New action-based frameworks to help increase conservation of rangelands

America’s rangelands are facing threats from all angles. The U.S. Department of Agriculture hopes to remedy that with some new action-based frameworks to increase conservation on those lands.

In its Working Lands for Wildlife, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has partnered with state-level organizations from across the West to develop the new frameworks to combat the most severe and large-scale threats: woody encroachment, land use conversion, exotic annual grass invasion and riparian and wet meadow degradation.

Jimmy Bramblett, NRCS deputy chief for programs, said the frameworks for conservation is a new concept for the organization to build on past successes. Even though the Working Lands for Wildlife program title is a little deceiving, they’re hoping to work with private landowners who are wanting to or continue to use conservation techniques on their operations.

“Keep them in farming, ranching and woodland activities,” Bramblett said. “But at the same time address critical wildlife needs.”

In an April 8 webinar, NRCS officials outlined the frameworks, and Tim Griffiths, west regional coordinator, Working Lands for Wildlife, USDA-NRCS, said work will be guided by the Working Lands for Wildlife. This is the agency’s premier approach for focusing resources—both financial and technical—on threats impacting wildlife and agricultural sustainability. The outcome-based approach does three things, he said.

“One, it focuses on those threats that are both impacting wildlife in the production of agriculture. No. 2, it’s about scale, implementing enough of the right practices in the right landscapes to benefit populations,” Griffiths said. “And lastly, it’s our unwavering support to bring in independent scientists to help assess the effectiveness of those applied practices, quantify results and continually adapt that program into the resulting working lands story.”

Griffiths said more than 7,000 landowners and over 10 million acres have found conservation because of these frameworks and enjoys popularity in the western U.S.

“Roughly half of those land owners and the vast majority of acres have been conserved through this approach over the last decade,” he said. “All following this shared vision of achieving wildlife conservation through sustainable agriculture.”

The new action-based frameworks are, as Bramblett said, a culmination of collaborative area-wide planning efforts to conserve western rangelands. Their overarching approach was aided by new technology and input from various partners.

The published PDF documents outlining the conservation frameworks—sagebrush biome and the Great Plains grasslands—are a milestone of the groups involved, but they’re so much more than a piece of paper, according to Griffiths.

“They also have a companion online resource,” he said.

On the site,, there are supplemental and supporting resources like spatial data sets, scientific justification and technical videos.

“It’s really both the PDF and the online resource that constitute NRCS’ new framework for conservation action,” Griffiths said.


Bramblett said there are some interesting needs in the central part of the country within the grassland habitats being taken over by eastern red cedars and other invasive species. The lesser prairie-chicken and sage grouse are in those areas too. The landscapes encompass about 21 different states. Bramblett said it’s roughly 175 million acres, with more than 300 plants and animal species that thrive on rangelands.

In the past, the phrase, “what’s good for the herd is good for the bird” has been used because a particular species of bird likes short grasses, but still have areas where they can run for cover. Bramblett said there are not necessarily tall trees in these areas, but plants like sagebrush or more moderately sized plants could be in these areas.

There is something a little more critical about this land though. Most of the land is privately owned, and even further west, public lands are utilized for grazing.

“It takes more than just public land to help restore and protect a lot of these threatened and endangered species,” he said. “It takes all the collaboration and millions of decisions that private landowners make every day about how they run their operation to really do so.”

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Private land owners are able to then focus on being economically viable, which is what they have to do to stay in business.

“That’s where the Working Lands part comes in,” Bramlett said. “But also do it with some natural resource objectives that help address a wildlife habitat for the purposes that we’re talking about.”

The framework for conservation is a little different than what’s used for landscape conservation initiatives, but NRCS takes national funding and directs it to conservation efforts.

“NRCS has over $3 billion in financial assistance to help are out there across the landscape and the vast majority of those funds—over 85% of those—are really designed to be targeted at the local level,” he said. “And that’s really good because local people know best what their needs are.”

Bramlett said it’s really an interesting model for the federal government and the local people. The voluntary framework lends technical and financial assistance to landowners.

“It takes a broader landscape perspective or a broader view to make sure that what individual operations are doing can be done in concert with each other to make an effective change in a larger geographic scale,” he said.

And that’s where landscape conservation initiatives come into this framework and find a balance. It has given state conservationists and state directors the flexibility they need to be able to work with state technical committees and local work groups. The local groups help with input and advice on what the local priorities need to be and help balance the competing demands—not only for wildlife but for water quality for soil health, air quality for energy and a “host of other plant considerations they have to factor in.”

“By encouraging them to work with partners and target their funding for these type of activities related towards national wildlife they’re able to have that flexibility to meet those local demands, follow our statutory mandate for locally led conservation, and do it in such a fashion that we at the national level can track those activities and determine how effectively they’re being given feedback and input,” he said.

Now it’s almost like the state conservationists have two forms of input; one with the state technical committee and the other a broader perspective across state lines.

Outcome based

Professor of Large Scale Wildlife Ecology at the University of Montana Dave Naugle said during the webinar that incorporating all the latest advances in science and technology place these new frameworks on a solid foundation.

“The approach focuses on getting ahead of primary threats facing rangelands, instead of ambulance chasing to save highly degraded sites with no chance of success,” he said. “And with the advent of the range land analysis platform, framework users now have access to spatial data to inform development of their local strategies.”

Spatial data across the entire biome help track threats like cheatgrass invasion or identify areas where woodlands are expanding.

Naugle said we live in a “don’t tell me, show me society” that constantly questions how to do that.

Acres enrolled, dollars allocated and other “archaic” reporting requirements have been replaced with outcomes as the new gold standards by which the efficacy of farm bill investments are judged.

The WLW science team has published 55 outcome based tools and evaluations, and will continue to help NRCS quantify both ranching and wildlife outcomes.

Who does it benefit?

Bramlett said this new framework is something everyone can benefit from.

Those who don’t live on the land benefit because the work farmers and ranchers do on their operations help enhance habitats. And those species are benefiting from the habitat work as are people who are really not directly associated with the land.

In addition, farmers and ranchers are helping to produce the most dependable, reliable, safe, least expensive food in the world.

“It’s a pretty fascinating model as I indicated,” Bramlett said. “It’s a premise to be working with a group that helps support that from a voluntary perspective to bring science to the table.”

He hopes this framework will help people put conservation practices on the ground and have confidence in what they’re doing as landowners to protect their lands.

“That science basically brings a lot of creditability to those landowners who are doing those conservation activities across the spectrum of not just the regulatory agencies, but the other neighboring universities and other science agencies who like to research these types of activities,” Bramlett said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].