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A federal program hopes to keep ranching and wildlife alive through grassland conservation

Six elk graze on a green pasture with partly cloudy skies.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Elk on western Wyoming grasslands.

The federal government is looking to “rent” landowner’s grasslands to conserve wildlife habitat, which comes at a time when populations of several key wildlife species in Wyoming are dwindling.

It’s called the Grassland Conservation Reserve Program (Grassland CRP). Basically, ranchers lease their grasslands to the federal government in exchange for maintaining it for wildlife, like adding a new water pipeline or treating for weeds. But, often the rancher doesn’t have to do much extra.

“Because they were able to enroll their grass in the program, they've got good grass,” said Shaleas Harrison, Wyoming resource coordinator with the Western Landowners Alliance – a non-profit that helps ranchers get information on incentives like the Grassland CRP.

The goal of the Grassland CRP is to help Wyoming’s wildlife and ranching.

“We have these migrations across Wyoming that are really important,” Harrison said.

A good example is in western Wyoming, home to the Sublette Pronghorn herd. Their migration route, extending as far as from the Teton mountain range to the southern reaches of the Red Desert, is one of the longest pronghorn migrations in the U.S. In 2023, populations dropped from about 40,000 to 20,000 because of a harsh winter and disease. And wildlife experts say the herd’s future is hinged on their migration route. It needs to be intact – so limited development – and forage along it needs to be available. Lawmakers are actually looking to add official state protections for the route, but in the meantime, landowners are key for the pronghorn.

“They also cross private land. You want that landowner to stay on the land?,” Harrison said, referencing the need to keep those lands open and not being sold for development. “Well, let's provide some support for stewardship activities to enhance that land, help them stay in business and really compensate them for the stewardship that oftentimes they're already doing.”

The approach of incentivizing, versus outlawing, certain activities is an important distinction to Harrison. To protect migration routes, some people advocate for closing down roads or stopping oil and gas development, which is a top industry in Wyoming. Harrison said that approach can lead to an impasse or conflict.

“Let's look at these private properties,” she said. “These migrations are going through there, instead of taking away something, why don't we try to incentivize what's going on? Because obviously, the animals are there, because something is good, right?”

Harrison said the Grassland CRP is typically a 10 or 15 year contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). Ranchers can get between $13 and $18 dollars an acre each year, typically capping out at $50,000. The higher end is for land in “National Priority Zones.” Most of those are in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Harrison said the federal dollars can go toward things like, “hired help, a pickup truck, [or] a land payment.”

Notably, the money doesn’t have to go toward improvement projects, like wildlife friendly fencing or treating invasive weeds like cheatgrass.

“It's not like the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) or the FSA says, ‘Okay, you get $50,000. But we're going to take $10,000 of it and do some vegetative management over here. And you have to pay for a fence here,’” Harrison said. “No. Those extra things that benefit the land are also cost-shared through additional reimbursements through the FSA or the NRCS.”

The Grassland CRP might sound a lot like a conservation easement – but it’s different. Harrison said it gets very technical, but essentially, “it's (Grassland CRP) not permanent, and you're getting paid for a management practice, and that management practice is maintaining grass for wildlife.” Whereas, a conservation easement is where a landowner gets “paid to not develop forever and whatever's in your easement is kind of negotiated.” Notably, a landowner can have both types of agreements at the same time.

In the Grassland CRP, landowners aren’t allowed to develop the land or turn it into row crops. But Harrison said they can still “graze, seed, hay, the land that's enrolled in the program.”

Around 148,00 Wyoming acres were under a Grassland CRP contract in 2023, according to Harrison. The top counties with the highest acreage were Campbell, Carbon and Sublette.

Sign up this year ends June 28th. Harrison said landowners interested can find more information through the Western Landowners Alliance or contact a local FSA office.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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