The Pioneers Alliance, a unique group of ranchers, community members, conservationists, elected officials and agency employees, is making a difference for sage grouse in south central Idaho. Based in Carey, Idaho, the alliance leads a local effort to protect working ranches and core sage grouse habitat near Sun Valley. So far, more than 65,400 acres are protected through private landowner conservation easements supported by Farm Bill programs.
Last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged the alliance’s work with the Secretary’s Honor Award for External Partnerships. This prestigious national award recognizes groups who have made outstanding contributions that support USDA’s mission and goals.
Pioneers Alliance worked with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, to promote the agency’s Sage Grouse Initiative with landowners in the Carey area. The alliance helped landowners understand how voluntary conservation easements could benefit ranching operations while protecting vital sage grouse habitat.
“My father homesteaded this land, and we are leaving it in better shape than how we got it. That’s the purpose,” said Ray Baird, a Carey landowner with a conservation easement on his property. “It’s a win-win situation. This easement helped us do what we wanted to do for over 20 years. At the same time, it has been good for the sage grouse. Since 1982, I’ve noticed a real decline in the hens and working with Pioneers Alliance and (Idaho Fish and Game), this year was one of the best hatches we’ve had.”
Launched in 2010 by NRCS, the Sage Grouse Initiative uses Farm Bill (PDF, 71.7 KB) financial assistance to fund voluntary conservation projects in sage grouse strongholds across 11 western states. Along with conservation and management practices, conservation easements are one of the tools ranchers can use to protect and improve rangelands.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement where private landowners commit to conserving natural resources on their properties by limiting certain types of development. Landowners receive compensation for the value of their land while retaining private property rights.
So far, 25 landowners around Carey have enrolled 37 working farms and ranches in conservation easements, supported through Sage Grouse Initiative funding. These easements protect more than one-third of the private acres in the region and connect wildlife habitat to almost 2.4 million acres of public lands. With Pioneers Alliance’s involvement, landowner participation in the Sage Grouse Initiative doubled and funding for conservation easements in Idaho has increased significantly.
“The Pioneers Alliance realized the potential of bringing conservation funding into their community to strengthen the economic and cultural viability of ranching in the region,” said Jeff Burwell, Idaho NRCS state conservationist, who nominated Pioneers Alliance. “It also protects and improves existing sage grouse habitat.”