Posted by WAFWA on December 9, 2020

By: Bill VanPelt, WAFWA Grassland Coordinator
In May 2018, WAFWA staff were approached by industry partners to develop options for mitigating impacts to burrowing owls from oil and gas drilling activities. The Western Burrowing Owl is currently protected as an endangered species in Canada, a threatened species in Mexico, and under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the U.S. Many companies are faced with the need to relocate owl burrows when developing a project but have limited options to offset those activities either on the affected property or on other properties. WAFWA, by leveraging existing relationships with landowners as well as state and federal conservation partners, can provide offsite habitat restoration utilizing artificial burrows to establish new populations of burrowing owls as a service for industry partners.
Restoration also benefits other species of conservation concern that may be considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, such as the Baird’s sparrow, mountain plover, and desert massasauga as well as state-listed species such as the Texas horned lizard. Thus far, companies have contributed $131,100 to restoring these important grassland habitats.
The burrowing owl habitat restoration program focuses on mesquite removal, initially in the southern Permian Basin in Texas with potential expansion into other areas, as needed, throughout the range of the burrowing owl. Once the mesquite removal is complete, WAFWA staff, working with landowners, install artificial nest structures. WAFWA staff will then monitor the site for two nesting seasons following installation to document occupancy.

By: Mike Cox, WAFWA Wild Sheep Working Group Chair

The Wild & Wool documentary is a masterful collaboration of the Wild Sheep Foundation and talented young film producers, Phillip Baribeau, Adam and Frankie Foss, and Charles Post. Their vision and talent tells the story of the biggest challenge to wild sheep conservation in the western United States and Canada of bronchial pneumonia caused by several pathogens (polymicrobial disease), and the passionate and hard life of woolgrowers raising bands of domestic sheep on western public lands. The documentary shares both sides of a controversial issue and the efforts to understand the disease ecology, as well as explain wild sheep conservation efforts. The WAFWA Wild Sheep Working Group was consulted, identified focal wild sheep herds, and connected key experts in wildlife health, disease, and management with the film producers and Wild Sheep Foundation staff. 
Wild & Wool will have its public debut as a featured introductory film during the Wild Sheep Foundation’s Sheep Week virtual convention on January 11th at 7:00 pm PST. The film will be available to all registered attendees of our convention and there will be a question and answer period with the film producers afterwards. After the convention, it will be on publicly available on the Wild Sheep Foundation website and the YouTube channel.

Watch the trailer and learn more HERE

Sagebrush Ecosystem Conservation Strategy
By: San Stiver, Sagebrush Conservation Initiative Coordinator

It was a cold morning on November 16, 1963 in Barton Creek north of Austin, Nevada when I had my first experience with a sagebrush obligate, the pygmy rabbit.  I was walking through a patch of basin big sage when I first saw the little rabbit lacking a “cotton” tail.  Knowing exactly what I saw I pursued the little rabbit until I finally had a shot and collected my first pygmy rabbit.  I was happy with my prize and examined him carefully.  At one point I had some fur or a hair drift into my left eye. 
The following Tuesday, I had swelling in that left eye, a really bad headache and a fever. Luckily for me I told my Doc that I had harvested a rabbit the previous weekend and he researched zoonotic diseases while he sent me to the hospital. From what research my doctor was able to do, I had the first recorded case of ocular tularemia. At that point I developed my first sagebrush strategy – avoid pygmy rabbits!
Fifty-seven years later we are nearing the completion of the Sagebrush Conservation Strategy. The Strategy was borne from the recognition that sage-grouse are totally dependent upon heathy sagebrush habitats. Once WAFWA completed the “Sage-grouse Conservation Strategy”, the need to address all sage species with a strategy was apparent. The Strategy and its subsequent implementation form the core of the WAFWA Sagebrush Initiative. Central to the Initiative is the agency partnership which includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Farm Service Agency.  Outside of agencies, numerous Universities, landowners, stakeholders, JVs, NGOs and citizens have joined the effort and are a key part of the equation.
The development of the Strategy takes a look at those species that are either, sage-obligate, sage-dependent, sage-associated or are economically or culturally important.  More than 350 species have been identified to fit in one or more classifications, including the pygmy rabbit.  We have generated three main chapters of the strategy, Part A – identification of conservation issues or concerns, Part B – the identification and prioritization of strategies to address the conservation issues identified in Part A and finally, the implementation/coordination/engagement phase of the strategy. 
The development and completion of the Strategy will provide a roadmap for the conservation of all species that we find in sagebrush.  Conservationists from all levels of government, landowners, private concerns, NGOs, stakeholders and citizens can use the strategy to address issues of conservation concern for the charismatic species like mule deer, pronghorn or sage-grouse or lesser known species such as sagebrush lizards, Brewer’s sparrows or even the pygmy rabbit.

By: Therese Thompson, Western Native Trout Initiative Coordinator

In 2017, the Western Native Trout Initiative (WNTI) Steering Committee was completing a two year refresh of WNTI’s strategic plan and had engaged in multiple discussions about how the  initiative could move the needle in a more targeted way to catalyze native trout conservation in the West.  As an outcome of this work, the Steering Committee ultimately decided to implement a process to prioritize three of WNTI’s 21 focal species for a three year period with WNTI and its partners developing conservation portfolios of habitat projects that would accelerate species conservation goals by securing new partners and funding. The first group of prioritized species was Bonneville Cutthroat, Rio Grande Cutthroat, and Interior Redband Trout. WNTI met with the Bonneville Cutthroat Trout (BCT) interagency team leaders who identified the Bear River Watershed as the geography within the range of the species where they wanted WNTI to focus.   
Multiple irrigation diversion structures and other barriers fragment the Upper Bear River drainage, which spans Northern Utah, Southeast Idaho, and Southwest Wyoming.  WNTI is working with the BCT interagency team partners to remove and replace aging infrastructure in order to protect species strongholds, restore habitat connectivity, provide fish passage, and enhance resilience to climate change by opening access to high-quality upstream habitats  and cold, clean water on both public and private lands. Since 2018, WNTI’s multi-year effort has secured just over $750,000 for 14 projects removing fish passage barriers, addressing bank erosion and land loss, upgrading aging irrigation infrastructure on working lands, improving water supply reliability, and improving habitat for a fishery that is important both for BCT conservation and as an economic driver in these rural communities. Another grant for 2021 is under consideration.
Concurrent with WNTI’s efforts, communities and land managers across the Bear River Watershed recently completed a multi-year collaborative effort under a National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) project that had a specific conservation emphasis focused on sustaining agriculture while addressing fishery needs, as well as conservation of birds and other wildlife. The Intermountain West Joint Venture recently released an article about this precedent setting approach and future plans by a broad list of partners currently collaborating in the Bear River Watershed. 

Register now – Mid-Winter Meeting 2021 
Register now for the VIRTUAL Mid-Winter Meeting, January 7-10, 2021. Click HERE to learn more and register. 

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