Douglas County Multi Species Habitat Conservation Plan

Posted: Aug 1, 2005
Written by: 
Natalie Henry

Douglas County, central Washington state, along the Columbia River

Objective: To draft a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), as defined under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), protecting species from extinction and landowners from some of the regulatory burdens of ESA. The HCP is expected to cover 20 species in Douglas County that are currently protected under ESA or are candidates for protection, including the greater sage grouse.

Participants: The Foster Creek Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and local landowners and farmers.

History: After watching the demise of many Northwest timber towns when the spotted owl was deemed endangered, Douglas County farmers became gradually concerned that sage grouse could be their spotted owl. Greater sage grouse have declined significantly in Washington state, and most of the remaining birds are concentrated in Douglas County. So in 1999, local farmers, who had already been meeting with the state and other stakeholders to develop watershed plans as required by state law, began discussing the possibility of drafting an HCP that would cover sage grouse and other imperiled species in the county. The goal is to keep the sage grouse from ever being listed and, if it is listed, to lessen ESA's regulatory burden.
"Our board of supervisors was kind of seeing how the aftermath of the spotted owl listing affected the timber industry, and they were concerned that sage grouse and other species could do something similar to the agricultural industry in Douglas County. That's when they took it upon themselves to talk to the Fish and Wildlife Service [and also National Marine Fisheries Service] and ask, 'How can we keep that from happening in Douglas County?'" said Britt Dudek of the Foster Creek Conservation District, whose board includes dryland wheat farmers, ranchers and orchardists.

 Though the HCP will center around sage grouse, 20 species will be included in the plan.
Photo by Sharon Davis
Douglas County spans 1.2 million acres, two-thirds of which is private. If greater sage grouse were listed under ESA, it would affect most of the county, giving farmers a lot of incentive to develop a plan to protect imperiled species. In addition to sage grouse, other sage-dependent species of concern in the county include the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, burrowing owl, brewer's sparrow, golden eagle, sage sparrow and prairie falcon. The plan will also include the pygmy rabbit, bull trout, summer steelhead trout and spring chinook salmon, which are already listed under ESA. In total, 20 species will be included in the multi-species HCP, but the sage grouse is the centerpiece. "The whole goal is to keep it from ever being listed," Dudek said.

Accomplishments: So far the group's biggest accomplishment is bringing diverse stakeholders to the table to draft a plan that works toward their common interest of protecting sage grouse and other species. "We've had a very successful process," Dudek said.

Schroeder, who provides technical information on various species to the group, agreed. "You have government, non-government-type groups like The Nature Conservancy, and then you have many private individuals who've spent a lot of time working together. And with that mutual effort has come a level of trust that has benefits that go beyond the HCP. … Because we're used to communicating with each other, it's a lot easier now," he said.

In addition, the group has reached out to many landowners to educate them about how farming affects sage grouse and other species, making people more aware of their farming practices. And with the right kind of marketing, if the HCP successfully protects wildlife it may help farmers fetch a higher price for their products, as is the hope of Nancy Warner with The Nature Conservancy. TNC lands will provide the backbone of sagebrush habitat in the plan.

But the group's ultimate accomplishment will be had when and if FWS approves the HCP. The group will submit a draft this November but that the process will be far from over as it often takes several years to get FWS to approve an HCP. FWS will likely ask the group to revise and adjust parts of the plan to ensure species are protected and the plan complies with ESA, a process that Dudek expects to take another two years. Some ESA critics say it takes too long to approve voluntary conservation efforts like HCPs and would like to amend the act to make developing voluntary programs easier and speedier

 Douglas County farmers are hoping to reduce disturbance to sage grouse mating activities by altering some fieldwork practices.
Photo by Foster Creek Conservation District staff
Challenges/constraints: Several challenges confront the group. Firstly, there is no model for the type of HCP being developed in Douglas County. Most HCPs buy and set aside a certain amount of land as a sort of wildlife reserve that mitigates for development elsewhere. But the preponderance of dryland wheat farming in Douglas County can provide moderate habitat for sage grouse, so long as farmers operate in a way that accommodates the bird's mating and rearing activities. As such, the Douglas County HCP aims to provide grouse habitat in natural areas as well as farms.

"Nobody's done what we've done before. There's no model for us to follow out there, and believe me we've looked under a lot of rocks," Dudek said.

For example, in the spring when sage grouse mate, usually in the early morning, the HCP will ask participating farmers to wait until late morning before doing field work. And in the rare instances when farmers convert grouse habitat into crop lands, the HCP will ask landowners to do it as early in the spring as possible, right after the freeze lifts, to minimize the effects on sagebrush-dependent species. "Timing is a big part of what we do - knowing what's out there, at what time, and trying to work around that," Dudek said.

Another significant challenge is the upcoming withdrawal of many acres from the Agriculture Department's Conservation Reserve Program, which essentially pays farmers to idle land and manage it for wildlife habitat. Thirty-three percent of Douglas County is under CRP, providing valuable wildlife habitat, but many of those lands are under contracts that expire in the next year or two. HCP participants seek to find a way to keep the CRP lands that provide the best habitat idle, perhaps by finding other federal, state or private monies that could pay the farmers to maintain it as natural habitat.

"It would be more positive to have some mechanism for making sure critical lands remained as habitat," Warner of TNC said.

Thirdly, it is a challenge to convince landowners to join the HCP program, but without their participation the plan will fail. "We have to make this a win-win for the species and the landowner," Dudek said.

Additionally, funding is a challenge. Other HCPs commonly involve a company with a revenue stream that assures FWS the plan will be funded. In HCPs involve real estate development, local governments often levy a sales tax on each acre of land developed. But there is no deep-pocketed company involved in the Douglas County HCP, nor has the land levy been feasible. And since the HCP lacks a fixed land base to manage, the group has little idea how much money it will need each year to implement the HCP.
Yet another challenge is that HCP participants are finding ESA compliance can be a moving target, with significant changes sometimes happening overnight as court cases are decided.

But they are confident the groundwork they've laid will help them through the rough spots. "Clearly there are going to be challenges. But the approach we've tried to take is challenges may crop up, but by having developed this process and this group, if challenges do crop up we can deal with them," Schroeder of WDFW said.

For more information see:

Foster Creek Conservation District
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