When Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) range conservationist Mandi Hirsch heads out into the sagebrush from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Lander, Wyoming, she represents not one agency but six partners.
by Deborah Richie, SGI Communications Director & Jeremy Maestas, SGI Technical Lead
(photo: SGI field staff John Fahlgren, center, is in a partnership position based in Glasgow, Montana. To his left, Bruce Waage, BLM/NRCS Sage Grouse liason, and to right, Tracy Cumber, district conservationist for NRCS)
When Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) range conservationist Mandi Hirsch heads out into the sagebrush from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Lander, Wyoming, she represents not one agency but six partners. Popo Agie Conservation District is the primary sponsor with support from ConocoPhillips Company, the IWJV, the NRCS, The Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The ranch gates swing open for her when she tells people she’s from the local Conservation District and works at the NRCS office. Both are favorites with a hefty dose of credibility among the ranches that shelter important sage grouse habitat. Soon, she’s chatting at a kitchen table about the funding programs available to help sage grouse and benefit range health.
Hirsch is one of 24 SGI field staff in rural sage grouse strongholds across 10 western states. They owe their positions to more than 30 partners chipping in to match federal dollars that originate in the Farm Bill and are leveraged by the IWJV. In an era of tightening federal funding with fewer jobs, the “SGI SWAT” (Sage Grouse Initiative Strategic Watershed Action Team) model offers a creative way to hire skilled professionals to continue the conservation march. Partners must be willing to take a backseat role with little fanfare; the results show the rewards of this innovative team approach.
Since the inception of SGI SWAT in 2011, the “boots on the ground” staff of biologists and rangeland conservationists have helped chalk up a million acres of conservation success, encompassing rangeland improvements, conifer removal, and marking or removing high-risk fences near leks, the breeding areas for sage grouse.
After two field seasons under her belt, Hirsch already is seeing positive outcomes. The process takes time – cultivating the interest of ranchers, helping them with an inventory, developing a plan, and applying for funding to carry it out. Last summer, she toured a ranch that is following a prescribed plan to rest pastures and rotate grazing, allowing grasses and shrubs to grow tall for nesting sage grouse. The abundant forage benefits pronghorn, deer and a myriad of songbirds, and puts more pounds on cattle too.
“I was amazed,” she said. “After the first year, many pastures were in such great condition it was hard to tell they had been grazed, but when I asked, the producer told me that good fall moisture coupled with moving the cattle at the prescribed times led to his livestock and rangeland being in great condition.”
In far northeast Montana, John Fahlgren holds a special place among the cadre of otherwise youthful SGI SWAT staff. He’s in his second career after retiring from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the small town of Glasgow. The Montana Association of Conservation Districts sponsors Fahlgren’s job with support from diverse partners ranging from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to the North American Grouse Partnership.
Most folks in the area already know Fahlgren. When he says he is with SGI that works fine for them. Fahlgren said he is enjoying his new role helping landowners voluntarily adopt beneficial practices on their own lands. Previously, he also took pride in his efforts to leverage conservation practices across BLM and private lands. Like many in sage grouse country, ranchers in northeast Montana depend on combined private and leased public lands to make a living.
“I come with an advantage, but it’s a different perspective to be working on private land,” he said. “It’s their Initiative and it’s their willingness to do the work that makes the program successful.”