Protecting game paths: New federal program to incentivize owners to maintain habitats

CODY— Protecting paths used by big game across private lands is the focus of a federal pilot project announced Friday in Cody.

The program rewards and supports landowners in the targeted areas for not developing their lands into uses not compatible with wildlife.

“Conserving America’s most iconic wildlife and wildlife migration corridors depends on the conservation of private working lands and tribal lands through voluntary, collaborative incentives that reward farmers, ranchers and forest owners for stewardship of their lands,” said Robert Bonnie, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation, in a news release.

Bonnie spoke during the University of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park 150th Anniversary Symposium, which ran Thursday and Friday at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. 

He said since 30 percent of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem includes private property, wildlife advocates must be concerned about the condition of that land.

This side of Yellowstone provides winter range essential to the elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep that migrate from that Park, according to a wildlife ecologist.

“The habitat in Park County being intact and available to these wildlife as winter range is extremely important,” Arthur Middleton said following the symposium. “They can avoid deep snow and get good spring forage. It’s important to their survival over the winter.”

An assistant professor in wildlife management and policy at UC-Berkley, Middleton also works part-time as a senior advisor for wildlife conservation for the USDA and spends his summers in Cody. He participated in designing the USDA’s pilot project for habitat conservation.

“I’m really excited about this program,” he said. “What this is about is investing in locally led conservation efforts that I’ve believed were necessary for many, many years.”

Bonnie’s announcement came just prior to a panel discussion about the challenge of managing the wildlife that use a mix of public, private and tribal lands in the GYE.

Federal officials consulted with the state of Wyoming and local stakeholders, Bonnie said, “to create new and enhanced opportunities through USDA’s conservation programs to expand our work … to conserve wildlife and migration corridors and to keep working lands working.”

The USDA will commit an initial $15 million through various existing programs toward the initiative, which was endorsed by state Game and Fish.

“Wyoming leads the nation in our approaches to conserving big game and their movements. We’ve done that with strong landowner partnerships and an acknowledgement that habitat conservation can be done on multi-use landscapes,``G & F Director Brian Nesvik said. “Private landowners provide key habitat for wildlife seen in Yellowstone National Park. Offering voluntary funding opportunities to landowners to maintain this valuable space for wildlife is a recognition of their role in conservation.”

To craft the program, agency officials participated in extensive listening sessions with stakeholders throughout Wyoming, the release said. The result includes a “recognition of the large scale of the issue in key landscapes, coordination with state agencies, consistency with state policy and direction and support of existing partnerships wherever possible.”

Interest in maintaining vital habitat derives from the rapid changes occurring here, Middleton said – “how to conserve some of the most important places before they get subdivided.” 

He added that the broad research about migration in the state, through collaring and tracking migrating herds, has yielded data that will help focus investments.

“The state has tangible data, more than anywhere else in the world,” Middleton said. “That’s why Wyoming is such a good place to work on this.”

USDA will invest in three conservation areas using voluntary and incentive-based programs. First is preventing the conversion of private working lands that provide habitat and other values for migratory big game populations from developing into land uses incompatible with wildlife migrations.

“Specifically, this would include preventing actions like residential subdivision, mining and development of commercial wind and solar facilities on private lands,” the release said.

Second is restoring and managing working lands to provide a variety of healthy habitats required by migrating animals. This could involve controlling invasive species, restoring degraded aspens, removing encroached woodlands, and restoring wet meadows.

Last is using conservation leases as a means of managing working lands to ensure the healthy habitat essential to meeting the diverse, seasonal needs of migrating big game. The lease would reward landowners who provide such habitat with annual payments.

The USDA will hire a coordinator to oversee the pilot project in Wyoming, Middleton said, then “we’ll work out ways to help communities figure out how the plan will develop. We can bring financial incentives and opportunities.

“We can send an example for building an approach about how to address important cross-boundary issues on lands in the West,” he said.