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