Putting Conservation Easements to Work for Ranchers and Wildlife

When ranchers in the southern Great Plains take part in conservation assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), that assistance most often takes the form of time-limited conservation agreements, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These 3-5 year contracts have proven tremendously valuable in restoring habitat for lesser prairie-chickens and other grassland-dependent wildlife.

They have their limitations though. In a best-case scenario, a landowner finds that the conservation practices they put in place through the short-term conservation agreement greatly benefit his or her ranch operation and bottom line, so that when the contract ends they continue the wildlife-friendly practices. But in reality, once the contract expires, economic issues or myriad other factors can prompt a significant change in land use.

Conservation easements are another voluntary practice in LPCI’s conservation toolbox that can provide long-term benefit to both landowners and wildlife. What is a conservation easement?
It’s a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified organization, like a land trust, which places some long-term restrictions on the use of a property in order to protect its natural values and maintain it as a working land.

Subdivisions fragment habitat and working ranchlands.

According to Lisa McCauley, NRCS easement specialist in Montana, ranching easements usually focus on limiting subdivision development. The purchase price of the easement is based on the appraised value of the development rights being sold.  Landowners also have the option to donate a portion of the value of their easement and receive significant tax benefits. (Read the full interview with McCauley on the Sage Grouse Initiative website.)

Conservation easements are a commonly used tool for ranchers in Montana. “This year, we’re going to end up with close to 40 applications for enrollment in the NRCS Agricultural Conservation Easement Program [ACEP]—the most ever from our state,” McCauley said.

McCauley attributes Montana’s success in helping landowners conserve the range through conservation easements to the land trusts who hold almost all of the easements NRCS invests in.

“These local partners are dedicated to putting conservation on the ground, and their hard work has paid off. NRCS is so lucky to be able to partner with Montana’s land trusts, and would not be successful without them,” McCauley said.

These easements have direct benefits for greater sage grouse, the focal species for the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). Like LPCI, SGI is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Through SGI, NRCS has invested nearly $42 million since 2010 to place conservation easements on 191,200 acres of sage grouse habitat in Montana alone.

Though conservation easements are much less a part of the ranching culture in the southern Great Plains, they have every bit as much potential to benefit ranchers and wildlife as in sage grouse country.

A conservation easement ensures that this 29,718-acre working ranch in western Kansas will retain intact prairie habitat, benefitting both rancher and wildlife. Photo courtesy Jim Pitman, WAFWA.

In addition to the NRCS ACEP program, ranchers in the lesser prairie-chicken’s five-state range can pursue a conservation easement through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). During the past year, three parcels of ranchland in lesser prairie-chicken habitat, totaling 33,053 acres, have been permanently protected through WAFWA’s Perpetual Conservation Agreement program.

Jim Pitman, WAFWA’s Conservation Delivery Director, stresses that the terms in a conservation easement are negotiable and the land trusts can tailor the language to align with the landowner’s desires. “Conservation easements do not restrict a landowner’s ability to control access, make management decisions, or recreate on their property,” Pitman said. Instead, they help ensure that the conservation values of a working ranch—like wildlife habitat, native vegetation, scenic views—will be maintained in perpetuity.”

How to Learn More

Ranchers in the southern Great Plains interested in learning more about conservation easements through either NRCS or WAFWA should contact their local USDA Service Center.

Thursday, May 18, at 12:00pm Central Time, the Texas Wildlife Association will host a free webinar, “Agricultural Conservation Easements: A Valuable Landowner Tool,” presented by Ken Cearley – Stewardship Director for the Texas Agricultural Land Trust. Learn how you can tune in.

Launched in 2010, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.