WASHINGTON (USDA)—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced a new $33 million partnership with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to use innovative approaches to restore and protect the habitats for wildlife, including seven at-risk species and other vulnerable game species.
The announcement of the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership follows last week's White House Conference on Conservation that spotlighted community-driven conservation efforts as part of President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative.
"America's natural resources play a significant role in building a strong and vibrant economy," said Secretary Vilsack. "Agricultural lands with healthy and abundant wildlife habitat support strong incomes for our farmers and ranchers and provide great opportunities for enhancing hunting and fishing, outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing."
"This innovative partnership aligns our goals of empowering America's farmers and ranchers to continue working their lands, while furthering conservation of imperiled species, such as the greater sage grouse, through voluntary measures," Secretary Salazar said. "The Working Lands for Wildlife initiative will allow us to focus our resources where we can do the most good and will serve as a model for a more efficient, more effective, and more cooperative way to improve the health and diversity of working landscapes and strengthen local economies."
Under this strategy, Federal, state and local wildlife experts jointly identify at-risk species that would benefit from targeted habitat restoration investments on private lands. Using the best available science, the partners will prioritize restoration actions on a large regional scale to most cost effectively focus assistance. In return for voluntarily making habitat improvements on their lands, the Federal government will provide landowners with regulatory certainty that they will not be asked to take additional conservation actions.
USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will jointly prepare species recovery tools such as informal agreements, safe harbor agreements and habitat conservation plans to provide regulatory certainty to landowners. The goal is to have these tools in place for all priority species by the end of the year. The seven species initially selected for this expanded campaign are: greater sage-grouse, New England cottontail, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, lesser prairie-chicken and the Southwestern willow flycatcher.
Today's announcement kicks-off the sign-up for Working Lands for Wildlife. Landowners can sign-up to manage and restore high-priority habitats for the seven specific wildlife species that are located across the country. Applications within the priority habitat areas will receive highest consideration.
Interested producers and landowners in targeted areas can enroll in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) on a continuous basis at their local NRCS field office. NRCS funds from WHIP will share the cost of conservation practices with landowners in areas known to support one or more of the selected species. For example, two conservation practices that improve sage-grouse habitat are prescribed grazing and brush management. In the past two years, ranchers implemented grazing systems on 1.3 million acres of large sagebrush to improve cattle forage and increase hiding cover for nesting birds. The additional grass cover is projected to increase sage-grouse populations by 8 to 10 percent.
For 14 years, WHIP has worked to protect, restore or develop fish and wildlife habitat for many species, including those considered at-risk. Since 2003, about $310 million has been committed to 23,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to provide wildlife treatments on four million acres of private working lands.