02 Apr 2015: Report

In the Sagebrush Marketplace,
A New Way to Protect Species

In the American West, where sage grouse populations have plummeted, conservationists, ranchers, and oil and gas companies are taking part in an experiment in which private landowners are paid to protect and restore critical habitat for the beleaguered bird.

by joshua zaffos

As day breaks, T. Wright Dickinson hauls 40 cows in a big-rig truck across the sagebrush country of Vermillion Basin, a high desert covering northwestern Colorado and parts of Wyoming and Utah. Dickinson’s family ranch dates back to 1885 and comprises much of the 77,000-acre
male sage grouse
Alan Krakauer/Flickr
A male sage grouse struts his stuff.
basin, a checkerboard of privately owned and leased state and federal lands.

On this unseasonably warm late-winter day, Dickinson, 53, is moving cattle from winter to summer pastures before they begin calving. Along the way, he passes groups of pronghorn and mule deer, oil pumpjacks and gas wells, and miles of rolling hills and rising mountains covered in rock, brush, and juniper trees.

Cows aren’t the only animals on the move this time of year. Greater sage grouse gather in open patches of sagebrush, known as leks, where the male birds perform their noisy strutting display to attract female mates. Afterward, the birds disperse into nearby wetter meadows to nest and hatch their chicks. In winter, the birds find sheltered draws where they survive eating sagebrush leaves.

Greater sage grouse follow that annual routine in 11 Western states on more than 78 million acres. But the species has declined by 45 to 80 percent in recent decades due to sagebrush loss and fragmentation caused
Putting the grouse on the endangered list could cost $5 billion in annual economic activity.
by overgrazing, subdivision and sprawl, booming energy development, and other factors, such as predation and disease. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering the grouse to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Such a move could hinder ranching, oil and gas drilling, and wind and solar energy across the American West, potentially costing up to $5.6 billion in annual economic activity and up to $262 million in annual state and local revenue.

Dickinson isn’t interested in federal mandates. Instead, he is backing a novel approach to conservation through a so-called “sagebrush marketplace.” The Colorado Habitat Exchange aims to help sage grouse by allowing energy companies and developers that unavoidably fragment or degrade grouse habitat to purchase “credits” from landowners, such as Dickinson, to mitigate, or offset, their impacts. In return, the landowners agree to protect and restore critical wintering, breeding, and nesting grounds for the bird.

The restoration projects could include removing juniper trees that overtake sagebrush, fencing areas to reduce deer browsing on new sage, thinning out vegetation where it’s drying up meadows, and using prescribed fires to create habitat. Similar initiatives are also unfolding in Wyoming and Nevada and a handful of other states, with backing from the Environmental Defense Fund and others. Dickinson’s ranchlands will be serving as testing grounds for the market this summer, so the program’s science team can refine and calibrate its measurements of habitat impacts and benefits — “debits” and “credits.”

“You can quantify the impacts that an oil well or windmill project is going to have on wildlife and then go to a different site and create what we call uplift, or some conservation benefit that is greater than the impact,” says Eric Holst, senior director of Environmental Defense Fund’s Working Lands program. Holst says development must first avoid and then minimize impacts to wildlife. Compensatory mitigation is a key third leg to the conservation stool where habitat exchanges can play a role. “We’re interested in making sure that states and the federal governments require
Market-based ‘payment for ecosystem services’ programs continue to gain traction worldwide.
full mitigation for impacts to sage grouse, and we’re hoping it’s embedded in state and federal management plans,” says Holst.

Dickinson and other rural landowners have their own hopes: that the exchange, by putting a price tag on sagebrush habitat, can help keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list, while providing ranchers with supplemental income for good land stewardship. “The exchange is creating a unit of measure for sage grouse, no different than my carrying capacity for cows,” Dickinson says. “Contracts are a methodology that landowners and industry understand.”

The habitat exchange is what’s known as a “payment for ecosystem services” program, a market-based approach to conservation that continues to gain worldwide traction. Ecosystem services are benefits we accrue from bees that pollinate flowers, wetlands that filter water, trees that capture carbon, and sagebrush that sustains wildlife — processes that go virtually unvalued on balance sheets. Ecological economist Robert Costanza and colleagues have estimated worldwide ecosystem services to be worth $125 trillion a year.

Carbon credit systems, such as the United Nations’ REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, are perhaps the best-known initiatives. Under REDD projects, emitters of carbon, such as power plants, buy credits that pay others to halt
sage grouse habitat
Joshua Zaffos
Rancher T. Wright Dickinson surveys sage grouse habitat on his cattle’s summer range.
deforestation, plant new trees, or develop renewable energy, all of which capture or reduce carbon emissions. Implementation of REDD projects has been slower than many proponents would like; but local demonstration projects are happening and the program remains a key component of international climate talks. In Costa Rica, for example, a program that compensates landowners for not logging has more than doubled the country’s forest cover since the 1980s, benefiting rivers and wildlife and providing income for families.

In the U.S., ecosystems markets have so far generated more interest than results, with several efforts in early stages. In Oregon, the Willamette Partnership and Freshwater Trust, both nonprofit conservation groups, have developed a water-quality trading program to mitigate impacts to rivers and fish. For example, the city of Medford’s wastewater treatment plant releases warm flows into the Rogue River to the detriment of Chinook salmon and other species. Instead of installing $16 million of equipment to upgrade the facility to meet state standards, the city is purchasing credits that pay private landowners to plant native trees that shade the Rogue and mitigate the warm temperatures. The program will cost just $8 million and rehabilitate 30 river miles. The partnership has developed standards and protocols to quantify the environmental effects, and is leading its own sage grouse habitat market in the state.

On the Fort Hood Military Reservation in Texas, the Army participates in the Recovery Credit System to offset the impacts of training exercises on endangered golden-cheeked warblers, which nest only in Texas, and black-capped vireos. The Army purchases credits from adjacent private landowners, who then carry out conservation projects that benefit the birds. The program, administered by Texas A&M University, allowed the military to offset impacts on 237 acres during a test run, with 20
One official says habitat exchanges create ‘a voluntary, financial incentive to do good conservation work.’
landowners participating.

The Fort Hood program has served as a blueprint for the Colorado Habitat Exchange and similar programs in states where oil and gas drilling has boomed. But the sagebrush market carries a notable exception: Since greater sage grouse are not yet listed as endangered species, there is no “regulatory hammer” compelling industry to participate. And landowners are uncertain if their involvement will stave off tougher federal land-use restrictions on public and private lands (both important for ranching) if the Fish and Wildlife Service determines that the bird warrants protection.

“Historically, we’ve mitigated after the impacts,” Dickinson says, driving across the Vermillion Basin and pointing out different habitats and places ripe for conservation action. “We need to buffer the impacts before they occur, but we also need regulatory certainty.”

The state of Colorado is on board, and plans to recognize exchange credits as valid mitigation projects that comply with state drilling rules for sensitive wildlife. The exchange will create “a voluntary, financial incentive to do good conservation work, with the market acting as a driver,” says Madeleine West, policy adviser for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Other state governments, however, have been more hesitant to require compensatory mitigation.

The oil and gas industry is also part of the working group behind the Colorado exchange. Andrew Casper, regulatory counsel for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, says the market’s potential to standardize and measure debits and credits is “taking the guesswork” out of mitigation. But companies want to know how the program will assess impacts and ultimately set credit prices, and then how the Fish and Wildlife Service will value the credits. If the agency, now reviewing the program proposal, decides the exchange will have no effect on federal conservation plans, developers buying credits will be scarce.

Bureaucratic inertia and industry reluctance are significant obstacles for the habitat exchange. The program will also have to demonstrate actual benefits for the sage

ALSO FROM YALE e360

Electric Power Rights of Way:
A New Frontier for Conservation

Power line rights of way
Often mowed and doused with herbicides, power transmission lines have long been a bane for environmentalists. But that’s changing, as some utilities are starting to manage these areas as valuable corridors for threatened wildlife.
READ MORE
grouse. Researchers’ evaluation of the Fort Hood program found that the initiative stimulated conservation actions for the endangered birds, but the “biological” effects were “less clear.” One concern regarding mitigation for sage grouse is the species’ strong “site fidelity” to previously used leks even after they’ve been degraded; just because the habitat moves, the birds may not. Considering that ecosystem services contracts often span several decades and imperiled wildlife species do not rebound overnight, the success of the exchange may not be clear for years.

Dickinson argues that managing for sagebrush, as he is doing on his ranch, can benefit cattle and wildlife, and both can coexist with oil and gas wells. Cows feed on grassy pastures, clearing ground for sagebrush growth. The most important summer and winter grouse habitat on his lands are directly linked with energy development and grazing areas. A mosaic of habitats and vegetation ensures livestock and wildlife move across the basin and thrive in different areas.

“Maintaining the landscape requires resetting the clock (of sagebrush growth and regeneration), and we can do it in a way that we get credit and create uplift,” he says. “If you pay me to raise sage chickens (grouse), I’ll do it.”



POSTED ON 02 Apr 2015 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Oceans Science & Technology Asia North America North America 

COMMENTS


Does this mechanism solve the problem of habitat fragmentation ?

Posted by Apurva on 03 Apr 2015


Thanks on your marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading it, you may be a great author. I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and will come back in the future. I want to encourage yourself to continue your great posts, have a nice evening!
Posted by コイズミ照明 LEDブラケット AB40227L on 15 Mar 2016


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


joshua zaffosABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Zaffos writes from Fort Collins, Colorado, where he covers water, energy and the environment. His work has appeared in High Country News, Pacific Standard, Wired, Scientific American, The Daily Climate, and other outlets. Previously for Yale e360, Zaffos reported on a dam boom along the Mekong River.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.
READ MORE

What’s Killing Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?

Biologist Eben Paxton is sounding the alarm about the catastrophic collapse of native bird populations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. His group's research has uncovered the culprit: disease-carrying mosquitoes that have invaded the birds' mountain habitat.
READ MORE

Exploring How and Why
Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other

Ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown how trees use a network of soil fungi to communicate their needs and aid neighboring plants. Now she’s warning that threats like clear-cutting and climate change could disrupt these critical networks.
READ MORE

Wildlife Farming: Does It Help
Or Hurt Threatened Species?

Wildlife farming is being touted as a way to protect endangered species while providing food and boosting incomes in rural areas. But some conservation scientists argue that such practices fail to benefit beleaguered wildlife.
READ MORE

Science in the Wild: The Legacy
Of the U.S. National Park System


READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

by nicola jones
Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.
READ MORE

For China’s Polluted Megacities,
A Focus on Slashing Emissions

by mike ives
The booming industrial center of Shenzhen is a showcase for Chinese efforts to cut CO2 emissions and make the nation's burgeoning cities more livable. But it remains to be seen whether China's runaway industrial development can give way to a low-carbon future.
READ MORE

Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge
Confronts Its Radioactive Past

by fred pearce
The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.
READ MORE

Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

by marc gunther
Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.
READ MORE

The New Green Grid: Utilities
Deploy ‘Virtual Power Plants’

by maria gallucci
By linking together networks of energy-efficient buildings, solar installations, and batteries, a growing number of companies in the U.S. and Europe are helping utilities reduce energy demand at peak hours and supply targeted areas with renewably generated electricity.
READ MORE

Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs
Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown

by joel stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive challenge: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material.
READ MORE

How to Restore an Urban River?
Los Angeles Looks to Find Out

by jim robbins
Officials are moving ahead with a major revitalization of the Los Angeles River – removing miles of concrete along its banks and re-greening areas now covered with pavement. But the project raises an intriguing question: Just how much of an urban river can be returned to nature?
READ MORE

How Growing Sea Plants Can
Help Slow Ocean Acidification

by nicola jones
Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life.
READ MORE

Vanishing Act: What’s Causing Sharp
Decline in Insects and Why It Matters

by christian schwägerl
Insect populations are declining dramatically in many parts of the world, recent studies show. Researchers say various factors, from monoculture farming to habitat loss, are to blame for the plight of insects, which are essential to agriculture and ecosystems.
READ MORE

For India’s Captive Leopards,
A Life Sentence Behind Bars

by richard conniff
As sightings of leopards in populated areas increase, Indian authorities are trapping the animals and keeping them in captivity — often in small cages without adequate food or veterinary care. The real solution, wildlife advocates say, is to educate the public on how to coexist with the big cats.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ugandan
Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale