New Opportunity Offers Security for Ranchers and Prairie Birds

The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on an innovative and voluntary program that contributes toward the conservation of greater sage-grouse and four declining grassland songbird species on ranching and agricultural lands.  The goal of the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) is to maintain and enhance habitats for these birds, while providing assurances to ranchers against potential future land use restrictions.

Landowners who enroll in this voluntary program agree to address threats to the birds and their habitat on their property. In exchange, they receive assurances that no additional conservation measures or additional restrictions on land, water, or resource use would be required should any of these birds be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Conservation measures could include controlling noxious weeds, creating grazing plans that enhance habitat or grassland restoration. They might also include flagging fences to prevent birds from colliding with hard-to-see wires.  In some cases, existing ranch management practices may already provide suitable habitat conditions for these birds. Each management plan associated with the CCAA is unique to the individual landowner.

The birds covered under this CCAA are greater sage-grouse, Baird’s sparrow, chestnut-collared longspur, McCown’s longspur, and Sprague’s pipit. Since, in Montana, more than 60% of the habitats for these birds occur on private land, private land stewardship plays an essential role in their conservation.

“Populations of all these grassland birds have seen steep declines in recent years” says Kelsey Molloy, a rangeland ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Montana. “Ideally, if enough habitat can be conserved and enhanced for these birds, their numbers could improve and there may not be a need for a future ESA listing.”

Our focus areas are the Northern Great Plains and Southwest Montana, but any of the areas shown on the attached map, where these bird species occur, could be eligible to enroll in the CCAA.

For more information, landowners can contact Kelsey Molloy at kelsey.molloy@tnc.org or by phone 406-654-4566. There is also additional information at https://www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse/montana.php.

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