USDA Announces New Wildlife Investments

USDA Announces New Wildlife Investments

During the Western Governors Association meeting in Boulder, Colorado, in late June, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie announced a significant new focus on private land programs focused on wildlife conservation. More than $500 million will be directed over the next five years through all USDA conservation efforts including the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) effort. The funding will help deliver cohesive WLFW Frameworks for Conservation Action, which establish a common vision across the partnership of public and private interests and goals for delivering conservation resources in a given ecosystem, combining cutting-edge science with local knowledge.

Golden winged warbler

“When you find a conservation approach that works, double down—and that’s what we’re doing with Working Lands for Wildlife,” Bonnie said. “America’s farmers, ranchers, forest owners and tribes steward the majority of our nation’s wildlife habitat, and our work with them has yielded enormous gains for sage grouse, longleaf pine, and other species and ecosystems. Working Lands for Wildlife is ready to go to the next level, and today’s incorporation of the Conservation Reserve Program into its vision is a major leap forward. We pledge to keep building the policy, funding, and human capacity to deliver large-scale, working-lands conservation well into the future.”

The funding includes $250 million through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Of this, at least $40 million will be directed to western states to expand the pilot big game migration corridor private land conservation efforts beyond Wyoming to Idaho and Montana as well. More than $14 million will also be directed to 25 central and eastern states through the EQIP program for bobwhite quail and associated species in grassland and savanna ecosystems. In order to support these increased investments in on the ground conservation, USDA will be allocating $30 million over five years to bolster the WLFW team’s science and coordination capacity through partnerships. Additionally, WLFW will benefit from NRCS’ hiring initiative meant to increase boots on the ground to assist producers, states, tribes and other partners to meet their climate and conservation goals.

“Working Lands for Wildlife is living proof that we can do better work when we work with our partners,” said NRCS Chief Terry Cosby. “Partnerships have been the building blocks of success over the years, and we look forward to our continued work with partners to help grow and shape voluntary conservation on private lands.”  

The primary mechanism for implementing the new funding is through Frameworks for Conservation Action. The NRCS has successfully developed and implemented frameworks within the Sagebrush Biome, Great Plains Grasslands, and Northern Bobwhite, Grasslands and Savannas, but USDA will now include the Farm Services Agency (FSA) to integrate CRP into the WLFW conservation toolbox.

“The Conservation Reserve Program gives producers the tools and support to help integrate wildlife habitat and wildlife-friendly practices into the agricultural landscape,” said FSA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux. “We’re excited to partner with our sister agency and offer CRP’s signup options as part of this broader, strategic effort to support long-term wildlife conservation.” 

In addition, the Department will be expanding beyond these three frameworks in 2024 to add:

  • Western Migratory Big Game: A strategy to maintain large and connected working lands in the West to help sustain some of our nation’s iconic wildlife migrations.  
  • Eastern Deciduous Forest: A strategy to achieve forest health and habitat restoration that benefits declining wildlife dependent on young forests.   
  • Eastern Aquatic Connectivity: A strategy to guide restoration of rivers and wetlands to support habitat connectivity in watersheds with significant at-risk species.  
  • Southeastern Pine Ecosystems: A strategy to establish and maintain native pines with cultural, ecological and economic value.  

The conservation community applauded the USDA efforts, recognizing how effective the Working Lands for Wildlife initiative has been.

“What an incredible commitment to wildlife at a meaningful scale,” said Ron Leathers, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s chief conservation officer. “This investment has a chance to reverse population decline in some of our most threatened upland and grassland species, including the bobwhite quail, sage grouse, and lesser prairie chicken. Likewise, numerous other game and non-game species will benefit greatly from this announcement, in addition to improved water quality and soil health. Thank you to USDA and its leaders for their dedication to working lands, producers, wildlife, and America’s rural communities.”

“We applaud the expansion of the big game migration corridor pilot project to now include not just Wyoming but also Idaho and Montana,” commented James L. Cummins, president of the Boone and Crockett Club. “As western big game species move across the landscape, they naturally ignore the boundaries between federal, state, Tribal, and private lands. Improving the habitat throughout migration corridors will help ensure these species can move across the landscape with few barriers. Private landowners in the West are critical to this process and we greatly appreciate USDA’s financial commitment to support voluntary conservation efforts to sustain these iconic western big game animals.”

Photo Credit
Tom Benson, Flickr
July 17, 2023