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


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.
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 


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


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.

Email address 
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.



How Nations Are Chipping
Away at Their Protected Lands

Winning protected status for key natural areas and habitat has long been seen as the gold standard of conservation. But these gains are increasingly being compromised as governments redraw park boundaries to accommodate mining, logging, and other development.

How Forest Loss Is Leading
To a Rise in Human Disease

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the felling of tropical forests creates optimal conditions for the spread of mosquito-borne scourges, including malaria and dengue. Primates and other animals are also spreading disease from cleared forests to people.

Eyes in the Sky: Green Groups
Are Harnessing Data from Space

An increasing number of nonprofit organizations are relying on satellite imagery to monitor environmental degradation. Chief among them is SkyTruth, which has used this data to expose the extent of the BP oil spill, uncover mining damage, and track illegal fishing worldwide.

Unnatural Balance: How Food
Waste Impacts World’s Wildlife

New research indicates that the food discarded in landfills and at sea is having a profound effect on wildlife populations and fisheries. But removing that food waste creates its own ecological challenges.

To Protect Monarch Butterfly,
A Plan to Save the Sacred Firs

Mexican scientists are striving to plant oyamel fir trees at higher altitudes in an effort to save the species, as well as its fluttering iconic winter visitor — the migrating monarch butterfly — from the devastating effects of climate change.


MORE IN Reports

Hard-Pressed Rust Belt Cities
Go Green to Aid Urban Revival

by winifred bird
Gary, Indiana is joining Detroit and other fading U.S. industrial centers in an effort to turn abandoned neighborhoods and factory sites into gardens, parks, and forests. In addition to the environmental benefits, these greening initiatives may help catalyze an economic recovery.

As Drought Grips South Africa,
A Conflict Over Water and Coal

by keith schneider
Facing one of the worst droughts in memory, South Africa’s leaders have doubled down on their support of the water-intensive coal industry. But clean energy advocates say the smartest move would be to back the country’s burgeoning wind and solar power sectors.

Saving Amphibians: The Quest
To Protect Threatened Species

by jim robbins
The decline of the world’s amphibians continues, with causes ranging from fungal diseases to warmer and drier climates. Now, researchers are looking at ways to intervene with triage measures that could help save the most vulnerable populations.

How Rising CO2 Levels May
Contribute to Die-Off of Bees

by lisa palmer
As they investigate the factors behind the decline of bee populations, scientists are now eyeing a new culprit — soaring levels of carbon dioxide, which alter plant physiology and significantly reduce protein in important sources of pollen.

Can Uber-Style Buses Help
Relieve India's Air Pollution?

by jason overdorf
India’s megacities have some the deadliest air and worst traffic congestion in the world. But Indian startups are now launching initiatives that link smart-phone apps and private shuttle buses and could help keep cars and other motorized vehicles off the roads.

Trouble in Paradise: A Blight
Threatens Key Hawaiian Tree

by richard schiffman
The ʻohiʻa is Hawaii’s iconic tree, a keystone species that maintains healthy watersheds and provides habitat for numerous endangered birds. But a virulent fungal disease, possibly related to a warmer, drier climate, is now felling the island’s cherished 'ohi'a forests.

Climate Change Adds Urgency
To Push to Save World’s Seeds

by virginia gewin
In the face of rising temperatures and worsening drought, the world’s repositories of agricultural seeds may hold the key to growing food under increasingly harsh conditions. But keeping these gene banks safe and viable is a complicated and expensive challenge.

As World Warms, How Do We
Decide When a Plant is Native?

by janet marinelli
The fate of a tree planted at poet Emily Dickinson's home raises questions about whether gardeners can — or should — play a role in helping plant species migrate in the face of rising temperatures and swiftly changing botanical zones.

With New Tools, A Focus
On Urban Methane Leaks

by judith lewis mernit
Until recently, little was known about the extent of methane leaking from urban gas distribution pipes and its impact on global warming. But recent advances in detecting this potent greenhouse gas are pushing U.S. states to begin addressing this long-neglected problem.

Is Climate Change Putting
World's Microbiomes at Risk?

by jim robbins
Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities of the microbes in the earth’s soil and the role they play in fostering healthy ecosystems. Now, climate change is threatening to disrupt these microbes and the key functions they provide.

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


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

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.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

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


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


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

The third annual Yale Environment 360 Video Contest is now accepting entries. Deadline to submit is June 10th.
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.


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.