Community Ag Alliance: Partners program benefits ‘species of interest’ | SteamboatToday.com

Community Ag Alliance: Partners program benefits ‘species of interest’

In a time when tension seems to be the norm for relationships between agriculturalists and the federal government, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program stands as an encouraging example of cooperation and success on the ground.

The 30-year-old program is part of the Interior Department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service is better known for its role in working with the Endangered Species Act, and for the Wildlife Refuge system. The PFC is the Service's partnership program that enables cooperative projects on the ground to benefit "species of interest."

Nationwide, private landowners own 73 percent of the landscape, and over 75 percent of fish and wildlife species are dependent on private land for part of their habitat. The program has a nationwide reach, with each state having Fish and Wildlife personnel working with the Partners Program. The Program is voluntary and brings together federal, private and other resources to benefit both people and wildlife.

The program is "the way a government program should work," its participants say. Through shared goals, landowners and biologists identify a project and determine a plan to enhance habitat. The focus is on the "triple bottom line" of rural land conservation, with benefits to conservation, communities and economics.

What are examples of the work done through the Partners Program? In northern Utah, The Partners work with landowners to enhance greater sage grouse habitat through practices including removing invasive juniper trees. In Georgia, the emphasis is on restoring long-leaf pine forests, which are the habitat for species such as the gopher tortoise and the spotted turtle. In Montana, the Blackfoot Challenge, a landowner group, came together to restore a river.

Some projects concentrate mostly on landscape. In northern California, landowners worked to repair or retire old logging roads, which were the source of silt in the rivers and riparian areas. In Maine, Partners cooperates with private landowners, NGOs and logging companies to maintain bird habitat in the North Woods.

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On our own ranch, northwest of Steamboat Springs, we work with Wyoming's Partners Program to protect and enhance Battle Creek, a tributary of the Little Snake River. With USFWS help, and our local Conservation District, we have created structures in the creek that enhance habitat for fish, including the Colorado Cutthroat Trout. It benefits our ranching operation by reducing erosion during the heavy spring runoff and by augmenting our irrigation diversions while leaving water in the stream.

The program has been funded with an authorized level of up to $75 million, and the reauthorization, now before Congress, increases this level to $100 million. This is included in Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso's WILD Act (S. 826), passed by the Senate and awaiting House action.

In its first 25 years, the Partners' investment in this private/public partnership involved over 45,000 landowners and 3,000 organizations, returned $15.70 for every $1 spent, and created 35,000 jobs.

For information on the program, contact the private landowner group, Partners for Conservation, at partnersforconservation.org or call 512-663-7596.

Sharon O'Toole is owner/operator of the Ladder Ranch in Northwest Colorado. The ranch has been in her family since 1881.