The sage grouse, a chicken-like bird uniquely adapted to this habitat, is the poster child of the sagebrush sea and is best known for its early-morning dance during mating season.
Large-scale conversion of native rangelands to cultivated fields, housing and energy developments, invading conifers, and catastrophic wildfires have fragmented this vital landscape, reducing its size by half. And many species, including the sage grouse, have seen substantial declines from historic numbers as a result.
Stewardship-minded ranchers are helping reverse this decline by conserving and enhancing sagebrush habitat. And their conservation practices benefit more than just wildlife. They are improving the long-term sustainability of their grazing lands. As the saying goes, “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”
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Ranchers are part of a range-wide collaborative effort to voluntarily aid the sage grouse and the sagebrush landscape, an effort credited with enabling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine in 2015 that protections under the Endangered Species Act were not needed for the species. NRCS is working with more than 1,300 landowners in 11 Western states to improve habitat for sage grouse while also improving ranching operations.
NRCS offers technical and financial assistance to help ranchers voluntarily conserve sage grouse habitat on private lands. This assistance helps producers plan and implement a variety of conservation activities, or practices, that benefit the bird and agricultural operations.
The agency’s staff of experts work side-by-side with ranchers to develop a conservation plan. This plan is customized for the rancher’s land and provides a roadmap for how to use a system of conservation practices to meet natural resource and production goals.
Financial assistance helps producers pay for the adoption of conservation practices that improve the health of the sagebrush ecosystem. NRCS assistance covers part of the actual cost. Common conservation practices for the greater sage-grouse include prescribed grazing, removal of invasive conifers, and restoration of wet meadows. Technical assistance is free.
The greater sage-grouse is a nationally identified target species of the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership, a collaborative approach to conserve habitat while keeping working lands working. From 2010 to 2015, the Sage Grouse Initiative (part of the WLFW family) enabled producers to conserve more than 5 million acres of prime habitat. By 2018, NRCS aims to conserve 8 million acres. Read our Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0 investment strategy.
Through WLFW, NRCS targets conservation efforts where the returns are highest by targeting threats to the bird. For the greater sage-grouse, the loss and fragmentation of habitat is caused primarily by invading conifers, conversion to cropland or subdivision, and catastrophic wildfires. WLFW is able to provide technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, two programs funded through the Farm Bill, the largest funding source for wildlife habitat conservation on private lands.
Habitat restored for the sage grouse also benefits 350 other sagebrush-dependent species, including songbirds like Brewer’s sparrow and green-tailed towhee, as well as game species like deer and pronghorn. Data show that conservation practices used to improve sage grouse habitat led to population spikes of the green-tailed towhee and Brewer’s sparrow by 81 percent and 55 percent, respectively.
If you’re interested in technical and financial assistance from NRCS, please contact your local USDA service center. A conservationist in your community will help you develop a conservation plan customized to your land and, if you’re interested, apply for financial assistance through Farm Bill conservation programs. Learn more about getting started with NRCS.