After Achievements in Wyoming, NRCS Expands Big Game Conservation Program
“A very good fence modification program being sponsored by NRCS.
CASPER — You could call big game migrations miracles and it wouldn’t be a stretch.
One mule deer herd in western Wyoming migrates more than 150 miles each way from the Red Desert to the mountains around Hoback Basin near Jackson, navigating a myriad of human-made obstacles along the way.
Deer, pronghorn, elk and other big game species in Wyoming face a number of obstacles that complicate their historic migrations, from housing development and energy extraction to recreation and roadways.
Ungulates, or hoofed mammals, know no boundaries. While they migrate, they cross checkerboard landscapes, some private, others public.
When wildlife officials weigh conservation efforts, they must consider it all.
That reality led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to partner with Wyoming and launch the agency’s pilot Migratory Big Game Initiative in May 2022. The initiative, which is run by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency alongside the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, works with farmers and ranchers to fund conservation on private working lands.
Now, the program is building on its success in Wyoming. The USDA announced on Nov. 7 that it is expanding the Migratory Big Game Initiative to Montana and Idaho, allowing farmers and ranchers across the three states to access money to protect the migratory routes of big game populations.
“We’re pleased to announce the expansion of this initiative,” Jackie Byam, the NRCS’ Wyoming state conservationist, said in a statement. “It will help create new and enhanced opportunities through USDA’s conservation programs to keep working lands working and give farmers, ranchers and forest landowners new opportunities to conserve wildlife and migration corridors.”
The USDA launched the Wyoming pilot of its Migratory Big Game Initiative last year following meetings and listening sessions with state agencies, agricultural producers and other stakeholders that highlighted broad interest in protecting big game across the state through collaborative conservation efforts.
The initiative is composed of a series of voluntary incentive programs that pay and offer technical support to farmers and ranchers who want to take steps to improve their land for migrating big game. Agricultural producers apply to the programs based on their needs and then work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency to plan conservation work on their lands.
“To date, most of our focus has been on removing or modifying fence that is not considered ‘wildlife friendly,’ treating invasive species that can degrade the forage value within migratory corridors, and permanently protecting important habitats through conservation easements,” Brian Jensen, the big game coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wyoming state office, said in an email.
The USDA initially committed $15 million in federal funding toward conservation easements and habitat improvement on top of other rental payments to farmers and ranchers who avoid working in sensitive areas, according to an agency press release.
That investment will now grow to $21.4 million for fiscal year 2024 as the initiative expands to Montana and Idaho.
In Wyoming, another $4 million will go toward conservation easements, while $5.2 million will fund land restoration and improvements across the state.
The influx of additional money will go toward streamlining the application process and expanding staffing to ultimately bring more agricultural producers into the fold.
Natural Resources Conservation Service leaders ultimately decided to grow the initiative after seeing its first-year success in Wyoming with landowner buy-in and growing awareness about the important role that migratory corridors play in big game conservation, Jensen said.
“Research has shown that these amazing migration routes are passed down from one ungulate generation to the next and thus if they are severed for even a short period, they will likely be lost forever,” Jensen said.
Farmers and ranchers often control important and imperiled habitat in the West, and they are key partners in the management of federal lands, he said.
“They are the day-to-day stewards of the land,” Jensen said. “And without their desire to maintain open space and our Western lifestyle, big game migrations and many other wildlife values could be lost forever.”
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