A group of ranchers and conservationists were honored Thursday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for their efforts to protect sage grouse habitat and ranches in Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains.
The Pioneers Alliance of Carey recieved the Secretary’s Honor Award for External Partnerships for its local effort to protect 78,412 acres the Pioneer Mountains and Craters of the Moon National Monument area near Sun Valley, Idaho. This is one of Idaho’s most important largely intact natural ecosystems because to rises up to more than 11,000 feet and spreads south across the sagbrush steppe almost to Interstate 84.
The award recognizes Mike Stevens, the former president of Lava Lake Land and Livestock, the community of Carey, the Idaho Conservation League, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and Wood River Land Trust.
The Alliance worked with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to promote the agency’s Sage Grouse Initiative with landowners in the Carey area. Launched in 2010, the Initiative uses Farm Bill dollars to fund voluntary conservation projects in sage grouse strongholds across 11 western states.
"My father homesteaded this land and we are leaving it in better shape than how we got it. That’s the purpose," says Ray Baird, a Carey landowner with a conservation easement on his property. "It's a win-win situation. This easement helped us do what we wanted to do for over 20 years: get a grazing plan together, provide appropriate fencing and water development.”
The agreement also has been good for the sage grouse, which federal agencies are studying to determine whether to list the bird under the federal Endangered Species Act. “Since 1982 I've noticed a real decline in the hens and working with Pioneers Alliance and Fish & Game, this year is one of the best hatches we've had,” Baird said.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement that commits private landowners to conserve natural values on their properties by limiting certain types of development. Landowners receive compensation for the value of their land while retaining private property rights.
It works for both the bird and ranchers. So far, 25 landowners have enrolled working farms and ranches in conservation easements, supported with Sage Grouse Initiative dollars. These easements protect more than one-third of the private acres in region and connect wildlife habitat in almost 2.4 million acres of public lands.
Prior to the Sage Grouse Initiative, the Idaho NRCS conservation easement program received an average of $1 million per year. With Pioneers Alliance involvement, landowner participation doubled and funding increased by more than 500 percent.
“The Pioneers Alliance realized the potential of bringing conservation funding into their community to strengthen the economic and cultural viability of ranching in the region,” said Jeff Burwell, Idaho State Conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who nominated the group.
The Pioneers Alliance is a coalition of ranchers, residents, conservationists, public land managers, and elected officials that formed in 2007.