Growing Returns

What if God wants the lesser prairie-chicken to go extinct?

Lesser prairie-chicken. Photo credit: USDA NRCS

Lesser prairie-chicken. Photo credit: USDA NRCS

A version of this piece previously ran as an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle.

A few years ago, I was invited by Texas farmer David Cleavinger to visit his family’s farm near Amarillo. This was during a period of time when my organization, Environmental Defense Fund, was deeply involved in conservation efforts for the lesser prairie-chicken, a colorful bird whose habitat is in decline throughout its five-state range, which includes the panhandle of Texas.

David picked me up at the airport and asked if we could make a quick stop on the way to his farm. That stop turned out to be at local radio station KGNC, where David had arranged for me to go on air and talk about wildlife conservation with a particular focus on the local implications for efforts to revive the lesser prairie-chicken.

I agreed to join the show with some trepidation, but it quickly subsided as we got into a lively discussion with the host, James Hunt, and several listeners. Toward the end of my appearance, a caller asked a surprising and provocative question – What if God wants the prairie-chicken to go extinct? Read More »

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First-ever habitat exchange opens for business

Nevada rancher works to conserve sage-grouse

Nearly two dozen Nevada landowners have already submitted letters of interest to generate conservation credits for sage-grouse through the exchange. Read more >>

For the first time ever, ranchers are able to enroll in a habitat credit exchange program to earn revenue for activities that protect and enhance habitat for the greater sage-grouse.

The state of Nevada and federal agencies today announced the approved use of the Nevada Conservation Credit System to protect the grouse’s sagebrush habitat on public lands.

This program will create a robust mitigation market that will bring greater certainty and transparency to the state’s agriculture and energy industries, ultimately allowing both sage-grouse and the economy to flourish.

About the Nevada Conservation Credit System

The Nevada Conservation Credit System is an advanced approach to protecting habitat for the greater sage-grouse that ensures impacts are fully offset in a way that helps create net benefit. It does so by creating new incentives for industries to avoid and minimize impacts, and for private landowners and public land managers to preserve, enhance, and restore habitat. Read More »

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Lesser prairie-chicken numbers are up. Is it good conservation or just good weather?

2015 marked the end of a five year drought, bringing much needed relief to the parched prairie region. But climate impacts such as drought and wildfires are only expected to increase in duration and frequency in the future, so one wet year is not going to be sufficient to protect lesser prairie-chickens in the long run.

2015 marked the end of a five-year drought, bringing relief to the parched prairie region. But climate impacts like drought and wildfires are only expected to increase in the future, threatening lesser prairie-chicken recovery efforts. Credit: Lesser Prairie Chicken via photopin (license)

Recent media reports have touted population rebounds for the lesser prairie-chicken – up 25 percent from last year. That’s great news for the bird, which was nearly wiped out in recent years as booming oil and gas industries encroached on the bird’s range across Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as “threatened” in March 2015, at the same time that the five states embarked on a conservation plan of their own. The plan was officially assembled and endorsed by the five members of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA).

Now that bird numbers are up, WAFWA is claiming success – attributing the chicken’s rebound to effective implementation of their Lesser Prairie-Chicken Rangewide Conservation Plan (RWP). Certainly that program has provided some benefit, but the key question is whether the program has been a big enough boost to set the lesser prairie-chicken on a path to recovery. Read More »

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Butterfly numbers may be up, but they still need our help

Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that the monarch butterfly, along with the manatee, is on a “big rebound.” It’s true that the iconic North American butterfly is in better shape today than this time last year. But it’s too soon to celebrate.

A sensitive species

populationThe population of monarch butterflies has historically had drastic dips and spikes. That’s because the monarch is a sensitive species greatly impacted by extreme weather events.

In January 2002, the species experienced unprecedented and catastrophic mortality due to a rare freeze at its overwintering site in Mexico, killing an estimated 500 million butterflies. That’s more than two times the size of today’s population, even with this year’s boost.

Fortunately, the monarch is as resilient as it is delicate. This year’s bump in number proves that. It also shows that recovery is possible, that conservation efforts can make a difference. Read More »

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My quest to balance nature and the agricultural economy

California's Sutter Buttes are the remnants of a volcano that are sometimes called the "smallest mountain range in the world."

California’s Sutter Buttes are the remnants of a volcano that are sometimes called the “smallest mountain range in the world.”

On a clear day I can see the Sutter Buttes, the smallest mountain range in the world, from my office in Sacramento. It’s a landscape that inspires me.

Although the Sacramento Valley is not without its problems, when I look out my office window, explore the local outdoors with my kids, or catch the woodsy whiff of a pencil made from California incense cedar (yes, I collect those), what I sense in those sights, sounds and smells is balance.

Striking the right balance in our working landscapes

The Sacramento Valley is a real working landscape. I use that term a lot: “working landscape.” By that I mean a place where natural resources are used to provide economic benefit – “working” to support jobs, industries and economies, both local and of scale – in a way that strikes a balance between maximizing profits and sustaining the natural resources, or the “landscape.”

Striking that balance between economic output and environmental protection has been a pillar of my work at EDF. I’ve long believed that if we can find and replicate this delicate mix everywhere, we’d be in much better shape. Read More »

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What’s next for the greater sage-grouse? A public lands strategy

A few months have passed since the greater sage-grouse was deemed “not warranted” for listing under the Endangered Species Act. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten about the bird. Nor have the countless agency staff at the Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service (FS) who continue to work to ensure that the bird stays off of the Endangered Species List.

The listing decision signaled that the state, federal and other conservation plans for the greater sage-grouse should be enough to ensure healthy populations, and now we must continue the hard work on implementing these plans.

BLM and FS have already committed to developing Regional Mitigation Strategies for the greater sage-grouse within one year of the September 2015 listing decision – a strategy that I hope will bring consistency, transparency and high standards to mitigation on public lands. Read More »

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From California to Idaho: Protecting rural pit stops on the monarch butterfly’s great migration

The eastern population of monarch butterflies overwinter in the forests of central Mexico, with the most prominent migration path following Interstate 35 from Amarillo Texas to Duluth Minnesota. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The eastern population of monarch butterflies overwinters in the forests of central Mexico, with the most prominent migration path following Interstate 35 from Amarillo Texas to Duluth Minnesota. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

As a kid growing up in northern California, I found myself migrating to the beaches and boardwalk of Santa Cruz (along with tens of thousands of other land-locked youth) to escape the sweltering inland heat each summer.

Now, as an adult more than a decade into my conservation career, I’ve come to learn that the monarch butterfly, one of America’s most well-known and beloved insects, is drawn to the same place, only during winter.

The western population of monarch butterflies spends their winters along the California coast, seeking the temperate climate and coastal forests the area offers. This overwintering habitat extends as far North as the San Francisco Bay Area and as far South as San Diego along the U.S.-Mexico border. But the highest concentrations occur in a handful of sites in and around Santa Cruz.

A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to my old summer stomping grounds to see this iconic North American butterfly.

First stop: Natural Bridges State Park Read More »

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$2 million available for Nevada landowners to earn revenue through sage-grouse pilots

sage grouseLast week, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Department of the Interior Secretary Sally announced their support for sage-grouse pilot projects on private and public lands through the Nevada Conservation Credit System. With that announcement came an impressive commitment of $2 million to fund the pilots.

The Nevada Conservation Credit System is now seeking to enroll land managers, namely ranchers, in projects that can earn them new revenue for a variety of conservation activities that improve sage-grouse habitat.

A catalyst for Nevada’s conservation market Read More »

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USDA invests $350 million to protect farmlands, grasslands and wetlands

ACEPAmerica’s agricultural lands are getting another significant boost from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the availability of $350 million to help landowners protect and restore key farmlands, grasslands and wetlands across the nation.

The funding, provided through the 2014 Farm Bill’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), rewards farmers and ranchers for voluntary efforts to protect critical water resources and wildlife habitat from future development.

ACEP is a program that consolidates three former programs – the Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program and Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program – into one voluntary program that provides technical and financial assistance to help landowners protect our nation’s vital farmlands, grasslands and wetlands.

The program is a shining example of USDA’s steadfast commitment to preserving the long-term viability and health of our agricultural landscapes.

How does it work? Read More »

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New White House mitigation standard opens market opportunities for farmers and ranchers

farmToday, President Obama announced a plan to safeguard America’s land, water and wildlife by establishing a “no net loss” standard for mitigating impacts on natural resources and encouraging related private investment to deliver better outcomes for the environment.

The plan will create a more sustainable future for the energy and agriculture sectors, for example, that provide our nation’s food, fuel and fiber.

If there is one sector that I believe can gain the most from this new mitigation standard, it’s agriculture.

Read More »

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