The Glasgow Courier - Serving Proudly As The Voice Of Valley County Since 1913

By Tracy Cumber

Ranchers Make Sage Grouse Initiative Successful


Since 2011, Phillips and Valley County ranchers have participated in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). They have implemented actions both individually and together as a community to improve sage grouse habitat. By doing so, they have made improvements on their ranches, helped out wildlife and contributed to the historic decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species.

Over 1,100 ranchers across the West have voluntarily signed up for SGI and implemented conservation plans on 4.4 million acres. As ranchers develop conservation plans for their operation, they find that sage grouse conservation can be a win-win situation where both wildlife and agriculture benefit. In Montana, SGI is used to maintain large and intact rangelands as conservation agencies collaborate with producers to design grazing management plans, seed marginal cropland back to native grasses, mark fences to reduce sage grouse collisions, manage noxious weeds and restore wet meadow habitats.

Despite unprecedented success thus far, there is still more work to be done. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently re-affirmed their commitment to sage grouse conservation by setting aside over $200 million for implementation of SGI through 2018. This funding, partly from two 2014 Farm Bill programs, helps NRCS continue to support ranchers and implement conservation practices that benefit agriculture and wildlife across Montana. NRCS also continues their proud partnership with other organizations such as conservation districts, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Pheasants Forever who have contributed funding and support for SGI since 2011.

Montana ranchers in sage grouse country can gain long-term security for their operations simply by participating in SGI. An NRCS Conservation Plan developed to SGI standards provides the rancher with 30 years of Endangered Species Act (ESA) predictability from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Predictability means that participating ranchers can continue to implement conservation practices in their conservation plan without fear of additional regulations, even if sage grouse is considered for listing or listed as an endangered species in the future.

Any private land manager can develop an SGI conservation plan by contacting your local range conservationists: Kelsey Molloy in Malta and John Fahlgren in Glasgow. They will help record rangeland conditions, measure rangeland productivity, identify threats to sage grouse, and diagnose resource concerns that affect sustainability of the ranching operation and its natural resources. Ranchers and range conservationists will then analyze this information and collaboratively develop management alternatives to address the identified resource concerns.

Alternatives may include a grazing system, water developments, fence marking or other practices. All conservation practices are chosen by the rancher and conservationist together to meet the rancher’s management goals and adhere to SGI standards so the rancher receives predictability at the end of the process. After ranchers have developed a conservation plan, they can apply for financial assistance through NRCS to implement the plan.

Range conservationists work to assist private land managers. They may also work with the Bureau of Land Management or Montana State Lands to develop a conservation plan that is compatible across the whole operation. Many ranchers already use a grazing system and keep their rangeland in good condition, so a conservation plan may simply document the current management and provide the rancher with ESA predictability.

To find out how you can participate in SGI, contact these NRCS staff members and partners: Shilo Messerly or Kelsey Molloy for Phillips and Blaine County (654-1334); Tracy Cumber or John Fahlgren (228-4321) for Valley County.


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