $10 million for conservation easements and another $2 million to accelerate conifer removal on public lands.

“This new contribution by NRCS adds to their demonstrated track record of having already secured $24.7 million in conservation easements to secure and protect habitat since 2012,” says the USDA.  “NRCS commits to having all their projects implemented within the next five years.”

Of the $38 million in estimated need, approximately $13.9 million is the responsibility of the USFS, which has committed to funding all habitat restoration work, including restoration of sagebrush ecosystems.  The USFS states that all its projects will be implemented within 10 years, with high-priority projects completed first (5–7 years).

BLM also commits

On the same day the USDA made its announcement, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also made a $6.5 million commitment over the next 10 years to implement a wide range of priority conservation activities on the public lands it manages to improve sage grouse habitat.

The SGI

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