New conservation easement in Washington state preserves more than 2,000 acres of native sagebrush range in critical sage grouse habitat, adding to a 6,800-acre easement the neighboring ranch placed under a conservation easement in 2019.
A view over sagebrush and wheat fields of Breiler Ranch to the Wenatchee Foothills. Photo courtesy of the CDLT.
Northeast of Wenatchee, Washington – where arid sagebrush range rises from the Columbia River and tops out on Badger Mountain – fourth-generation rancher Vernon Breiler and his family have put conservation in action to protect the wildlife relying on their land and ensure the family ranch remains intact and as a working ranch forever.
Roughly half of the 2,500-acre ranch is native sagebrush rangeland, with the Breilers growing winter wheat on the other half. Most of the ranch is in what Washington State has designated a “Grassland of Special Significance,” meaning it is critical for maintaining connective habitat for sage grouse. Mule deer also rely on the sagebrush rangelands, which also provide forage for the Breiler’s cow-calf operation.
According to a press release from the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust (CDLT), which helped secure the easement, “[T]he sage grouse has lost over 90% of its habitat in Washington to development and fragmentation. The remaining population is primarily in Douglas County, and mostly on privately-owned lands.”
This historically quiet part of Washington is now one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. New housing developments and proposed solar power projects are encroaching into native sagebrush rangelands used by ranchers like the Breilers.
Because the Breilers recognize the importance of all the species reliant on this land, the ranch is managed under a prescribed grazing program that maintains the wildlife habitat. But they wanted to do more.
When Vernon heard his neighbor was working with the CDLT to place a conservation easement, he approached the CDLT, a local land trust, about doing the same for his ranch. In 2021, the Breilers and the CDLT completed the conservation easement for the Breiler’s ranch.
“It was important to us to keep the land natural for wildlife,” Vernon explained. “And we’ll be able to keep working the land, just like it’s been for the last hundred years.”
That neighbor, the Keane Family, had partnered with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) to improve their well-managed ranch years earlier. Fence markers helped the low-flying sage grouse that lived on the ranch avoid collisions, and escape ramps helped wildlife get out of watering tanks if they fell in. Over time, the Keane family built a strong relationship with SGI’s local staffer, Michael Brown (now SGI’s Field Capacity Coordinator), and started to look at ways they could preserve their ranch in perpetuity. In 2019, the Keanes, the CDLT, the NRCS, and other partners placed more than 6,000 acres of the ranch in a conservation easement.
“If our efforts are built on trust, credibility, and rooted in how we can help producers like the Keanes, we can build successful partnerships like this that benefit both the landowners and wildlife,” explained Brown in an article about the Keane Ranch easement from 2020. “That’s what SGI is all about.”
Partner organizations like the CDLT, The Nature Conservancy, and other local land trusts are critical to completing successful conservation easements. These groups provide additional capacity that helps owners navigate the complicated easement process and provide funding that makes easements a reality.
“CDLT has been an amazing partner and is the reason NRCS and the Sage Grouse Initiative have been successful with easements in Washington State,” Brown noted. “Without the relationships and partnerships they have built in the community, the effort that started over five years ago would not have been possible and we would not be seeing the growing community support and interest.”
In Douglas County, the Breiler and Keane Ranch easements now stitch together nearly 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat that supports sage grouse, mule deer, and more. Additionally, the easements allow both the Breilers and the Keanes to continue investing in their ranches, and NRCS technical assistance provided through the easement agreements ensures these ranches will continue to support sagebrush range benefiting both wildlife and livestock.
It’s hard to find a better example of win-win conservation.
In Idaho, partners have placed conservation easements on nearly 100,000 acres of prime sagebrush rangeland that protects sage grouse, mule deer, and the working families in this rugged corner of Idaho.
In northeastern Montana, a 2017 easement helped the Burke family protect 3,800 acres of their ranch while providing financial resources that improve the land and make it possible to pass the ranch on to the next generation.
In Wyoming, SGI and partners examined how state-level policies limiting oil and gas development in core sage grouse areas combined with conservation easement investments in and around sage grouse Priority Areas for Conservation (PACs) would benefit sage grouse populations. The study projected that the combined effects of the state-policy and a $250 million investment in easements in and around PACs would halt sage grouse population losses by roughly half statewide and nearly two-thirds in PACs. To date, NRCS has invested $75 million in collaboration with Wyoming partners towards meeting the conservation easement goal and keeping intact critical habitat on working lands.