U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced grants on Thursday for a pair of programs that will attempt to use private financing to conserve land across the Western U.S. as part of a sweeping effort to restore the greater sage grouse's habitat.
Vilsack told The Associated Press that such private sector investment is needed to supplement $400 million already spent under the agency's sage grouse restoration initiative.
Greater sage grouse live in 11 Western states. About 200,000 to 500,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million.
Despite the chicken-sized bird's long-term decline, Western states so far have managed to avoid a threatened or endangered species designation for the grouse, which would bring restrictions on oil and gas exploration, grazing and other human activities.
One Agriculture Department grant recipient, Washington, D.C.-based i2 Capital, is setting up a conservation bank in Wyoming that credits ranchers and landowners for protecting habitat. Oil and gas companies and others that pursue projects where sage grouse live could purchase the credits to offset the impacts of development.
So-called land banks have been used previously for other species, requiring developers to offset their impacts by creating or paying for new habitat elsewhere, said Brian Rutledge, a sage grouse advocate with the National Audubon Society.
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But to reverse the sage grouse's fortunes, Rutledge said the trade-off between habitat destroyed and habitat protected cannot be a simple one-for-one exchange.
"Setting aside part of the land doesn't make up for destroying another part of it. Even if it's one-for-one you end up with 50 percent less than you had," he said. "We have to be gaining."
The other grant recipient, Kansas-based KCOE Isom, will establish a fund to guarantee landowners in seven states can recover their costs after restoring sage grouse habitat.
The two companies received almost $1.3 million combined to start up their projects.
"I would hope the people in the West would see this as a wise approach," Vilsack said. "If for every public sector dollar you attract a private sector dollar, that means you do the work for half the public money."