NRCS, landowners improve habitat for at-risk species
By Ciji Taylor
Through voluntary conservation, American farmers, ranchers and forestland owners are restoring and protecting habitat for seven at-risk wildlife species.
Working Lands for Wildlife is a partnership between USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that helps producers make voluntary improvements to their lands that benefit wildlife and their agricultural operations. Millions of acres of habitat for these species were created or managed through this and other similar NRCS-led efforts.
These conservation activities range from reviving longleaf pine ecosystems for gopher tortoises in the Southeast to restoring stream banks essential to the Southwest willow flycatcher.
Other target species include the bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, greater and Gunnison sage grouse, lesser prairie chicken and New England cottontail.
“Landowners are true conservation heroes, and NRCS is here to help them improve sustainability of their working lands that provide habitat for nearly two-thirds of all imperiled species in the United States,” said NRCS Acting Chief Jason Weller.
Through NRCS, landowners can receive technical and financial assistance to employ conservation practices and improve these species’ habitats.
“Farmers and ranchers who voluntarily maintain conservation practices that benefit these species may also receive regulatory predictability for up to 30 years, providing peace of mind that they are in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, even if the species is federally protected,” said Tim Griffiths, Sage Grouse Initiative coordinator.
Common conservation activities include: managing brush, rotating livestock among pastures, controlling weeds, using prescribed burning, enhancing forest understory, establishing beneficial trees and shrubs and improving wildlife habitat.
“This creates a win-win opportunity for the landowners as these practices improve their operations’ long-term sustainability, providing them the opportunity to remain profitable into the future,” said Jon Ungerer, coordinator for the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative.
Since the start this partnership and other similar efforts, landowners in 35 states enrolled about 3.5 million acres in conservation practices to improve these species’ habitat. More than 2.5 million acres of those were enrolled in the Sage Grouse Initiative. Known for its mating dance, the sage grouse is a Western icon.
Ranchers across the West are actively reducing the threats to the sage grouse habitat, including a fence-marking initiative that decreased the sage grouse’s death from running into barbed wire fences by 83 percent. They are also helping the grouse and other sagebrush wildlife species by improving rangeland health.
Removing invasive conifers that fragment the landscape and severely impact sage grouse populations, productivity of the land, and health of the range is making a positive mark on the landscape. In total, more than 200,000 acres of invasive conifer trees have been removed under SGI, tripling the probability of maintaining sage grouse populations.
“The improvement of greater sage grouse habitat is another way for NRCS to further promote sustainable ranching and keep family ranches in business,” NRCS Montana rangeland management specialist Lindsay Wilsey said. “This in turn, ensures open, undisturbed landscapes for all shrub-steppe species while keeping the local ranching economy viable.”
Landowners in the Southeast are helping restore the habitat for the gopher tortoise, the keystone species of the longleaf pine ecosystem. About 360 other wildlife species depend on tortoises and their burrows.
Conservation activities for at-risk species also directly benefit other wildlife.
For example, Florida landowner Steve Barlow owns 80 acres of slash pine forest and pasturelands, and he used conservation practices to restore the land into a vibrant longleaf pine forest. Longleaf forests, if managed, boast a robust understory that provides food and cover for a variety of wildlife, including the Sherman’s fox squirrel and northern bobwhite quail.
In addition to the wildlife benefits, these conservation activities also help the environment as a whole.
By establishing native groundcover plants such as wiregrass, silk grass and partridge pea to increase plant diversity, Barlow is creating a landscape that will serve as a filter for water that eventually flows to the Gulf of Mexico, removing excess nutrients.
For more information, visit the Working Lands for Wildlife page or your local NRCS field office.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service helps America’s farmers and ranchers conserve the Nation’s soil, water, air and other natural resources. All programs are voluntary and offer science-based solutions that benefit both the landowner and the environment.
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