The recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to keep the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list demonstrates the effectiveness of voluntary conservation efforts in restoring and enhancing natural habitats. The conservation measures and range management practices private landowners have installed are making a positive difference for this species and ranching communities across 11 Western states.
At Big Creek Ranch in the Pahsimeroi Valley, northeast of Challis, we work actively with federal and state agencies to encourage an “all lands management” approach, where private lands are managed in coordination with federal and state lands around us. Our family practices what we call conservation ranching, in which ecological goals such as robust wildlife populations and healthy range lands are equally important as our bottom line.
Partnerships with private organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited, and government agencies including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation and the Idaho Fish and Game Department, have been critical to our efforts. We’ve worked on numerous range-improvement projects with help from NRCS funds under its Sage Grouse Initiative. We’ve set aside specific pastures for nesting in the spring, with a management plan to graze the cattle on state lands during that critical season. We’ve installed wildlife-friendly fences with reflective markers to alert low-flying sage grouse, and removed more than 100,000 feet of fencing over the last six years.
I am convinced it is these comprehensive partnerships, combined with private and federal funding, that make large-scale conservation financially feasible, improving habitat for sage grouse and other species. It may be that sage grouse populations in our valley are slightly on the uptick, as I’m seeing birds in new places over the last two years. Lek counts are encouraging, and we continue to learn more about how sage grouse use the landscape.
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I am heartened by what has been collectively accomplished so far, but we need to be vigilant and maintain our conservation strategies. For ranchers, that means continuing to coordinate with multiple federal and state agencies and private groups to complete conservation projects, and forge future management agreements that are consistent across boundaries. For example, in Custer and Lemhi counties, more than 90 percent of the land is public, much of it used by local ranchers for grazing. These grazing permits are currently issued by either the BLM or the Forest Service, yet it’s Fish and Wildlife that makes the decision on sage grouse, which live on these same lands.
It’s my hope that eventually it will be possible to reach consensus among all these agencies and permittees about how we might incorporate the grazing permit process into a landscape-level plan for sage grouse, in order to provide certainty for all going forward.
Voluntary conservation can play a major role in rebuilding the sage grouse population in the West — and that’s good news for everyone. Unprecedented collaborative efforts on public and private lands have helped avoid the need to list the sage grouse as an endangered species. This approach can serve as a model for other species of concern. Just because the sage grouse wasn’t listed doesn’t mean we’re out of the danger zone. There are still far fewer birds than there were 50 years ago. There’s also the concern that without the urgency that comes from a potential listing, funding and agency staff time will be directed elsewhere. Still, I’m confident that our recent collective actions have made a difference, and I’m hopeful that we can continue along this path — together.
Tom Page lives in Hailey and works on conservation ranching in the Upper Salmon River Basin.