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USDA pushes for more grassland conservation in the Mountain West

The USDA’s Grassland Conservation Reserve Program allows ranchers to continue grazing on their landscape as long as they maintain local biodiversity.
Tracy Robillard
NRCS Oregon
The USDA’s Grassland Conservation Reserve Program allows ranchers to continue grazing on their landscape as long as they maintain local biodiversity.

News brief: 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting applications for its Grassland Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a voluntary program that pays landowners and agricultural producers to maintain grass habitats critical for local ecosystems. This year, the USDA continues to prioritize Wyoming, Idaho and Montana counties in and around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that are critical for wildlife migration.

The Grassland CRP is growing in popularity. It accepted more than 3 million acres nationwide last year – the most since it began in 2014. A unique aspect of the Grassland CRP is that ranchers can still graze livestock or grow hay as long as they maintain biodiversity on the landscape. Shaleas Harrison, Wyoming Resource Coordinator with the Western Landowner’s Alliance, said a lot of people are already doing this.

“Although those lands are being conserved, they're still economically productive because you can graze and you can hay,” she said. “Those are important activities for any rancher, especially in the West.”

Participants in the program enter 10- or 15-year contracts and receive annual rental payments in exchange for their stewardship of the land. Harrison said payments vary, but the minimum rate is $13.00 an acre, and a maximum amount a landowner can make is $50,000 per year.

During the application process, the USDA considers a number of factors for potential enrollment, including existing species cover and the potential threat that the land will be developed. The program is also expanding its national “priority zones,” including counties in western Wyoming, eastern Idaho and southwest Montana, that are particularly important for wildlife.

Additionally, federal officials are giving special consideration to historically underserved communities, including beginning farmers, veterans and tribal members.

Harrison said programs like the CRP reflect the increasing value federal officials are putting on open space, wildlife habitat and connectivity, and the stewardship of landowners.

“Some ranchers have hundreds, if not thousands, of elk on their property in the wintertime, or in the case of migrations, they're providing forage for migrating animals and different ungulates like deer and pronghorn, and that does come at a cost to the landowner,” she said.

The Grassland CRP is one of several conservation programs offered by the USDA, some of which have struggled to gain enrollment and help the Biden administration reach its climate goals. Harrison said offering the opportunity for ranchers to keep working their lands opens the door for more potential applicants.

The USDA is accepting applications through May 26.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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