Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program – A Tool for Private Land Conservation

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The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program is recognized as a leader in cooperative conservation. Established by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) 25 years ago, the Partners Program has worked with over 45,000 private landowners and restored or enhanced about 1.1 million wetland acres, 3.4 million upland acres and 9,700 miles of stream habitat nationwide. These conservation projects were possible through voluntary agreements with landowners and over 3,100 partnering organizations.

Figure 1. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program has completed 2,629 projects in the Mountain-Prairie Region between 2007 and 2011: 243 in Montana, 454 in North Dakota, 50 in Wyoming, 1,063 in South Dakota, 251 in Nebraska, 33 in Utah, 347 in Colorado, and 188 in Kansas.

In the eight-state Mountain-Prairie Region (Figure 1), the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (Box 1) works with hundreds of landowners to develop projects on private land that benefit fish and wildlife species, while also helping ranchers and farmers increase their bottom-line. “We can help private landowners control invasive plants that compete with range production and animal health, and support other projects that enhance or restore grassland, and improve water quality,” explains Heather Johnson, Mountain-Prairie Regional Coordinator for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. “It’s a win-win situation for both the rancher and Partners Program.”

About 70 percent of the land in the United States is privately owned, and the Partners Program recognizes that successful long-term conservation of fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats rests in the hands of private landowners. “Helping private land owners control invasive plants through the Partners Program will protect wildlife habitat along with improving rangeland for livestock,” says Johnson.

How the Program Works

The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program provides technical guidance and financial assistance for voluntary habitat improvement projects on private land that benefit federal trust species. These include threatened and endangered fish and wildlife such as grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) and bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), as well as other native fish, migratory waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, neotropical migratory songbirds, and state-listed species of concern.

Invasive plant projects supported by the Partners Program are often part of larger cooperative weed management areas that include private landowners, conservation organizations, and county, state, and federal partners. Cost-share funding can be used for herbicide application, manual and mechanical control, prescribed burns, collection and release of biological control agents, and restoration of disturbed sites.

The Partners Program will contribute up to $25,000 per project on a 50:50 cost-share basis. “This simplifies the process compared to a grant program since private landowners don’t need to send in proposals or grant applications,” explains Johnson. The Partners Program works in established conservation focus areas and will cost-share with landowners to help finance habitat improvement projects. Cost-share funding can be “in-kind” services as well as cash.


Invasive Plant Projects


Within the Mountain-Prairie Region, the Partners Program has supported invasive plant control efforts on about 390,000 upland acres and 120 river miles.  Target species range from tamarisk (Tamarix sp.) in Utah and Colorado, to Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) in Kansas, and noxious weeds such as knapweed (Centaurea sp.), thistle (Carduus and Cirsium sp.) and leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.



Field biologists for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program play an active role in weed management projects in Montana’s Centennial Valley, Big Hole Valley, Blackfoot Valley, Phillips County, Rocky Mountain Front, and Kootenai River Watershed.

Sue McNeal, field biologist with the Partners Program works with over 60 public and private land managers along the Rocky Mountain Front. “Sue is a great asset to our weed management efforts along the Front,” says Paul Wick, Teton County Weed Coordinator. “She helps support and coordinate weed pulls, spray days, and collection and distribution of biological control agents with private landowners.” Sue serves on the board of directors for the Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable and brings additional support from the USFWS Invasive Species Strike team for various weed projects along the Front (Box 2).

“Noxious weed management is an important tool in conserving native grasslands for federal trust species and for successful livestock production,” explains McNeal. “In Montana, we recognize that many multi-generational, traditional ranching operations are the very reason that we have the diversity of wildlife and habitat along the Front.” Highlights from the Rocky Mountain Front Weed Roundtable are included as a companion article in this issue.


The largest remnant blocks of native prairie are located in Kansas; however, these critical landscapes are being compromised by invasive woody plants such as Eastern red cedar. Although this plant is native to the United States, red cedar has become invasive in Midwestern states like Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas. Decades of fire suppression, windbreak plantings and seed spread by birds has accelerated invasion. During the 40-year period from 1965 to 2005, the increase in Eastern red cedar in Kansas prairie ecosystems was estimated at 23,000 percent.

The Kansas Prairies Initiative is a partnership between the Kansas Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition. Aron Flanders, field biologist for the Partners Program, works with private landowners on Eastern red cedar removal projects in the Red Hills region of south central Kansas. “Private lands comprise roughly 95 percent of Kansas, so projects that support sustainable working landscapes will benefit wildlife, water quality, groundwater recharge, and grassland based industries,” explains Flanders.

The Red Hills physiographic region encompasses about three million acres in the Southwest Prairies and Playas Conservation Focus Area with about 1.7 million acres of mixed-grass prairie in private ownership. “Eastern red cedar is having a significant impact on grassland birds such as lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) and grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) as well as livestock forage production. “Red cedar removal projects are a win-win situation for wildlife and for ranchers because we increase grass production for livestock and protect habitat for grassland nesting birds,” says Flanders. “The Partners Program has provided technical assistance and cost-share funding to about 30 cooperators on 55 projects in the Red Hills region, positively impacting 126,878 acres.”

Controlling Eastern red cedar includes either burning alone when trees are under five-foot height with suitable fuels and other parameters, or cutting followed by burning or chipping. Private landowner in-kind “funding match” often includes follow-up burning of the cut acreage. “We partner with other agencies, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Kansas Department of Wildlife, to strategically implement numerous cedar control projects in locations that connect individual properties to create expansive landscapes, making the sum truly greater than our individual contributions,” explains Flanders.

To help slow reinvasion of Eastern red cedar and enhance wildlife habitat, the Partners Program works with private land managers to develop a grazing management plan. Maintaining proper livestock stocking rate, distribution, and duration of grazing sustains grassland resources. This provides residual grass cover for winter habitat and nesting sites for grassland birds and reduces tree reinvasion. Flanders summarizes his commitment, “Our work on red cedar benefits landowners whose goals are sustainable livestock production, wildlife habitat enhancement, soil and water conservation, or preserving the prairie for future generations. Additionally, the broader public gains from the ecosystem services that improve air, water and soil, along with their public wildlife resources.”

The Mountain-Prairie Region of Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program is committed to providing technical assistance and cost-share funding for invasive plant management. “One of our highest priorities for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in the Mountain-Prairie Region is to manage invasive plants on private land,” says Johnson. “These efforts are going to benefit high priority species of fish and wildlife, while also helping cattle ranchers increase their bottom-line. Ultimately, this helps us reach our conservation goal while maintaining rural lifestyles and sustainable agriculture.”

Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program - A tool for private land conservation. By Celestine Duncan., TechLine Newsletter. August 2012.