Recognizing the importance of agricultural lands for wildlife, a number of programs in the western United States encourage ranchers to manage rangelands in ways that benefit both landowners and wildlife. Financial incentive for improving biodiversity per se is yet to come.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), funds and provides technical support for voluntary rangeland enhancements on private lands. An interested landowner can work with NRCS staff to purchase and install water tanks or fences, for example, to control livestock movements. The NRCS requires that individuals who participate in their programs follow conservation guidelines, including livestock stocking rates that are meant to leave enough forage and habitat after livestock graze for wildlife.
These programs target rangeland productivity rather than biodiversity as an outcome. Metrics of success include how many inches high vegetation is after grazing.
“In Wyoming, the only species we are writing grazing systems for and paying enhancements for would be sage grouse,” said Rick Peterson, state rangeland management specialist for the NRCS in Wyoming. The new west-wide Sage Grouse Initiative pays ranchers for practices that enhance sage grouse habitat on their lands. In two years, the Sage Grouse Initiative has worked with more than 700 ranches, put new grazing systems into practice on more than 2 million acres of sage grouse habitat, marked 500 miles of fence, secured 240,000 acres of conservation easements, and invested over $200 million. Another NRCS program, Working Lands for Wildlife, established about one year ago, is funded to the tune of $33 million. Two of the seven species it targets—the lesser prairie chicken and the greater sage grouse—live on western rangelands.
While they typically have fewer dollars to leverage than the federal programs, state wildlife agencies work with both public and private landowners to improve habitat on rangelands. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department Habitat Program helps coordinate conservation easements of high value to wildlife. In addition, Game and Fish provides technical assistance to rangeland managers. In 2012, the agency developed nine grazing management plans to boost wildlife habitat on 68,525 acres in Wyoming.
One innovative system for protecting wildlife habitat on private lands is Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Ranching for Wildlife program. On properties of 12,000 or more contiguous acres, ranchers implement wildlife habitat improvements, including grazing management to promote big game habitat and conservation plans for threatened and endangered species. They are also required to provide free access and information to public hunters (Colorado residents only) who apply to draw coveted Ranching For Wildlife licenses. In exchange, ranches receive vouchers for a predetermined number of private hunting licenses, which can be distributed to any hunter. To date, over 1.2 million acres on 29 ranches are enrolled, with improved livestock grazing systems on more than 80% of those lands.
Land trusts can also incentivize ranchers by purchasing the development rights for lands rich in wildlife habitat value. The rancher receives a payment equivalent to the difference in market value of the land with and without the easement, as well as a tax deduction for the changed value of the property. Some conservation easement agreements specify grazing management activities to protect or enhance wildlife habitat.
The Partnership of Rangeland Trusts, an association of seven statewide agricultural land trusts in the west, has placed nearly 2 million acres into conservation easements. While many of these easements have no specific requirements for habitat protection or enhancements, keeping open ranch lands from being subdivided and developed has value for wildlife.
The Nature Conservancy has developed landscape habitat models to identify private lands with the highest wildlife value in need of conservation. The organization creates conservation easements with stipulations for habitat management that can include grazing programs, essentially paying ranchers to engineer rangelands for biodiversity.
Awards and recognitions
Land stewardship awards reward ranchers for grazing their livestock in ways to help wildlife. The Bureau of Land Management gives out a Rangeland Stewardship Award to one ranch in the nation each year. In 2012, the award went to the Kirby Creek Coordinated Resource Management Group in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin in recognition of their extensive efforts to restore a degraded watershed through fencing, invasive species control, water developments, and other efforts shared by several ranches and agencies. This prestigious national award comes with public recognition celebrating the management practices of the ranch.
The Leopold Conservation Award, distributed by the Sand County Foundation and partnering organizations in eight different states, recognizes land owners who achieve conservation measures on their lands. The 500,000-acre Padlock Ranch on the Wyoming/Montana border was recognized in 2013 for innovative grazing management that fosters wildlife habitat, among other practices. The award comes with publicity, recognition from the Governor, and a prize of $10,000.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department also celebrates landowners who steward wildlife on their properties. One 2012 Landowner of the Year, the JY Ranch near Laramie, worked with Wyoming Game and Fish to develop a grazing plan that protects streamside vegetation and produces abundant rangeland forage for wildlife.
Market-based conservation finance
While many of the above programs ensure productivity of rangelands and keep them from being developed, they do not measure biodiversity in itself. One upcoming idea to advance biodiversity conservation is tools that give biodiversity economic value in the marketplace. A few forward-thinking organizations are working toward that end, and marketplaces have developed for individual species such as the dunes sagebrush lizard in Texas.
The Environmental Defense Fund develops habitat exchanges and other programs to put a monetary value on habitat and species and enable those who benefit from protection of ecosystem services to give financial support to those who protect them. A habitat exchange pays landowners for conservation activities that improve wildlife habitat. Developers purchase credits created by the landowners to offset their impacts to the land.