New plan recognizes role of private landowners in species conservation

Paul Vahldiek, owner of the High Lonesome Ranch, and Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, speak earlier this week to Katie McKalip of the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation partnership during the TRCP Western Media Summit at Vahldiek’s ranch.


Groups work together to protect elk habitat

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Colorado Parks and Wildlife have partnered to protect more than 8,000 acres of prime elk habitat on the Wolf Mountain Ranch in northwest Colorado.

Funding from Parks and Wildlife and Great Outdoors Colorado purchased a conservation easement on 8,658 acres of the ranch west of Steamboat Springs.

The working cattle ranch has a Parks and Wildlife management plan and is used by public hunters in the CPW Ranching for Wildlife program.

Wolf Mountain Ranch is a key migration route and calving ground for elk and at any time may hold from 300 to more than 2,000 elk.

The ranch also supports populations of Columbian sharptail grouse and greater sage grouse, mule deer, black bear and mountain lion.

To date, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other conservation organizations have permanently protect 16,127 acres on the ranch.

Statewide, the Elk Foundation has amassed nearly 175,000 acres of permanent land protection since 1987.

Conservation cannot be a short-term project.

Whether it means the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation protecting prime elk habitat in northwest Colorado or ranchers protecting greater sage grouse habitat around De Beque, conservation cannot be accomplished without giving landowners some promise of long-term stability.

In themselves these thoughts are not new. What’s new, however, is a plan unveiled earlier this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide conservation-minded landowners with funding and long-term security.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Working Lands for Wildlife initiative offers private landowners the opportunity to voluntarily implement habitat conservation practices for several at-risk and vulnerable game species.

The key provisions in the plan include its length, 30 years instead of the current 10-year duration; the broad geographical ranges of the species being protected; and its funding, which this year totals $33 million for on-the-ground work.

The money will go to landowners developing and implementing conservation plans on high-priority habitats for seven specific wildlife species across the country.

The species are greater sage grouse, New England cottontail, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, lesser prairie chicken and the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

“This unique agreement recognizes that species conservation works best when private landowners are committed and active partners in the process,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It makes funds available to help implement important projects and guarantees to landowners that the government won’t keep moving the goal line.”

The plan offers so-called “safe harbor” assurances to landowners, Fosburgh said, speaking recently at the High Lonesome Ranch near De Beque.

“If a landowner undertakes conservation projects that work and a listed species moves onto his or her lands, or if a resident nonlisted species like sage grouse subsequently becomes listed under the Endangered Species Act, that landowner can be confident that he or she won’t suddenly be subject to new restrictions or penalties,” Fosburgh said.

Such assurance means a great deal to landowners such as High Lonesome Ranch owner Paul Vahldiek. He said the new plan gives conservation-minded landowners the ability to plan without worrying about future costly regulations.

“It’s hard to try to take care of the land into the future when you don’t know what’s going to happen five or 10 years ahead,” said Vahldieck. “What happens if I improve habitat and suddenly the sage grouse is listed” under the Endangered Species Act?

“Taking this landscape approach is the secret to having these lands productive and species protected 50 years into the future.”

The Working Lands for Wildlife initiative “reflects the direction we need to go and want to go in the future,” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said. “It’s important for agriculture and important for species conservation. It represents a great step forward and how we need to continue doing business moving forward.”

Ashe emphasized conservation cannot occur without the cooperation of private landowners.

“If we can’t get the private landowners to buy in now, some of these species won’t last,” he said. “We cannot conserve certain species without working with private landowners.”

As Fosburgh noted, this program also benefits sportsmen.

“Conserving and restoring sage grouse directly benefits mule deer and pronghorn, which share the same habitats,” Fosburgh said.

Also, because almost half of all Americans hunt only on private lands, ensuring the health and productivity of these lands by giving landowners adequate resources and long-term regulatory security “is in everyone’s best interests,” he said.

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