Across the West, Landowners Create a Legacy of Open Land

Montana's Hart Ranch is 3,500 acres of hilly grasslands not far from the Canadian border. It lies squarely in Greater Sage-Grouse country, along the bird's longest-known travel corridor: a 150-mile route between Saskatchewan and the Missouri River.

Greather Sage-Grouse, Pat Gaines

Greater Sage-Grouse, Pat Gaines

Thanks to a remarkable public-private partnership, this section of the grouse's habitat will remain intact for generations to come. Nearly 2,500 acres of Hart Ranch are now protected from development under a conservation easement brokered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The arrangement, which still permits the grazing of livestock, is a key component of a 32,249-acre network of easements that protect habitat along the grouse's travel route.

Hart Ranch reflects a monumental effort to conserve sagebrush habitat and the rapidly declining Greater Sage-Grouse. The easements are part of NRCS's Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI)—a case study in how to reach out and work effectively with private landowners. As a result, western ranchers, with the help of NRCS, state wildlife agencies, and groups such as The Conservation Fund, are central to the effort.

Since 2010, more than 1,100 ranchers have enrolled in SGI programs, conserving more than 4.4 million acres of sage grouse habitat across 11 states. The venture is poised to have an even greater impact: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently unveiled a plan to invest an additional $211 million in SGI's conservation efforts through 2018.

Sage grouse numbers have dropped so low that this collaborative approach is essential. The prospect of the bird being listed under the Endangered Species Act had galvanized states, industries, scientists, and federal agencies to put in place new management plans and a variety of conservation measures in recent years. In September, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell cited this "epic collaboration" as a reason why the grouse didn't need federal protection after all.

The new conservation plans for the grouse, also announced in September, are poised to conserve habitat over more than 67 million acres of public lands across 10 states. Yet public and private lands where sage grouse occur are typically intermingled. In Montana, for instance, nearly two-thirds of grouse habitat is on private lands. In other states, private lands provide essential wintering grounds or areas where grouse raise their young.

Blackfoot Valley sage brush by Dan Casey

Blackfoot Valley sage brush in Montana. Photo by Dan Casey

This overlap can be problematic for the skittish grouse, which avoid noisy or busy areas. Yet the growing alliance, which places working with landowners at its core, offers hope that a tremendously difficult conservation challenge can still be overcome. The SGI's roster reflects an impressive array of partners, including the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, the Mule Deer Foundation, and the Intermountain West Joint Venture. These partners and many more are getting the job done.

Most inspiring of all is many ranchers' willingness and desire to leave the land in its wide-open condition for generations to come. By establishing permanent easements like the one at Hart Ranch, they are not only holding back encroaching developments and preventing the conversion of open sagebrush grazing land to cropland. These steps also maintain ranchers' way of life—and are a boon to the charismatic bird that depends on the West's signature stretches of sagebrush to survive.

Steve Holmer, American Bird ConservancySteve Holmer has more than 20 years of experience working to conserve endangered wildlife. He came to ABC from the Unified Forest Defense Campaign and previously served as Campaign Coordinator of American Lands Alliance working to conserve habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet. In addition to protecting threatened species on western public lands, Steve directs the Bird Conservation Alliance, a network of over 200 conservation groups that builds congressional support for bird conservation programs.