Can conservation raise your ranch’s bottom line?

If Noppadol Paothong sleeps in until 4am, he’s already late for work. The tenacious photographer has spent the last 15 spring seasons waking up before dawn in order to observe the early morning mating rituals of the greater sage grouse.

“To me sage grouse represent the wildness of a place,” Paothong said. “They are symbolic of wilderness. The last frontier of the American West.”

In many ways Paothong is right. The greater sage grouse is an indicator species, which means that its presence indicates vitality and resilience in a sagebrush steppe ecosystem. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), habitat restoration efforts that benefit greater sage grouse populations also benefit 350 other dependent species. Songbirds like the Brewer’s sparrow and green tailed towhee as well as ungulates like mule deer and pronghorn proliferate where land has been managed for the benefit of the grouse.

But, many sage grouse do not live in protected wilderness areas. In fact almost 40% of sage grouse habitat is on private land, including millions of acres of rangeland across the Western US. That’s why, when the sagebrush steppe came under threat, it was landowners and ranchers that brought it back from the brink.

The sagebrush ocean, as it is commonly referred to, once stretched across and beyond the great basin, but much of it has been replaced by oil fields, housing developments and industrial farmland over the past century. Rampant wildfires, due in part to invasive grass species, and encroaching conifers have further threatened the once ubiquitous biome.

Photo: Rick McEwan | Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)

In 2010, NRCS launched the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), a program that connects ranchers and farmers with farm bill dollars and technical assistance in order to conserve sagebrush steppe on working lands. Although the program’s mission is centered around the grouse, SGI Nevada team lead Thad Heater says that it is just as important to raise the bottom line for each ranch that SGI works with.

“If the ag operation can make more money while they are conserving wildlife, that’s a win-win and those practices are going to continue on into the future,” Heater said. “If we just pay them for short-term conservation and they don’t get that same uptick in business, that’s not a win-win.”

Luckily sustainable ranching practices benefit both livestock and rangeland wildlife.

According to a 2019 study in the journal of restoration ecology, low-tech restoration of mesic (wet) areas within rangeland can increase overall vegetation productivity and resilience. That means more food for the cattle. Another study showed that grazed rangeland yields a higher total biomass of insects. That means more food for hungry sage grouse chicks.

The end goal for each SGI project is to help landowners implement practices that benefit not only rangeland wildlife, but also their businesses. Many cheap, low-tech practices, such as marking fencing to prevent grouse collisions and installing wildlife escape ramps in water troughs can have an incalculable conservation value while also creating less hassle for ranchers along the line. NRCS field staff also help ranchers implement practices such as rotational grazing, which, although it doesn’t have a marked effect on grouse survival, will ensure that rangeland remains fertile and productive for years to come.

Photo: Rick McEwan | Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).

Sage grouse are just one of eight target species that NRCS has chosen to guide their investments across the country through the Working Lands For Wildlife program. Other projects include the southwestern willow flycatcher, the monarch butterfly and the sage grouse’s close relative, the lesser prairie chicken.

For all of these projects, technical and financial assistance is provided by local NRCS field offices. The main tools its disposal are the farm bill, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easements Program (ACEP).

Heater says that even landowners whose income is too high to be eligible to receive farm bill dollars can consult NRCS when it comes to best practices in rangeland conservation.

“They can still come in and work with us and receive technical assistance as far as the agricultural operation and conservation on the landscape,” Heater said. “Some producers, even if they’re eligible for farm bill assistance, want to just do it on their own, which is just fine.”

If you own a ranch in the high desert of the West, chances are you are eligible for financial and/or technical assistance through SGI. To learn more follow this link. And contact our dedicated team.

This post courtesy of Western Ranches, the ranch division of Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates.