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Photo of lesser prairie-chickens on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background, photo credit: Laura Erickson

Ask an Expert | Keeping it Grass: How the NRCS Helps Landowners Maintain Grasslands When CRP Contracts Expire

Photo of lesser prairie-chickens on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background, photo credit: Laura Erickson

Working rangelands provide critical habitat for grassland-dependent birds and other ecosystem services that croplands just can not provide. In this photo, lesser prairie-chickens are on a lek, with ranch operations visible in background. Laura Erickson photo.


One of the largest voluntary private-lands conservation programs in the U.S. celebrated its 35th anniversary this past December. Operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) helps landowners and operators conserve grassland. When landowners enroll ground in the CRP, they voluntarily agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. The ground is then maintained as grassland for the length of the contract, generally 10 or 15 years.

The CRP benefits landowners, wildlife, and surrounding communities. Producers receive annual payments that help offset the cost of maintaining the land as a set-aside, rather than actively grazing or cultivating the ground. Beyond the operation, keeping these lands in grass also contributes positively to the economy, provides biodiversity of plant and animal populations, and improves environmental quality by reducing soil erosion, improving water quality, and locking carbon in the soil.

A study released in 2021 demonstrated that ranches in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas that had ground enrolled in CRP, or in prescribed grazing practices, helped conserve habitat for 4.5 million grassland-dependent songbirds. Importantly, CRP-enrolled lands comprised the majority of the lands in the study. This benefit extended to some of the most imperiled grassland species, including lesser prairie-chickens, grasshopper sparrow, Cassin’s sparrow, and lark bunting. Further, these lands helped boost songbird populations by 1.8 million birds.

The CRP is helping address one of the most significant challenges to America’s grasslands – land use conversion. The majority of the most productive soils in the Great Plains have already been cultivated, but more than one million acres of grasslands are lost annually across the U.S – largely due to continued conversion to cropland. This conversion includes less-productive soils, which has a high cost to wildlife, water quality, soil health, and carbon capture. Furthermore, 70 percent of these new croplands have a yield deficit of -6.5 percent compared to the national average.

The most productive soils in the Great Plains have already been converted to cropland. With help from the NRCS, landowners can maintain expired CRP lands as working rangelands. Figure: NRCS-WLFW, Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome.

 

The CRP helps restore and maintain grasslands, but the program is highly competitive. While demand is high, more than half of willing participants were unable to re-enroll expiring CRP lands in recent years due to acreage limitations nationally. Despite this disappointment, a study released in 2021 demonstrated 58 percent of CRP contracts – on average across six states – that expired in 2007 remained in grass for the next 10 years. The highest retention rates were in less productive landscapes where grazing cultures persist. In contrast, the most productive soils often returned to cropland when contracts expired.

While the CRP is managed by the FSA, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps landowners with expiring contracts turn CRP acres into productive grazing lands through technical and financial assistance after CRP contracts expire.

Watch this video featuring Kansas rancher, Dwight Abel, who worked with the NRCS to turn expired CRP ground into productive and profitable grazing lands.

The NRCS is uniquely positioned to help producers retain grassland exiting the CRP by replacing lost annual set-aside payments with revenues from livestock grazing. Helping the ranching community piece back together lower-productivity landscapes that are better suited for grazing than farming has the potential to restore whole watersheds at unprecedented scales. Maintaining expired CRP lands as working rangelands can stitch together intact grasslands that support grassland-dependent wildlife while helping producers remain profitable and productive.

We sat down with Andy Burr, the state biologist with the NRCS in Kansas, to talk about the CRP and how the NRCS helps producers retain expired CRP lands as working rangelands.

How popular is the CRP among landowners in the Great Plains? 

It is a very popular program in Kansas.  More popular when commodity prices are low or growing conditions are tough like during a drought.

How are applications for the CRP evaluated?

FSA ranks the applications based on the estimated environmental benefits and cost to implement the vegetative cover on the offered acreage.

How does the FSA determine which applications would be most beneficial to wildlife or ecosystem services like soil erosion and water quality?

FSA determines which applications would be most beneficial through use their Environmental Benefits Index.  It considers the wildlife habitat cover benefits, water quality benefits from reduced erosion, runoff, and leaching, enduring benefits, and air quality benefits.

A recent study showed that nearly 60% of expired CRP contracts were maintained as grasslands for 10 years after the CRP contract expired. How have you seen this trend play out over your career?

Many of these lower-productivity landscapes present an opportunity to restore large and intact grazing lands. I think this comes down the dominant land use in the area.  If the expiring CRP is in an area dominated by rangeland there is a good chance the field will remain in grass.

What are some of the benefits of turning expired CRP lands into working rangelands?

The benefits include; adding more forage to the ranching operation, grazing will create a patchwork of different cover types to meet important habitat components like nesting and brood rearing cover, and grazing can provide disturbance to help maintain a diversity of grasses and forbs. Maintaining the grass will continue to protect the soil from wind and water erosion and will store carbon below the soil surface within the root systems of the prairie plants.

Are there specific places or types of land where transitioning expired CRP lands to grazing lands makes more sense?

It makes more sense where the cropland productivity is low and/or there are a lot of livestock producers.

How does the NRCS help focus resources on those areas?

NRCS focuses resources with the help of our great partners, especially like the soil and water conservation districts.  Kansas NRCS prioritizes expiring CRP through Environmental Quality Incentives Program for producers interested in converting the CRP to working rangelands that then become a valuable part of their grazing operation.

If a landowner wants to maintain expired CRP ground as grazing land, what assistance can the NRCS provide?

NRCS can provide technical and financial assistance to those that qualify for developing watering facilities, building fence, and establishing stocking rates. All a producer has to do is call or visit with conservation staff at their local USDA Service Center.

What else would you like our readers to know about the CRP and the NRCS’s capacity to help landowners keep these important habitats as grasslands through grazing?

Management is critical to maintain grasslands whether they are CRP or native rangeland.  Prescribed grazing with appropriate stocking rates is needed to maintain healthy forage plants.  Grazing can be a great tool to develop wildlife habitat.

Meet the Expert

What is your favorite grassland bird?

Bobolinks. They are a very showy bird with an unmistakable trill for a call.

Describe your perfect weekend day. 

My best days are spent hunting or fishing with the kids.

Andy Burr and friends hunting in a CRP field in KS.

Andy Burr, third from left, with friends after a successful pheasant hunt.

 


>> Learn more about how WLFW is addressing land use conversion across the Great Plains in our Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome. <<

>> See where the cultivation risk is highest for grasslands <<

Turning former cropland into green grass — and green cash

A lesser prairie-chicken on intact grasslands in Kansas with cattle grazing in the background. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media


By Brianna Randall

Rex Schmidt grew up on his family farm near Greensburg, Kansas. He and his wife have run their agricultural operation for 35 years, grazing cattle where the hills break into prairie. Lesser prairie-chicken and pheasants are abundant in their green pastures.

Here in Kansas, as in much of the western United States, producers like Schmidt continuously have to make a choice – keep these wide-open grazing lands intact or plow up the prairie to plant crops. When native grassland or sagebrush-steppe is converted to cropland, however, it diminishes the soil health, water quality, and carbon storage potential of these productive rangelands. Wildlife also suffer as their habitat disappears.

Across the Plains, nearly all of the most productive soil has already been converted to crops. Further conversion of less productive soil fragments important wildlife habitat. Graphic from the Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Biome / WLFW. Click image to see the Framework.

 

One tool that encourages producers to choose grass instead of row crops is the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). In return for yearly rental payments, farmers take cropland out of production and plant specific species that are better for wildlife, water, and soil.

Schmidt signed CRP contracts for a few pastures on his farm over the years, replanting 1,280 acres of wheat, milo, and cattle feed back into grass.

“A lot of this land never should’ve been farmed anyway due to the poor soil and erosion,” Schmidt said.

After his CRP contracts expired, Schmidt wanted to keep the land in grass. So, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helped Schmidt turn his replanted grasslands into profitable grazing lands. The Working Lands for Wildlife initiative and other NRCS programs offer landowners free technical support and financial assistance to build pasture fences, develop livestock watering systems, and create prescribed grazing plans. NRCS helps producers find the conservation plan that makes the most sense for them and their land.

Transitioning CRP payments to profitable livestock grazing

Schmidt took advantage of conservation programs from NRCS and Kansas Wildlife and Parks to build pasture fences and solar-powered watering facilities to expand his cattle operation. He and his wife now spend less time and money on these pastures, and also need less equipment to make a profit.

Cattle grazing grass in KS

Grazing offers an alternative to replanting expired CRP lands as crops while also maintaining important grassland habitat. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

 

“It’s been a good deal, and it’s a lot less work than farming,” Schmidt said. “We can run more cattle now. And we have more control of how we use the land.”

Schmidt likes that keeping his land working as grazing pastures also circulates money locally.

“When I’m running cattle, I buy feed, fuel, salt, and other supplies, which supports more people in my community who can make money off the land, too.”

NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife recently released two frameworks for conservation action in the Great Plains Grasslands and Sagebrush biomes that prioritize incentives for landowners to maintain or restore America’s productive rangelands. This includes resources to help more landowners transition expiring CRP acres into profitable grazing land.

The USDA also updated its CRP Grasslands program this year, with the goal of enrolling more acres to mitigate climate change. Landowners receive a minimum rental rate of $15 per acre to plant and maintain healthy grasses. Participants retain the right to graze livestock, produce hay, or harvest to produce seeds (depending on bird species’ nesting seasons), conduct prescribed burns, and build firebreaks and fences.

Grazing herds can be good for birds

Maintaining healthy, diverse perennial plants not only benefits producers and local communities, but also provides much-needed habitat for wildlife — especially grassland songbirds, which have shown the steepest decline of any birds over the past 50 years.

Birds like the threatened lesser prairie-chickens require healthy grasslands for nesting and brood-rearing. Livestock grazing that maintains diverse grasses and shrubs provides greater resilience to drought, which helps wildlife and producers weather dry years. And a recent study in the southern Great Plains found that private lands enrolled in either CRP or NRCS grazing conservation programs increased the abundance of prairie-chickens and dozens of other grassland songbirds.

Estimated overall (a) population size for land enrolled in conservation practices and (b) population change from treatment effects relative to reference strata for grassland birds by grassland specialization and Partners in Flight breeding-season vulnerability in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, 2016 (error bars, SE). Image courtesy of David Pavlacky. Click image to see full study.

 

“We’ve lost about 70 percent of grasslands throughout the Great Plains over the last 100 years, which is problematic for wildlife,” said Daniel Sullins, an assistant professor of wildlife management at Kansas State University.

To investigate how much of the land expiring from CRP contracts stayed in grass, Sullins and colleagues with Kansas State University, Oregon State University, Playa Lakes Joint Venture, and Working Lands for Wildlife analyzed more than 10,000 expiring fields in the central and southern Great Plains with remote sensing. The study, published in May 2021 in Biological Conservation, found that 58 percent of the CRP fields remained in grasslands 10 years after the contracts expired (varying from 36-76 percent by state).

This research shows that the CRP can have durable impacts on the landscape even after the contracts expire. Plus, areas with lower-quality conditions for growing crops — like Schmidt’s land in Kansas — were four times more likely to remain in grass.

“Often times grazing can be a better alternative for producers, especially on land that’s less profitable for farming,” Sullins said. “Turning expiring fields into grazing lands is a big opportunity for conservation. It shows a lot of promise in terms of providing habitat for grassland-dependent wildlife.”

Lesser prairie-chickens have established a lek (courtship and breeding ground) on this CRP field in Oklahoma, which is being grazed as a part of mid-contract management. Photo: Dwayne Elmore.

 


>> Learn more about the Conservation Reserve Program  <<

>> See where the cultivation risk is highest for grasslands <<

>> Read the new conservation frameworks for the Sagebrush or Great Plains Grassland biomes <<

 

 

Study Demonstrates Importance of Voluntary Conservation for Grassland Birds

Three of the vulnerable grassland bird species that benefit from voluntary conservation. Left to right, Grasshopper sparrow by Alan Schmierer; Lark bunting by Tom Benson; Cassin’s sparrow by Alan Schmierer.


Voluntary grassland conservation in the Great Plains conserves habitat for 4.5 million grassland songbirds, including eight imperiled species, and helps populations of some of the most vulnerable birds exceed recovery goals.

The trill of an Eastern meadowlark singing his springtime song is unmistakable. Flute-like, the series of gentle notes drift across the southern prairie. With his yellow breast popping, the meadowlark rises his beak to the cobalt sky, and buzzing insects, rustling grasses, and mooing cows add their voices to the chorus.

Eastern meadowlark. Photo by John Sutton.

Sonic scenes like this are more common across the Great Plains, thanks in part to forward-looking landowners who have partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to preserve and maintain privately owned agricultural lands, according to new research published in Conservation Biology by Dr. David Pavlacky, biometrician with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

Dr. Pavlacky investigated how the USDA’s incentive-based, voluntary conservation approaches benefitted grassland-dependent bird populations.  The paper, Scaling up private land conservation to meet recovery goals for grassland birds highlights that private land conservation provides a solution to declining bird populations in North America and scales-up to meet population recovery goals for the most imperiled grassland birds.

Populations of grassland songbird species – including the Eastern meadowlark, lesser and greater prairie-chicken, lark bunting, and Cassin’s and grasshopper sparrows – have declined significantly over time due to a variety of land-use conversions and habitat fragmentation and degradation.

Lesser prairie-chicken (photo Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media)

Because nearly 95 percent of grasslands in the Great Plains are privately owned, voluntary conservation that improves the health and resiliency of grasslands from North Dakota to Texas is essential to reversing these declines. The USDA provides support in this effort through the Farm Service Agency’s (USDA-FSA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (USDA-NRCS) Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), both funded through the Farm Bill.

CRP provides set-aside payments which incentivize landowners to restore grasslands by planting native or introduced grasses and legumes on former cropland. Landowners enroll their land in CRP for 10-15 years, replant to grassland, and manage it as grassland for the length of the contract.

Through LPCI, landowners receive technical and financial assistance from USDA-NRCS to implement prescribed grazing and other conservation practices that mutually benefit wildlife habitat and ranch productivity.

From 2015-2017, Dr. Pavlacky and his team evaluated if these conservation measures had meaningful effects on grassland bird populations. The study focused on ranches in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. The researchers compared avian population densities on reference grasslands to privately owned ranches enrolled in CRP or that had prescribed grazing plans in place through LPCI. Additionally, they quantified vegetation within a 50-meter radius of each bird point count location to study habitat relationships.

What the researchers found is heartening for bird nerds and agricultural producers alike.

The research highlighted the critical role working agricultural lands play in recovering imperiled wildlife populations and the potential for conserving habitat on a large scale. In the paper, Dr. Pavlacky noted, “Our results suggested voluntary conservation programs addressing landowner interests scaled-up to meet the population recovery goals for the most imperiled grassland birds of conservation concern.”

The study showed that population increases for the most vulnerable grassland-dependent bird species met or exceeded recovery goals set by the Partners in Flight network, a group of more than 150 different organizations working to maintain and restore North America’s bird populations.

Researchers found these voluntary, incentive-based conservation practices conserved breeding habitat for at least 4.5 million grassland songbirds. Furthermore, the populations of many of these species increased by 1.8 million birds during the study period.

The study also found ranches that implemented prescribed grazing through LPCI showed the greatest variety and abundance of some of the most vulnerable grassland-dependent birds in the Great Plains like grasshopper and Cassin’s sparrows, lark bunting, and the eastern meadowlark. These ranches had taller shrubs and grasses than reference grasslands, showing how healthy vegetation helps increase the biodiversity of grassland birds.

Estimated overall (a) population size for land enrolled in conservation practices and (b) population change from treatment effects relative to reference strata for grassland birds by grassland specialization and Partners in Flight breeding-season vulnerability in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, 2016 (error bars, SE). Image courtesy of David Pavlacky. Click image to see full study.

Dr. Pavlacky’s team also found that CRP-enrolled ranches boosted songbird abundance, attracting an array of grassland-dependent and generalist species. Importantly, CRP-enrolled lands provide additional benefits beyond habitat for imperiled grassland-dependent songbirds, including reduced soil erosion and improved water quality. CRP-enrolled lands also store carbon underground, adding yet another benefit to expanding native grasslands. Helping willing producers transition their expiring CRP fields into valued grazing lands, as opposed to replanting them back to crops, is another innovative way to keep grasslands intact for wildlife and agriculture.

Overall, grazing management and expanding grassland acreage through CRP both had substantial impacts on the most imperiled songbirds in North America. This outcome suggests that scaling up private land conservation that links social and natural systems through incentive-based conservation can simultaneously address ecological threats and improve human well-being. As Dr. Pavlacky noted, “A similar investment in private land conservation in the study area over a period of 50 years is projected to conserve breeding habitat for 200 – 255 million birds.”

This research would have been impossible without landowner participation, specifically allowing researchers onto their ground over an extended period. The co-production of science is critical to evaluating the effectiveness of these and other Farm Bill-funded conservation practices. It also provides a foundation for a shared commitment to conservation between landowners, federal agencies, scientists, and land managers. Funding for the study came from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the USDA-FSA and USDA-NRCS.

As policymakers, conservationists, and federal agencies focus on reversing the long-term declines in grassland bird populations, this research demonstrates how successful, incentive-based programs are a win-win for wildlife and landowners. And that is something to sing about!


>>Read the complete paper in Conservation Biology here<<

>>Learn more about this study in this Science to Solutions post<<


 

Request for Proposals: Video and Multi-Media Project in Oregon


In partnership with Pheasants Forever, Working Lands for Wildlife is seeking proposals for a multi-media video project in the Warner Mountains of Oregon. This is a contract position.

How to submit a bid: Download the full Request For Proposals and submit a complete bid to Julia Debes (JuliaDebes@gmail.com), Director of Agricultural Communications, Working Lands for Wildlife by May 7, 2021.

Questions about the process or RFP: All inquiries regarding proposal submission may be directed to Sarah Marquart at 651-209-4920 or smarquart@pheasantsforever.org.

Deadline for submitting proposals: May 7, 2021.

Brief Description of project: Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) is seeking a qualified vendor to create a multi-media outreach package including 1) a photographic collection, 2) a media-ready archive of b-roll footage, and 3) sufficient footage from interviews, landscape videography, etc. to create a 5-minute video on a long-term conifer removal study near Adel, OR. Package would include production and editing of the 5-minute video.

Downloadable Request for Proposals: Click here.

Interested parties can also access the RFP and additional details at Pheasants Forever’s website here.

Image of Great Plains framework cover

Great Plains Grasslands Framework in Focus: Wildlife Conservation Through Sustainable Ranching

Image of Great Plains framework cover

The Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grassland Biome details the next five years of WLFW’s approach to conservation in the Great Plains.


For the last 11 years, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative, as part of the USDA-NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) approach to private land conservation, has worked with more than 800 landowners to conserve more than 1.5 million acres of working rangelands to benefit wildlife and people.

Building on this success, the NRCS recently released an action-based framework detailing how WLFW will continue to leverage the power of the Farm Bill to conserve this landscape. Called the “Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome,” the new approach outlines the key threats facing grassland landscapes and how voluntary, incentive-based conservation can address them to improve agricultural productivity and wildlife habitat.

Map of Great Plains Grassland Biome

The Great Plains grasslands biome represents some of the largest and most intact grasslands in the world.

This biome-level approach is necessary because so much of these landscapes are privately owned. Nearly two-thirds of the working rangelands west of the Mississippi River are privately owned, including nearly 90% of the Great Plains. These working lands include the sagebrush-steppe landscape and the sweeping Great Plains grasslands, home to some of the world’s largest and most intact grasslands.

Grazing by livestock is the common thread that maintains these working rangelands at an ecosystem scale. As a result, successful conservation relies on working with landowners and ranchers to improve working rangelands to benefit wildlife and the communities that rely on this land and have stewarded them for generations.

Great Plains Grasslands Framework

Framework cover image

Click on the image to download a PDF of the Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome 2021-2025.

The Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome is the result of a multi-state planning effort that, alongside a separate but similar sagebrush-focused framework, produced the first biome-scale approach to conserving private lands from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

Rangelands are being lost at an alarming rate – more than a million acres lost annually. The framework specifically provides an approach to target the two most severe and large-scale threats to the Great Plains grasslands:

Over the next five years, WLFW will work with landowners and partners to address these threats on nearly 9 million acres of the Great Plains.


Threats facing Great Plains grasslands

Threats facing the Great Plains grasslands and prairies and the threat-specific conservation objectives detailed in the Great Plains Grasslands Framework.


Focusing on the most severe threats to grasslands in a scientifically grounded and partnership-based manner provides the best opportunities for success in this vast landscape. Efforts like the recently announced woody species eradication effort in Kansas exemplify the landscape-scale, partnership-based conservation approach outlined in the framework.

Individual states will work directly with producers and landowners to provide technical expertise and access to USDA funding programs. WLFW will support these state efforts through annual progress tracking, milestone reporting, assistance in spatial targeting, and ongoing science-based assessments of conservation outcomes.

Importantly, WLFW’s work on western rangeland doesn’t stop where the prairie transitions to sagebrush. By developing both the Great Plains grasslands and sagebrush frameworks in concert, WLFW has provided a common vision and coordination point to address resource concerns and ecosystem threats across state and ecosystem boundaries while maximizing the flexibility for delivering voluntary conservation programs tailored to local needs. Both frameworks are grounded in peer-reviewed science and utilize the innovative Rangelands Analysis Platform to prioritize where conservation investments will realize the greatest returns.

Ranchers and landowners can learn more about how NRCS combines on-the-ground expertise with new scientific tools to defend intact grasslands at their local NRCS service center. Visit the NRCS Service Center Locator: https://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app?agency=nrcs and click the state and then county for contact information.

Learn More

>> Watch a recorded presentation about the frameworks

>> Check out the full Framework for Conservation Action in the Great Plains Grasslands Biome

>> Interested in sagebrush country? Read the Framework for Conservation Action in the Sagebrush Biome

>> Want to know more about WLFW? The 2021 Working Lands for Wildlife Magazine features producer partnerships and success stories for voluntary conservation efforts.

>> Find out more information about WLFW at farmers.gov/wildlife


 

E&E News: USDA plans aim to bolster rangeland wildlife conservation

Sagebrush ecosystems provide important habitat for hundreds of species, such as the sage grouse. Tom Koerner/Fish and Wildlife Service. (Photo and caption from original story).


This story originally appeared in E&E News.


By: Kylie Mohr, E&E News reporter 

Published: Friday, April 9, 2021

The Department of Agriculture has unveiled two new strategies to improve wildlife conservation on rangelands.

Frameworks released this week offer tweaks to existing conservation efforts for 10 million acres of land in the sagebrush and Great Plains grasslands ecosystems. The plans aim to bolster sage grouse, lesser prairie chicken and southwestern willow flycatcher initiatives.

Tim Griffiths, west regional coordinator with USDA’s Working Lands for Wildlife program, said the strategies will enable the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency that focuses on voluntary conservation within USDA, “to make very significant and meaningful contributions to the broader goals of conserving Western rangelands.”

Those goals include countering songbird loss; continuing to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list; and fighting the spread of cheatgrass, red cedar and pinyon juniper trees.

The frameworks also take a fresh biome-level approach to conservation and include changes on what’s recommended to tackle woodland encroachment in prairies and grasslands.

“It has to be approached from an ecosystem perspective,” said NRCS acting chief Terry Cosby. “We can’t do fragmented stuff in this type of landscape.”

Scientifically documented hurdles to maintaining existing wildlife habitat and agricultural yields include the expansion of trees like pinyon juniper into sagebrush habitat as well as rangeland conversion into development.

“Your woodys and your plows are our two biggest threats across our grasslands landscape,” said Clint Evans, NRCS state conservationist for Colorado.

The frameworks include flipping the script on woodland transition with a “defend the core, grow the core” concept. Unchecked, the expansion of woody trees can turn prairies into forests.

Instead of focusing on areas that already have trees present, the plan calls for prescribed fire and other tactics to eliminate seeds and seedlings before they have the chance to grow.

Dave Naugle, science adviser for the Sage Grouse Initiative, described the new approach as the opposite of “ambulance chasing to save highly degraded sites with no potential for success.”

NRCS staff also touted the frameworks’ climate benefits, noting that conserving intact prairies is one way to keep carbon in the ground.

A webinar with over 250 people in attendance yesterday began with a picture of a cowboy on horseback herding cattle roaming across a plain — showing the Working Lands for Wildlife program’s emphasis on land conservation that seeks to benefit rural communities in the same breath.

In the West, 70% of lands are considered rangelands and two-thirds of them are privately owned. A common refrain is, “What’s good for the bird is what’s good for the herd.”

About 3,200 ranchers have teamed up with the agency over the last decade for projects.

“You must have solutions that work for the people that own and operate and steward these lands,” Griffiths said. “This is the sweet spot that Working Lands for Wildlife capitalizes on.”

###


Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net.

Author contact: Twitter: @thatsMohrlikeit | Email: kmohr@eenews.net


 

USDA-NRCS Press Release: New Frameworks Guide Conservation Action on America’s Working Rangelands

Click on image to watch an on-demand replay of the public presentation featuring the frameworks.


This USDA-NRCS press release is reposted here with permission.

See the original here or download a PDF.

>>WATCH THE APRIL 8, 2021 PRESENTATION HERE<<


Media contact: FPAC.BC.Press@usda.gov

New Frameworks Guide Conservation Action on America’s Working Rangelands

USDA unveils science-based strategies for partnering with ranchers to save America’s grass and sagebrush lands

WASHINGTON, April 6, 2021 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is unveiling new action-based frameworks to increase conservation work to address threats facing America’s working rangelands. These frameworks are designed to benefit both agriculture and wildlife in sagebrush and grassland landscapes of the western United States.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered with state-level organizations from across the West to develop the new frameworks to combat the most severe and large-scale threats: woody encroachment, land-use conversion, exotic annual grass invasion and riparian and wet meadow degradation. More than one million acres of Western rangelands are lost annually to invading non-native grasses, plows, or land development. The frameworks will help guide voluntary conservation work over the next five years and will contribute to USDA’s efforts to make our nation a leader on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.

“America’s iconic rangelands support ranchers and rural communities, provide wildlife habitat, and store carbon,” said Gloria Montaño Greene, USDA deputy undersecretary for food production and conservation. “Under these new frameworks, NRCS and grassroots partners will defend intact grasslands, reduce vulnerability to future threats and conserve the last remaining rangeland regions west of the Mississippi River. They provide a common vision and coordination to address resource concerns and ecosystem threats across state boundaries, and new scientific tools now provide unprecedented opportunities to develop strategic approaches to combat these issues, especially when combined with on-the-ground landowner and rancher expertise.”

In 2020, a multi-state planning effort produced the first biome-scale frameworks for wildlife conservation on working rangelands in grassland and sagebrush biomes. A biome is a large area of land that is classified based on the climate, plants and animals that make their homes there. This joint effort builds on past achievements of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and Sage Grouse Initiatives that together have partnered with more than 3,261 ranchers and conserved 10,309,950 acres of working rangelands. This is an area more than four times the size of Yellowstone National Park that supports working agricultural operations while providing critical wildlife habitat and valuable carbon sequestration. New frameworks efforts will further support conservation and restoration of rangelands through practices that limit soil disturbance, support proper grazing management, promote the strategic use of prescribed fire and support native grassland species with deep root systems to increase grassland carbon stocks.

As the targeted strategies in the frameworks are implemented locally, NRCS will provide annual tracking and reporting of milestones, assistance in spatial targeting and ongoing science-based assessments of conservation outcomes. For example, the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) provides vegetation data to inform land management and conservation strategies. The free, online tool empowers landowners and resource managers to track vegetation over the past 35 years, equipping them with information to target actions and achieve desired outcomes.

This work will be guided by Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), the premier approach of NRCS for conserving American working lands to benefit people, wildlife and rural communities. Rather than individual funding sources used in previous initiatives, the new frameworks utilize the full force of conservation partner resources. This also allows WLFW to bring together expertise across boundaries and create a strategic approach targeting the most severe and large-scale threats causing biome-level impacts.

More Information on the Frameworks

NRCS shared additional information on the new frameworks during a public webinar on Thursday, April 8 , 2021. The webinar is open to the public. For webinar information or to learn more about the frameworks, visit wlfw.rangelands.app.

How Landowners Can Get Involved

Farmers, ranchers and private landowners in the sagebrush or Great Plains region can work with NRCS to implement conservation practices on their working lands, including those that further these two conservation action plans. NRCS provides technical and financial assistance for prescribed grazing, prescribed burning, woody species removal and other key practices. To learn more, contact your local USDA Service Center.

While USDA offices are closed to visitors because of the pandemic, Service Center staff continue to work with agricultural producers via phone, email, and other digital tools. To conduct business, please contact your local USDA Service Center. Additionally, more information related to USDA’s response and relief for producers can be found at farmers.gov/coronavirus.

Conservation at USDA

Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is engaged in a whole-of-government effort to combat the climate crisis and conserve and protect our nation’s lands, biodiversity and natural resources including our soil, air and water. Through conservation practices and partnerships, USDA aims to enhance economic growth and create new streams of income for farmers, ranchers, producers and private foresters. Successfully meeting these challenges will require USDA and our agencies to pursue a coordinated approach alongside USDA stakeholders, including State, local and Tribal governments.

USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. In the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit www.usda.gov.

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USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender.


Healthy Rangelands Store Critical Carbon Above and Below the Surface

Globally, rangelands store 12% of terrestrial carbon, making them a critical carbon sink and a key ecosystem for mitigating climate change.


Underneath the range where the deer and antelope play, an upside-down forest plays a critical role in capturing and storing carbon.

Rangelands globally contain 12 percent of terrestrial carbon, with about 87 percent in the soil. Plants are responsible for the remaining 13 percent. Native plants in healthy sagebrush country and grasslands send their roots deep into the soil – seeking out moisture, holding soil place, and storing carbon in these intricate root structures.

West of the Mississippi River more than two-thirds of rangelands are privately owned. In the Great Plains, nearly 90% of the landscape is private. Most of these acres are grazing lands that support families and communities, catalyze agricultural economies, and provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife species.

Healthy grasslands help store carbon, provide wildlife habitat, and are the foundation of rural communities throughout the Great Plains. Photo: Amy Erickson

Keeping these rangeland soils intact is the most important action for preserving this natural carbon storage. The USDA-NRCS – through Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) – is marshaling the power of the Farm Bill to keep rangelands productive, intact, resilient, and healthy. Doing so not only benefits the hard-working families that steward these lands and the wildlife that depend on them but also maintains carbon in the soil.

Most of the carbon in rangelands is stored undergound in soil. Healthy native grasses are the key to this important carbon-storage, which is why WLFW works to keep rangelands “green side up.”

Accomplishing this goal requires WLFW to strategically address the primary drivers of rangeland loss and degradation, including the following actions:

Preventing Rangeland Lost 

The primary mechanisms for preventing rangeland loss and depletion of rangeland carbon are transitioning expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts to working grazing lands and securing conservation easements. These actions result in the storage of deep pools of soil carbon, conserve critical wildlife habitat and migrations corridors, and make additional grazing lands available for American ranchers. In addition to preserving soil carbon stores, these efforts maintain and improve imperiled grassland songbird populations.

Learn more:

Grasshopper sparrow (Alan Schmierer), eastern meadowlark (John Sutton) and Cassin’s sparrow (Alan Schmierer) are some of the songbirds that showed impressive population gains following the implementation of conservation practices through LPCI and CRP.


Halting Woodland Expansion into Rangelands 

The expansion of woody plants is causing rangeland loss at a rate equivalent to that of cultivation. The USDA-NRCS is tackling this threat head-on through preventative management and targeted restoration. These actions improve climate adaptation by increasing the resiliency of rangelands, reducing wildfire danger to rural communities, and preventing loss of livestock forage.

Learn more:

Nebraska is on the front lines of an eastern redcedar invasion as illustrated by this photo from the Loess Canyons area. Woody plants crowd out native wildflowers and grasses and jeopardize these plant’s carbon-storage capacity. Additionally, when they burn in wildfire, the release large amounts of carbon into the air. Photo by Dirac Twidwell, UNL


Controlling Invasive Annual Grasses 

Below-ground carbon stores are also lost when annual invasive grasses like cheatgrass displace deep-rooted perennial plants. Combating this threat requires preventative management and targeted restoration. Benefits include conserving wildlife habitat for the imperiled sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, reduced wildfire risk, and enhanced plant and soil carbon storage through deep-rooted native perennial grasses.

Learn more:

  • Led by the NRCS in Idaho, the Cheatgrass Challenge launched in 2020 to focus precious resources on protecting relatively intact rangelands and then expand those core areas into zones where cheatgrass is present but not dominant.
  • The Western Governors’ Association, with support and participation from WLFW staff, recently launched its “Toolkit for Invasive Annual Grass Management in the West” helping western states proactively address this growing threat.

Japense Brome, pictured here, is an invasive annual grass that is impacting the northern Great Plains. Cheatgrass is also a growing threat to Great Plains grasslands. Photo: Patrick J. Alexander, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database


Restoring Waterways and Wet Meadows 

Degraded floodplains and meadows reduce carbon-storing capabilities and exacerbate the impacts of changing climates such as fire and drought. The USDA-NRCS is spearheading strategies to restore mesic areas that reconnect floodplains and store water in soils. These actions improve carbon storage in valley bottoms, increase vegetative productivity for ranching and wildlife, and reduce downstream flooding.

Learn more:

Low-tech mesic restoration projects are catching on across the West. These “cheap and cheerful” projects help make grasslands more resilient to fire and help make water available for plants, wildlife, and livestock later in the year when they need it most. Photo: Jeremy Maestas, SGI/NRCS

Whether preventing rangeland conversion, removing encroaching woody species, treating invasive annual grasses, or restoring critical wet habitats, the WLFW approach helps keep rangelands intact and healthy. Furthermore, these actions help preserve carbon storage above and below the shimmering sagebrush sea and the swaying grassland prairie.


 

Working Lands Snapshot | WILDFLOWERS

Golden rod is a common prairie wildflower. Photo: Johnny, Wikimedia Commons.


This month’s Working Lands For Wildlife “Snapshot” introduces us to wildflowers. Native flowering plants are important for animals, pollination, and soil health on grazing lands in the western U.S.

Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.


By Brianna Randall

What are wildflowers?

 They are flowering plants that grow without any help from people. Each type of wildflower is adapted to grow in a specific environment, such as a meadow, forest, or wetland.

A wildflower is also called a “forb.” Forbs are simply flowering plants that are neither a grass nor a woody shrub.

Common wildflowers on the prairie

Bluebells, gentian, yarrow, milkweed, asters, milk vetch, penstemon, phlox, coneflowers, and goldenrod are just a few of the native flowers blossoming in America’s grasslands.

A vital source of food

Wildflowers provide food for a host of animals. Insects feast on their pollen, rodents stockpile their seeds, hummingbirds dine on their nectar, and reptiles munch on their leaves.

Sage grouse and prairie chickens rely on wildflowers and other native plants to help conceal nests in the spring. Hens and chicks also eat wildflowers — and the protein-packed insects that live among them — during the summer and fall.

Rancher Dan Leuenberger planted a mix of grasses and wildflowers on his property to provide brood-rearing and nesting cover for birds. The wildflowers in these mixes will also provide great pollinator habitat and a riot of color from spring through fall. Photo by Renae Blum, courtesy of Nebraskland Magazine. Click on the photo to read more about how Dan created habitat for greater prairie-chickens on his Nebraska ranch.

Attracting the birds and the bees

Wildflowers also attract or feed pollinators, such as bees, beetles, hummingbirds, and butterflies, which are essential for helping plants reproduce. Studies show that native wildflowers are four times more attractive to pollinators than non-native flowers because local pollinating animals and native flowers evolved to help each other thrive.

Supporting pollinators by maintaining native wildflowers is essential because pollinators help boost yields on agricultural lands and generate one-third of the food we eat.

Without pollinators, 80% of the world’s flowers wouldn’t be able to propagate. Photo: NRCS-MT

Creating healthy soil

Wildflowers usually have deep or fibrous roots that keep soil stable and healthy. They grow best near other native plants with diverse root systems that work together to cycle nutrients, resist weeds, and keep water on the land.

In contrast, the shallow roots of non-native plants or invasive weeds don’t hold soil or water as well, which makes the land more susceptible to drought, fire, and erosion.

Beautiful scenery

Wildflowers make wonderful, colorful additions to home gardens, especially if you choose varieties that are native to the area. Since they are adapted to the local environment, wildflowers don’t need extra water or fertilizer and are more resilient to disease or pests.

Although it’s tempting to pick wildflowers for bouquets, leaving them intact helps feed wildlife and allows the plants to drop their seeds to make more lovely flowers the following year.

Medicinal uses

Wildflowers have been used for centuries as herbal remedies. For instance, Echinacea, or coneflower, is a common prairie wildflower that is lauded as an immune booster and cold buster. Yarrow, another common western wildflower, is used to staunch bleeding, ease toothaches, or reduce fevers.

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is a common prairie plant that can help fight off colds. Photo: Ulf Eliasson, WikiCommons

Threats to wildflowers

Weeds like non-native cheatgrass or medusahead are spreading fast in the American West, as are encroaching woody species like juniper or redcedar. These invading plants steal soil, space, and water from wildflowers and other native plants and can also introduce diseases.

Developing houses and roads or plowing up native plants for crops also destroys habitat for wildflowers.

Nebraska is on the front lines of an eastern redcedar invasion as illustrated by this photo from the Loess Canyons area. Woody plants crowd out native wildflowers and grasses. Photo by Dirac Twidwell, UNL

Conserving native plants and wildflowers

Through Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service helps agricultural producers foster diverse native plants — including wildflowers — by cost-sharing conservation practices that maintain healthy farms, forests, and pastures.

On western grazing lands, WLFW partners with ranchers to use prescribed fire, remove encroaching trees, or put in place rotational grazing. These practices help boost forage for livestock and also benefit wildlife and native plants.

Learn more about wildflowers in the NRCS PLANTS database.


 

Press Release: USDA-NRCS Announces Funding of the KS Great Plains Grasslands Initiative

Kansas’ Flint Hills, one of the targeted areas included in this new funding announcement. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan Convention and Business Bureau.


This Press Release was originally posted on the Kansas NRCS website on March 11, 2021. Reposted here with permission. See the original press release here.


SALINA, KANSAS, March 11, 2021‒‒Kansas producers have new funding opportunities to help address woody plant encroachment on targeted rangelands through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“Transitioning from productive rangeland to woody plant dominance is the greatest threat to rangeland conservation in Kansas,” said Monty R. Breneman, Acting State Conservationist.  “New scientific tools now provide unprecedented opportunities to track woody encroachment and develop strategic approaches to combat it.  When combined with landowner expertise, we can defend intact grasslands, reduce vulnerability to future encroachment, and cut long-term maintenance costs.”

Core grassland areas in Kansas. Map courtesy of NRCS Kansas.

Woody plant encroachment puts pressure on working rangelands by decreasing livestock production and increasing wildfire risk as well as harming grassland biodiversity and increasing threat to animal species living in this biome.

NRCS is adopting a new approach to addressing this widespread threat through the Kansas Great Plains Grassland Initiative (GPGI).  The initiative is part of the NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) framework calling to conserve the last remaining iconic grassland regions in the Great Plains biome.

WLFW is NRCS’s premier approach for conserving America’s working lands to benefit people, wildlife, and rural communities.  WLFW uses win-win solutions to target voluntary, incentive-based conservation to target voluntary, incentive-based conservation that improves agricultural productivity and wildlife habitat on working lands.

The GPGI initiative focuses on earlier prevention strategies and makes producers in targeted rangelands eligible to receive Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding related to addressing woody plant encroachment.  Core grasslands include targeted areas within the Flint Hills, Gypsum Hills, and Smoky Hills regions of Kansas.

Treatment strategies will rely on an integrated pest management conservation system plan to manage woody species encroachment on identified planned land units (PLUs) within the core grassland areas.

The Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 application evaluation period cut-off date for Kansas GPGI is Friday, July 2, 2021.  Applications submitted prior to the cut-off will be assessed and ranked as soon as the applicant has made treatment decisions in a conservation plan.  Based on fund availability, application assessments with a ranking score of 30 points or greater will be preapproved immediately allowing the applicant to Act Now and achieve contract approval to begin practice installation without being evaluated against other submitted assessments.  Application assessments ranking scores less than 30 points will be batched and funded in ranking order as funding allows.

“The Act Now funding process will allow applicants with high enough application ranking scores to strike while the iron is hot and immediately enter into EQIP contracts,” said Monty R. Breneman, Acting State Conservationist.  “This will enable interested and qualified applicants to perform the needed conservation treatments as soon as they are ready, willing, and able.”

USDA Service Centers are open for business by phone appointment only, and field work will continue with appropriate social distancing.  All Service Center visitors wishing to conduct business are required to call their local Service Center to schedule a phone appointment.  More information can be found at Farmers.gov/coronavirus.

It is important that applicants provide accurate records of ownership to USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA).  This FY, all landowners are required to file a CCC-902, Farm Operating Plan, along with adjusted gross income and conservation compliance forms.  Application information is available at your local USDA Service Center.  More information is also available at Kansas NRCS.

To learn more about GPGI or other technical and financial assistance available through NRCS conservation programs, visit Get Started with NRCS or contact your local USDA Service Center.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.

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