Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead tipped his cap to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Friday for its $211 million, four-year plan to help western states' efforts to preserve greater sage grouse habitat.
A decision is due from another federal agency in the next few weeks on whether to list the ground-dwelling birds under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Introduced last Wednesday by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the "Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0" program would help support private conservation efforts that improve the greater sage grouse habitat. Additional assistance would go to ranchers making conservation improvements to their land that mutually benefit the birds and agriculture operations.
"The strategy will build on successful public and private conservation efforts made since 2010," a USDA spokesperson said.
Since 2010, public-private efforts in the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) have conserved 4.4 million acres, an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park, Vilsack said.
"Wyoming has taken steps to improve habitat and ensure the success of the greater sage grouse," Mead said, adding that state and private groups have all contributed to the effort. "The federal government should also contribute, and this [USDA program] is a good way to do it."
Mead issued an executive order in July to strengthen protections for the greater sage grouse as the federal government continues to consider whether to list or not list the birds under the ESA. Mead recently became chair of the Western Governors' Association, for which he has established a 2015-2016 initiative to improve the efficiency of the ESA (see Daily GPI, Aug. 27).
USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided nearly $300 million in funding during the 2010-2014 period, with partners matching nearly $200 million of the total over the five years. With the SGI 2.0 strategy, the USDA unit and its partners by the end of 2018 would invest approximately $760 million and conserved 8 million acres, USDA officials said.
NRCS leaders from California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming worked with conservation partners to develop the latest four-year SGI, the USDA spokesperson said.
"The SGI is making a difference because private landowners voluntarily work with us to produce results on the ground," Vilsack said. "The decisions western ranchers and other private landowners make every day about what to do on their land will continue to have a critical impact on sage grouse."
In August, a census of the ground-dwelling birds showed upward population trends (see Daily GPI, Aug. 6). The study was conducted by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to update earlier studies that tracked male sage grouse in their mating groupings, or leks. FWS last year set a September 2015 deadline to decide on a possible listing of the bird.