SALT LAKE CITY — Voluntary conservation efforts to help a distinct sage grouse population in Nevada and California dropped to nearly nothing this year, with ranchers unanimously bowing out of a federal program because of a threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Western policymakers say observation noted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service ought to serve as a bellwether for what could happen in Utah and the other 10-state range of the greater sage grouse, where more than $350 million has been invested since 2010.
"I think it is a very alarming report we got from the NRCS," said Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors Association. "I think this shows why the governors believe voluntary action should be supported and encouraged."
The association asked the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative in late March to document the amount of money that has been spent and the extent of acreage conserved to help the greater sage grouse and keep it off the endangered species list.
A response this week by NRCS Chief Jason Weller details the effort, noting that of the $354 million invested via the Sage Grouse Initiative, $107.4 million of that has come from partners and private landowners.
The initiative has collaborated with 953 ranches to implement conservation efforts on 3.8 million acres in the 11 Western states where the sage grouse is found. Over the program's four-year period, Weller noted that participation by landowners has been consistently high, averaging 28 enrollees each year.
"Since inception in 2010, agricultural producers across the West have embraced the voluntary and incentive-based approach to conservation offered through (the Sage Grouse Initiative)," Weller wrote.
Should the greater sage grouse be added to the endangered species list in 2015, it would be extremely difficult, the NRCS chief noted.
"SGI is based on the belief that we can achieve wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching, and adherence to this vision and voluntary framework has fostered an enthusiastic and unprecedented participation rate among diverse partners and landowners in the West," he wrote.
In response to an inquiry from the governors association, Weller described what happened with the initiative's efforts to help a distinct species of sage grouse found along the Nevada-California border.
The so-called "Bi-State" sage grouse effort initially drew low landowner participation, with only $155,000 spent on projects in 2010. Through fiscal year 2013, Weller said, the NRCS finalized contracts to spend $26 million on the ground via perpetual conservation easements, removal of encroaching conifer and restoration of wet meadows for brood rearing.
Weller said after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans of a listing, 13 agricultural producers who put in for funding all withdrew their applications.
"Many expressed their continued desire to participate in SGI but are fearful that listing the Bi-State sage grouse will reduce or eliminate their use of federal grazing allotments, thereby rendering their private agricultural operations unviable," Weller wrote.
Applications plummeted from 24 to three, and none of the 2014 applications were for establishment of new conservation easements, he said.
State land and wildlife managers say a listing of the greater sage grouse would have a similar impact on conservation efforts on the ground in Utah.
"Listing the bird would be the worst thing for it," said Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "It would all but do away with any of the conservation that is in place and it would not mean any more federal funding. It would not help the bird."
The greater sage grouse, an indicator species denoting the health of sagebrush steppe habitat in the western United States, is under consideration for federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the bird merited listing, but it was precluded from acting then due to higher priorities.
The federal agency is due to revisit the decision in 2015, a move that has set off a flurry of Westwide conservation plans to improve habitat and reduce threats absent a federal action.
Environmental groups have sued to have the bird listed, contending it is the only meaningful way to ensure its continued survival.
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