By Amanda Spencer
WASHINGTON–The sage-grouse was in trouble. Identified as a potential species listing under the Endangered Species Act, it seemed as though the large bird was past the point of saving. However, the National Resources Conservation service, an agency under the Department of Agriculture that works to provide farmers and ranchers with the technical and financial resources necessary to put voluntary conservation systems into place, stepped in and managed to save the sage-grouse. This voluntary conservation success story presented to the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry is one Jason Weller, Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is passionate about.
“It’s something that I hope they’ll be writing textbooks about,” Weller said. “I know it feels like this is past, but this is something that is so historical and something that I am incredibly proud of.”
In order to save the sage-grouse, the Natural Resources Conservation Service launched an initiative that resulted in 1,000 organizations coming forward to volunteer their services to the effort. Using Google Earth technology the Natural Resources Conservation Service was able to zoom into sage-grouse habitats across the western United States to see what was happening with both the habitat and the birds. The Natural Resources Conservation Service was then able to figure out that sage-grouses do not like trees. It takes only four percent tree coverage for sage-grouses to relocate. After a farmer cleared his land to make it more appealing to sage-grouses, the Natural Resources Conservation Service was able to track a sage-grouse in the area and see that it stayed to the area cleared of trees, confirming the findings.
“If you take this kind of success story and you multiply it by 1,000 it’s an example of how ranchers really deliver unprecedented solutions of this landscape on a voluntary basis,” Weller said. “It’s the viewpoint for me, and my colleagues at the NRCS, that it’s not in spite of ranchers, it’s because of ranchers, that we did not list the sage-grouse in September of 2013.”
The sage-grouse isn’t the only animal the Natural Resources Conservation Service was able to save. In his testimony before the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry on March 1, 2016 at 2:00 pm, Weller cited other stories of voluntary conservation saving animals. For instance, the Oregon chub fish was the first fish to ever be taken off the endangered species list while the New England cottontail rabbit was never listed because of the volunteer acts of private landowners. Finally, the Louisiana black bear was down to less than 200 bears due to populations being unable to find each other to mate. However, according to Weller, once the Natural Resources Conservation Service helped reconnect populations through “highways of love,” the bears were able to mate and have since been proposed to be taken off the endangered species list.
For Subcommittee Chairman Glenn Thompson (R-PA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s work with endangered species is why local landowners and outside organizations should be taken seriously when is comes to voluntary conservation.
“We know that voluntary conservation programs work,” Thompson said. “However it has becoming increasingly clear that some government agencies and environmental activist organizations, which are sometimes one and the same, don’t recognize the commitment our farmers, ranchers, and foresters make to environmental stewardship. Our farmers and ranchers through assistance and census provided by farm bill conservation programs, have voluntarily reduced soil erosion, increased wetlands, improved water quality, and preserved farmland and wildlife habitat.”
Through science, tools, and partnerships, the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry is trying to help organizations share technology to better understand what is happening in real-world environments. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program has been responsible for such projects. Through a Conservation Innovation Grant, the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association was able to develop an online tool to aid the irrigation system that monitors conditions in real-time. This advancement helped save 280,000 gallons per acre per growing season.
In order to gain further insight on how voluntary conservation effects different areas of agriculture, the subcommittee heard testimonies from Weller; Rachel Dawson, Senior Manager of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which provides grants to support wildlife conservation; Frank Price, owner of Frank and Sims Price Ranch in Sterling City, Texas; Rich Bowman, Director of Government Relations for The Nature Conservancy, an international organization that works to protect the world’s land and water; and Kent Rodelius, Vice President of the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition, which educates those who use water drainage systems on the latest technologies.
Yet while voluntary conservation is done at all levels, members of the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry continually stressed the importance of farmers and ranchers to conservation.
“Farmers and ranchers are the backbone of conservation in America,” ranking member Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) said. “They depend on the land for their livelihoods and seek to leave it better than they found it. I don’t believe that anyone cares more about the land then the farmers and ranchers.”
Perhaps part of the reasoning behind the subcommittee’s focus on farmers and ranchers is due to the fact that cattle ranchers manage more land (666.4 million acres) than any other industry. In his testimony before the subcommittee Price discussed the relationship between ranchers and voluntary conservation.
“The livestock industry is threatened daily by urban encroachment, natural disasters, and government overreach,” Price said in a written statement submitted to the subcommittee in addition to his oral testimony. “Since our livelihood is made on the land, through the utilization of our natural resources, being good stewards of the land not only makes good environmental sense; it is fundamental for our industry to remain strong.”
Price cited two examples of how conservation helped his ranch. In 2011 and 2012 Texas faced a drought brought on by 100 consecutive days of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher temperatures. By working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Price was able to install above-ground water storage systems among other water-saving techniques that enabled his ranch to survive the drought. The Natural Resources Conservation Service along with the National Grazing Lands Coalition, an organization that helps privately owned grazing land owners with technical assistance, also helped Price’s ranch develop innovative grazing technologies that he said have helped increase perennial grasses, improve ground cover, and reduce soil erosion. Yet Price stressed in his testimony that conservation, as good as it may seem, should not be forced.
“The biggest point I’d like to make is that the voluntary part of the conservation programs is what really makes it work for ranchers,” Price said. “We’ve had excellent success using these programs, but just because these practices work for my family does not mean it’s right for every body. It’s important that we keep these programs funded to safeguard their continued success, and above all else, these programs must stay voluntary.”