Photos and post by Greg M. Peters.
For the past several years, the Sage Grouse Initiative, part of the USDA-NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife, has organized an annual workshop that brings together producers, land managers, SGI and USDA-NRCS staff, and nonprofit partners for a two-day event. The annual gathering provides opportunities to share lessons learned, network, and get training and tips on the most current conservation practices that help achieve wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching.
This year, organizers broadened the workshop to include more than 200 partners and producers from across the West, including Great Plains states like the Dakotas and Texas all the way to California and Washington along the Pacific Coast. This expansion brought many folks associated with the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative to the workshop. Rather than focus on a particular species like sage grouse or lesser prairie-chicken, the conference instead encouraged participants to keep their eyes to the horizon and simply work to achieve rangeland resiliency. Presenters shared inspiring stories about how they’ve worked across boundaries, both literal and figurative, to implement conservation efforts that have improved rangeland resiliency in highly diverse landscapes.
Rangelands are a truly western resource and make up 33 percent of the entire lower 48 states. These “see forever” landscapes provide critical ecosystem services like forage for livestock, habitat for wildlife, water storage and provision for communities, and more. They are also the foundation upon which many rural economies are anchored. Rangeland resiliency focuses on tactics that improve or maintain rangelands’ ability to provide these services even when things like fire, drought, or shifts in vegetation types threaten rangeland health and productivity.
The first-day “classroom” session focused on success stories and inspiring examples of how private landowners, nonprofits, and agencies like USDA-NRCS have teamed up over the past decade to improve rangeland resiliency with a voluntary and win-win approach.
Participants, more accustomed to riding the range and getting things done than sitting in a conference center, paid close attention to the presenters until the final panel wrapped up at 4:30 in the afternoon. Excitement and energy filled the room as side conversations and one-on-one conversations bubbled up during breaks. Across each of the presentations, a few key ingredients for building rangeland resiliency stood out.
- Recognize that there threats impacting rangelands that affect everyone.
- Work with partners towards a solution to address rangeland threats. This takes effort, trust, open-mindedness, and a willingness to work together for a common good.
- Take the long view and recognize there aren’t silver bullets that will solve rangeland health problems immediately. Rangelands and watersheds can recover, but it takes time and sustained commitment to produce the desired outcomes.
- Carefully plan the needed conservation practices to simultaneously address the resource concerns and meet the operator’s unique needs. All lands should be actively managed pre- and post-project to achieve and monitor outcomes. Conservation practices that build resilient rangelands don’t work in a vacuum, proper planning and management create the foundation for healthier rangelands.
- Leverage science and technology to improve outcomes and make conservation efforts more efficient, successful, and scalable.
- Don’t fear failure. Accept it and adaptively learn from it. This will improve long-term conservation outcomes.
In the evening, a wonderful barbecue banquet provided time for socializing, volleyball and networking along with stunning views of the Snake River running alongside Twin Falls’ Centennial Waterfront Park.
The second-day field tour found participants on yellow school buses as they bounced across Idaho and Utah to see landscapes and project sites and to visit with ranchers whose work has benefited wildlife and their operations.
Up first was the Burley Project site in Idaho where USDA-NRCS, the BLM, and rancher Dennis Erickson have removed nearly 50,000 acres of encroaching conifers across private and public lands. Themes of whole-watershed planning, working lands, leveraging partnerships, focusing on efficiency, and commitment to outcomes echoed themes from the previous day.
From Idaho, the buses rattled on to Utah where the group was hosted by the Tanner Family on the Box C Ranch, part of the Tanners’ Della Ranches operation. Jay Tanner provided a wonderful background and history of the multi-generational ranch and shared some of the successes from their nine-year long partnership with the Sage Grouse Initiative. Today, Della Ranches hosts golden eagles, beavers, sage grouse, big horn sheep, and more, testament to the fact that improving habitat for ranching and livestock can benefit wildlife as well. Just before the group sat down to lunch in the Tanners’ barn, the Working Lands for Wildlife team presented the family with an award for their outstanding stewardship. Read our Featured Rancher post about the Tanners here.
Following lunch, the buses traveled to a portion of the Tanners’ ranch along Grouse Creek where participants heard from Tyler Thompson of the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative and from the Utah BLM office about cross-boundary partnerships like the one on the Tanner Ranch that have resulted in whole watershed restoration. The tour wrapped up when participants pulled out their brand new “Low-tech Process-based Restoration of Riverscapes Pocket Field Guide” and analyzed the health of Grouse Creek.
To cap off the day, participants put away the field guides and donned WLFW work gloves to do some restoration. With gloves on, they added woody debris (the results of the conifer removal efforts on site) to Grouse Creek by tossing juniper limbs (some particularly eager members of the group grabbed entire trees) into the incised creek. While this limited restoration effort won’t reconnect Grouse Creek to its historic floodplain, it gave folks a quick primer in low-tech riverscape restoration techniques and provided a great example of using free materials found on-site – one of the key tenants of low-tech riverscape restoration.
On the final ride back to Twin Falls, one might have expected folks to nap or catch up on emails. But instead, conversations about the previous two days filled the air. Folks excitedly reflected on the first-day presentations and talked about how to implement some of the practices they learned about on the field tour. Many of the participants noted how the conference’s theme of rangeland resiliency resonated with them and provided an exciting new way of approaching rangeland conservation across the West.
The organizers would like to thank all of the participants and presenters for taking the time to attend, bringing great ideas and stories, and helping create a shared vision of resilient rangelands across the West.